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Thread: Usefulness of Stereotypes??

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW Lseeber's Avatar
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    Question Usefulness of Stereotypes??

    Hi Everyone,

    I would like to get everyone's thoughts on an idea that was presented to me by one of my beta readers. He was critiquing my mystery set in ancient China, called The Spring and Autumn Murders. While the majority of the criticisms were well founded (he pointed out a major plot flaw ). This idea puzzled me a bit.

    Keep in mind, that I am paraphrasing here. My memory doesn't allow for a direct quote this morning.

    One of his critiques was that my characters didn't come across as the "typical" Chinese, and that I should put more stuff in that would make people know that they were Chinese. When I asked him for further clarification, he basically indicated that I should use more of the recognized stereotypes when it comes to the Chinese people. For example, they're short, have slanty eyes, are extremely productive, unforgiving, demanding, are excellent in math and science.... etc.

    In the story I purposely moved away from the typical western stereotypical view of the Chinese and their culture simply because I wanted to sh
    ow that China and its people are much more dynamic and varied than most westerns realize.

    But now I wonder, can a stereotype be useful? Does something like describing a typical stereotypical China Doll have it's place in the story? Would it help with the marketability of the book in the long run?

    Any thoughts or ideas would be appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Laura
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  2. #2
    Happy Spring!! backslashbaby's Avatar
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    He's bonkers, I think.

    Is there any particular reason to trust his opinion on this?

    I can make a good case for archetypes, but stereotypes tend to read as exactly what they are, imho. Unless it's satire or something, I'm thinking he gets a big fat No
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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    If it's set in Ancient China he's maybe pointing out that you are not grounding/covering the characters properly in relation to the time period - I don't know.

    Speaking generally in relation to foreign characters, why should characters be portrayed as 'typical'?

    As long as I know they're Chinese, Russian, Irish or whatever - if that's what you want me to know - that's sufficient - they should then be characters in their own right, with their individual mannerisms and personality in the same way as any other characters. If it was necessary, personal attributes could no doubt incorporate things that are known to be specific to people from that country.
    Last edited by Bufty; 01-07-2012 at 06:57 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by backslashbaby View Post
    He's bonkers, I think.

    Is there any particular reason to trust his opinion on this?

    I can make a good case for archetypes, but stereotypes tend to read as exactly what they are, imho. Unless it's satire or something, I'm thinking he gets a big fat No
    Seconded. If he's making that accusation, I'd like to know what he thinks a typical Chinese person is like, and where he got the impression from.

    I find stereotypes useful; if it's a heavily ingrained stereotype, it makes it much easier to seem original if you deviate from it, even slightly.
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  5. #5
    Grand adventurer of the couch Grunkins's Avatar
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    Cultural stereotypes usually have a basis in reality. Go to Europe and pick out the under-dressed Americans, it's easy. In my interactions with Germans they reliably have fantastic posture.

    I don't know if these are "stereotypes" or just commonalities, or if there's even a difference, but they tend to hold above random chance.

    As someone pointed out above it's very easy to cross the line into satire, so they must be used subtly.
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    The question is [and I know squat about Chinese history] how different are the people of ancient China to modern day China? What historical events have shaped modern perceptions? How has colonialism etc effected physical characteristics?

    It would be like me writing Romans based on modern Italians, or Picts on modern Scots.
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    I'm not sure he means stereotyping. Chinese characters do have to come across as Chinese. If you portray them as Americans with different skin color, you'll get it wrong.

    People anywhere are individuals, but they're still strongly affected by where they live, by their culture, religion, etc.

    Most people are typical, and this is not a stereotype, it's a simple fact, and "typical" changes from country to country, culture to culture, religion to religion, etc.

    All people have quirks, but the average person behaves as those around him behave, works as they work, wants what they want, basically acts as they act, etc. If he doesn't, he goes and finds his own group. People are herd animals, and each person tends to find his own herd.

    A character is not Chinese just because you place him in China and call him Chinese, anymore than a character is Amish just because you call him Amish.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I'm not sure he means stereotyping. Chinese characters do have to come across as Chinese. If you portray them as Americans with different skin color, you'll get it wrong.

    People anywhere are individuals, but they're still strongly affected by where they live, by their culture, religion, etc.
    This.

