There are so many novels, movies and plays set in major cities on both coasts that they’re mining the tailings to find some new story to tell. This is leading many to create stories set in the South, whether it is historical or modern. Let’s learn how to write dynamic Southern characters. We’ll also share a number of mistakes you don’t want to make that undermine the effort.
Update Your Expectations
Far too many modern novels and scripts feature Southern characters that look like they were ripped out of classic novels like “Gone with the Wind”. Side characters modeled after “The Dukes of Hazard” are no better. Tropes like the stupid Southern redneck, the hypocritical or hyper-controlling Southern preacher, the gullible religious congregants and oppressed black character in need of saving by the main character should not even be considered. We also need to say that watching movies like “Forest Gump” and “Sweet Home Alabama” don’t count as research.
How can you avoid making literally stereotypical mistakes in Southern character writing? If you’re writing about white characters, especially people in rural areas often demonized as “white trash” or “trailer trash”, Read books like “Hillbilly Elegy”, “White Flight”, “White Trash: The Untold Story of Untold History of Class in America”. And recognize that the terms “white trash” and “trailer trash” are offensive to such people. To better understand the black experience, I would recommend “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”, “My Vanishing Country”, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”, and “Between the World and Me”. To better understand the general modern culture, try reading “Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads”.
Be Careful about Inverting Tropes in Tried-and-True Ways
A depressingly common and vile trope is the stupid white redneck. Note that a character with the same low intelligence and “country culture” that is black is almost as bad. If the main character of your story shows up to “educate” the backward racist hicks or liberate the oppressed blacks, you’re playing to an elitist liberal message that many people will consider offensive. You’ll get accused of white saviorism if the main character is a literal white knight who shows up to educate the ignorant and liberate the oppressed.
One way this trope is often inverted is the Southern Fried Genius. The character Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” is but one example of this, though it is also exemplified with the educated Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. They may have good old Southern values or otherwise share the local culture, but they’re made different by being a genius. This attempt to invert the trope of the stupid hick tends to take the form of surprisingly advanced farm machinery they made themselves, the self-taught black genius in a small town or a gentleman farmer sitting on some amazing discovery. Unfortunately, the simplest way to continue the association of this genius character with Southern culture is to give them what is called a “Hayseed Name”.
How can you avoid these mistakes in writing Southern character writing? Learn what the most popular baby names in a state were for the year that the character was born. An old woman may be named Rose or Iris, but her daughter may be Barbara or Judy, while the grandchildren may have more popular names like Jessica and Brittany.
Another solution is knowing the bad stereotypes that undermine the narrative and avoiding them altogether. Don’t make the average population a collection of idiots and fools barring the one rogue genius. Don’t make the genius a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. They shouldn’t be perfect. Note that wearing glasses or being clumsy are too trope to be the genius’s failings. Don’t rely on lazy stereotypes with modern updates for Southern character writing. Ditch the tropes like the racist white Southern cop who is the de facto lord of the town. Trying to subvert it by making him a closeted gay or married to an Asian war-bride doesn’t cut it. Don’t spread hateful stereotypes by implying every other person is a member of the Klan or making moonshine. An update of that trope is home-brewing rednecks and driving drunk past cops.
Understand that when you’re an outsider, inverting tropes by playing to wish-fulfillment isn’t going to cut it. Let’s take the politically correct solution having your dainty Southern belle come out as lesbian or announcing her interracial love affair. Wish fulfillment playing on these tropes would either have her backward Southern relatives disown her while she runs off to happy liberal America or abandoning their beliefs because “love overcomes everything”. That is as bad as having Muslim fundamentalists in a story set in Saudi Arabia magically converting to California liberalism because a son comes out as gay. It also ignores all of the cultural adaptations and solutions people come up with to get through life, for better and for worse. Don’t act as if married pregnant 13 year olds and four-times-divorced Southern trailer trash characters are supposed to be taken seriously, much less considered normal and acceptable. Learn the values and the language of the people you’re trying to represent, and portray them honestly and respectfully. Then your Southern character writing is interesting to your audience without offending a third of them. And if you don’t care about offending your most likely readers, you should try a different genre.
Be Careful with Language
Are there people who still speak with a Southern accent today? The answer is yes. Are they all stupid? Of course not. Do not make the mistake of equating a Southern accent with low intelligence, because that trope is based on hateful stereotypes from the Reconstruction Era. Don’t think that someone losing their Southern accent counts as character development, much less an advancement in their station in life. Good Southern character writing creates fleshed-out characters, not tropes for the wish-fulfillment of the audience. The latter scenario is message fiction, that rarely makes for a good story.
The advice “show, don’t tell” doesn’t apply to character’s conversations. Say that the person has a strong Southern accent or a touch of a Southern twang. Don’t waste the reader’s time and patience trying to write out a Southern drawl in order to make the characters seem authentic. You might use it a touch here and there, such as “He said the word damn and stretched it out to four syllables.”
