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Creating Expat Characters In Fiction

I recently wrote a post, The Perils of Expats Writing Fiction about an unexpected difficulty for long-term expat writers.

Your internal editor is muted (or confused) because after living somewhere long enough it’s difficult to remember if they say taps or faucets, or both, if they say ‘what’s on the cards for today’ or if they’ll ask ‘what cards?’ if you use the phrase.

But one thing that has been good about my expat life experience is that I can apply it to my characters, even if I am not writing an expat novel.

Well thought out characters in fiction move through an arc.They usually start at some crisis point that needs a resolution, then they move through a series of challenges that make it difficult to reach that resolution and as a result of the journey, they are changed in some way by the time they get to the end, and it’s often these changes that help him or her to find the secret to the resolution.

Sound familiar? You don’t have to be a writer to recognise a match–expats go through a similar arc.

We arrive; have a honeymoon period and then crisis. It’s either a slow realisation of our isolation or a nasty incident at the grocery store, or some combination of events that highlights how very fish-out-of-water we are in our host country. Then many of us remember the excitement we felt when planning the move, and the thrill of arriving and we decide we need to reclaim that and so we embark on a journey to find happiness in our host country. Perhaps this is why an increasing number of expats are discovering memoirs and novels in their experience—the story is already outlined for us.

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But expat characters populate more than expat novels and memoirs. There are expats in all kinds of literature and rarely do we get more than something like, ‘the British couple always dressed for dinner, but the American man frequently went out in what he had worn through the day.’ No further mention of the topic of how their nationality not only made them stand out, but also made them feel different as well, which in turn would have had an effect on their actions, and their actions of course will also have an affect on the story as a whole.

One of my British characters went to a mediocre girls school, had a fairly uneventful but moderately successful time at university and is now about to unknowingly date a madman. Another female character of the same age grew up in a small town in the American Midwest, travelled to the UK right after university and then settled in London and has been living with this same madman for the past 10 years. On the surface these women are both similar, but the fact that one is an expat and one isn’t, matters: it’s really important because it will mean they both react to the same event very differently.

Expat characters are a rich source for all kinds of detail that will push a story forward. Their life experience, as with any character, will inform their behaviour but not many novelists take real advantage of this. Perhaps because those same novelists have only observed expats but never experienced life as one, and so they underestimate how much this experience can affect a story!

Do you use your expat life experience to create expat characters, even if you’re not writing an expat novel?

Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!

Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident

Read more of Michelle's Expat Focus articles here.

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