    It doesn't mean you should resort to stereotypes. But if characters of different races/cultures act, talk, and think exactly the same, then their race feels like a gesture of tokenism.

    Of course your Chinese character could be American-born and raised in a primarily white mixed-European suburb or whatever and be virtually indistinguishable from others of their community save for physical differences, and if that's the character you want to write, then write it. But perhaps what your beta reader saw was a missed opportunity to explore Chinese culture and racial identity.

    I disagree entirely that you should resort to stereotypes to "Chinesify" the character. But does the character have any links to Chinese culture that are important to them? Beware cliches here--the wise grandparent who spouts Chinese proverbs and stubbornly refuses to embrace Western culture, etc.
    Last edited by leahzero; 01-07-2012 at 08:44 PM.
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    Stereotypes, and I use the technical term here and not the perjorative term, is shorthand sometimes that lets you set a stage quickly without a lot of extra description. Say you want to portray a 1940 scene from Shanghai, then you could mention the rickshaws and the short chinese. But, and this is where it gets tricky, the more developed your character is, the less stereotypical s/he should be. So, for a walk-on part you might have a rickshaw driver, but for a side-kick or a main character, you need to know your stuff and make the character interesting.

    But you, of course, also have to make the character believable. An emancipated woman in that 1940s Shanghai scenario would have to be very, very thought out because Mulan is not real, and characters are influenced by society to a great extent. You would have to know about the state of women in pre-revolution China, and then construct a plausible reason for that character to be emancipated. This within the confines of the chinese culture of the time.

    Maybe that's what you beta picked up - that your Chinese character was not really culturally Chinese at all?
    Last edited by Maxinquaye; 01-07-2012 at 09:09 PM.
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  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW LJD's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lseeber View Post
    One of his critiques was that my characters didn't come across as the "typical" Chinese, and that I should put more stuff in that would make people know that they were Chinese. When I asked him for further clarification, he basically indicated that I should use more of the recognized stereotypes when it comes to the Chinese people. For example, they're short, have slanty eyes, are extremely productive, unforgiving, demanding, are excellent in math and science.... etc.
    "recognized stereotypes." uggh.
    You know, no one in the Chinese half of my family has slanty eyes. No one.
    And in some cases, these stereotypes can be really silly. Should all uneducated Chinese farmers be good at science?


    Having said that, your setting shouldn't feel anything like modern-day North America. Maybe this is a weakness of your story? How much research have you done on ancient China?

    And have you read novels set in historical China to see how the setting is handled? One author I quite like is Lisa See. Her novels are set in a number of different time periods, and she handles it very well. You can see the different cultural values in every line of dialogue. (For example, daughters are treated completely differently from sons.)

  11. #11
    Sophipygian AW Moderator Alessandra Kelley's Avatar
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    What the hey?

    The story is set in China. The characters are all Chinese.

    I don't understand why your characters would have to conform to (really obnoxious) stereotypes to be believable. They're Chinese people in China, for Frig's sake!!!

    If ever there was a story where you should be free to show the infinite variety of interests and looks and personality that all of humanity is heir to, this is it.

    Sheesh.

  12. #12
    Well, there's a thin line to walk here.

    When I was in Italy I was astounded by how stereotypical it all was on the surface--elderly men playing chess, large families running around eating lots of food in public, being all so--Italian. Anyone who'd ever been told what "Italians are like" would have been able to guess where they were instantaneously.

    But I didn't get to know any of those people personally. And I'm sure if I did those stereotypical aspects would have faded into the background and become less important to my overall perception of that one person.

    So, I agree that a lot of stereotypes have a basis of some sort in reality--they often are (but not always) characteristics shared by a large group. But that doesn't mean that each individual can be defined by them.

    So, perhaps this is a show-don't-tell moment? If you tell me someone is in China and is Chinese, that's great--but I'm not going to feel that unless I get a glimpse of the culture. Now, those glimpses could be somewhat typical (what a westerner thinks of as typical), but they don't have to be. And, frankly, it's more interesting if they're not typical, but are still recognizably Chinese.

    Hope that made some sense and was a little helpful.
    Last edited by MJNL; 01-07-2012 at 10:19 PM.
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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW Lseeber's Avatar
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    Thanks, everyone for chiming in.

    Quote Originally Posted by backslashbaby View Post
    He's bonkers, I think.