Another common mistake is using cutesy sayings that almost no one uses in real life. Good Southern character writing uses phrases and sayings people actually use. Examples of this include: bless your heart, pitching a hissy fit, burn in his saddle, knickers in a knot, a snake in the grass, the sun comes up just to hear him crow, could make a preacher cuss, Nashville Demolition, or poor as a church mouse. You will lose the reader when you use multiple such phrases in a single conversation, because people don’t actually talk that way. Learn how these sayings are actually used, so that you don’t make a mistake. For example, “bless your heart” is often an insult or backhanded compliment. It is closer in meaning to “God bless you, because you’re such an idiot” than “May God bless you and keep you”.
Another common mistake is making everything literally black and white, where both use Southern vernacular if lower class and Midwestern / California coastal language patterns if in the upper class or otherwise “Educated”. The number of Hispanics in the South has been rising for years. They’ve been the dominant population in South Texas and South Florida since those regions became states. And Southern factories have been recruiting people from Mexico and Central America for years. This influences the languages one may hear in your modern or even historic novel. While there are a few Cajuns who speak French, it will also be heard among Haitian immigrants. While many of them live in Florida, there are moderately large communities of French speaking Haitians in Georgia and northern Georgia. And none of them are speaking the French you might have learned in French class. And Hispanics in Texas and the rest of the South don’t use Castilian Spanish. Yes, Southern character writing may result in them speaking a variety of languages.
Stay Away from the Plantation in Georgia
One can make the joke that nearly every British show seems to take place in London, as if that is the entire UK. The Southern variation of this trope is everything either taking place in Atlanta, Georgia, New Orleans, Louisiana, and maybe Memphis, Tennessee. Do you get better Southern character writing? Have the story take place in other parts of the South.
Another variation of this mistake is using the same “set pieces” for your story. How everyone is either living in a Southern mansion, old rundown house on a farm, and little else in between. If someone thinks they are creative, then the story may include a ghetto apartment in Atlanta or a suburban house in an expanding Southern city that is indistinguishable from one in California. Consider learning about the architecture of the area where you’re setting the story. For example, have people in an older neighborhood living in a shotgun house. The name comes from the joke that you could stand at the front door and shoot through the house and out the back door. If you’re going to talk about New Orleans, learn about how the high water table affects the architecture. People don’t dig graves, because it will fill with water. Instead, they have above-ground tombs.
If you’re in suburbia, you’re more likely to find ranch homes than condos and townhomes due to the lower cost of land. There are fewer old, dense neighborhoods that are walkable like Boston or New York City, though you could find this in modern master-planned mixed-use developments across the south. And in the New Black South, you will find entire suburban subdivisions that are mostly black.
Understand the Culture
One of the keys to authentic Southern character writing is understanding the culture they live in. A good starting point is the food. You can set the place simply by setting the table with chess pie, pecan pie or peach cobbler instead of apple pie. And you certainly wouldn’t have them eat Boston chowder, unless they’re trying something new to them. Not everything is fried, but a survey of Southern cook books can make it seem that way. And recognize that the South is not one monolithic culture. There are differences between Memphis barbecue and Texas barbecue. There are other variations from cultural values to dialects. I’d recommend reading “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America” to understand these subcultures and where they apply.
We can say that Southerners in general are much more likely to hunt. Around 10 percent of all American men do. The percentage is higher in the South and West than the East and West coasts. Fishing is even more popular. Self-reliance remains a strong cultural value, but don’t demonize every Southerner as a farmer or prepper. What you will see is a far larger share of the population that is or has served in the military. A Department of Defense Population Representation in the Military Services report found that 44 percent of recruits come from the south, though the region has only a third of the population.
Southern character writing draws from a culture more diverse than the world portrayed in “Deliverance”. You still see significant segregation in the churches, where blacks and whites self-segregate into their respective congregations each Sunday. But there are growing numbers of atheists and Catholics, the latter often driven by Hispanic immigration. Interracial relationships are rarely an issue anymore, and the black man marrying a white woman is more likely to get flak from other blacks than whites. There are Muslims and Buddhists of all colors due to conversion, while you see a growing number of Hispanic Protestants. You will find Spanish-language Evangelical churches in the Bible Belt.
Know the Local Locus Point
I mentioned that the United States can be divided into roughly a dozen distinct cultures. However, the country as a whole can be broken up even further into several dozen regions, each with a cultural focal point. For example, north Texas is dominated by the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. It isn’t the land of cowboys and oil wells, though these industries still affect the local economy. More importantly, this metro area of several million is the urban hub and center of education, culture and the service industry for a large section of the state.
Look at the maps that tell you what areas are served by a major metropolitan hub. Southern characters may dream of going to Los Angeles or New York or not, but they probably went to college in the nearest major city. That large city will be their first choice for cutting edge medical treatment and going to see a big play live. Learn more about the cultural and economic impact of that city.
The key to good Southern character writing is abandoning the tropes and expectations set by classic literature. Learn about the real South from the geography to the economy to the culture, and then write dynamic Southern characters that live in that world as it really is.