    Is there any particular reason to trust his opinion on this?

    I can make a good case for archetypes, but stereotypes tend to read as exactly what they are, imho. Unless it's satire or something, I'm thinking he gets a big fat No
    *shrug* There's no reason to trust or mistrust his judgement on this. He's not my beta reader because I'm looking for someone who is an expert in Chinese history- I wanted to get a "normal person's" view of my writing. He's always been up front and honest with his opinion in the past.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    If it's set in Ancient China he's maybe pointing out that you are not grounding/covering the characters properly in relation to the time period - I don't know.

    Speaking generally in relation to foreign characters, why should characters be portrayed as 'typical'?

    As long as I know they're Chinese, Russian, Irish or whatever - if that's what you want me to know - that's sufficient - they should then be characters in their own right, with their individual mannerisms and personality in the same way as any other characters. If it was necessary, personal attributes could no doubt incorporate things that are known to be specific to people from that country.
    In essence, I agree, but the beta (and others here) have raised the question of how the reader knows that the characters are Chinese. Is it because they are being told so? Or is it because the characters mannerisms, etc promote the Chinese culture, etc.

    Quote Originally Posted by Grunkins View Post
    Cultural stereotypes usually have a basis in reality. Go to Europe and pick out the under-dressed Americans, it's easy. In my interactions with Germans they reliably have fantastic posture.

    I don't know if these are "stereotypes" or just commonalities, or if there's even a difference, but they tend to hold above random chance.

    As someone pointed out above it's very easy to cross the line into satire, so they must be used subtly.
    I think the risk of crossing over into offensive or even satire is why I tended to try and steer clear of the classic Chinese stereotypes of the Western mind. The question now-- is the avoidance now becoming a hinderance?

    Quote Originally Posted by gothicangel View Post
    The question is [and I know squat about Chinese history] how different are the people of ancient China to modern day China? What historical events have shaped modern perceptions? How has colonialism etc effected physical characteristics?

    It would be like me writing Romans based on modern Italians, or Picts on modern Scots.
    This is a very, very good point. I've done quite a bit of research concerning Chinese history (at least this portion of it give or take a few hundred years, and the cultural mentality that is seen in China started forming during this time, but it wasn't solidified yet, if that makes any sense. While there is some information available, there are a few major problems 1- due to the cultural revolution, much of it is lost or incomplete, 2- I'm still learning the Chinese language, so translation and transliteration of some texts is difficult. 3-Archeaological and anthropological evidence (as always) is incomplete at best. Therefore to "fill in the gaps" a bit of poetic licensing was used. I tried to keep it true to the spirit through research and interviews with various Chinese historians and my Chinese friends, but did I take too much of a license?


    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I'm not sure he means stereotyping. Chinese characters do have to come across as Chinese. If you portray them as Americans with different skin color, you'll get it wrong.

    People anywhere are individuals, but they're still strongly affected by where they live, by their culture, religion, etc.

    Most people are typical, and this is not a stereotype, it's a simple fact, and "typical" changes from country to country, culture to culture, religion to religion, etc.

    All people have quirks, but the average person behaves as those around him behave, works as they work, wants what they want, basically acts as they act, etc. If he doesn't, he goes and finds his own group. People are herd animals, and each person tends to find his own herd.

    A character is not Chinese just because you place him in China and call him Chinese, anymore than a character is Amish just because you call him Amish.
    Very good point. But my question is how much "Chinese" details do I add to find the balance between "authentic sounding" and "overdone"?

    Quote Originally Posted by leahzero View Post
    This.

    It doesn't mean you should resort to stereotypes. But if characters of different races/cultures act, talk, and think exactly the same, then their race feels like a gesture of tokenism.

    Of course your Chinese character could be American-born and raised in a primarily white mixed-European suburb or whatever and be virtually indistinguishable from others of their community save for physical differences, and if that's the character you want to write, then write it. But perhaps what your beta reader saw was a missed opportunity to explore Chinese culture and racial identity.

    I disagree entirely that you should resort to stereotypes to "Chinesify" the character. But does the character have any links to Chinese culture that are important to them? Beware cliches here--the wise grandparent who spouts Chinese proverbs and stubbornly refuses to embrace Western culture, etc.
    Well considering that western cultural influences hadn't become a factor yet in this time period in Chinese history, the story has very little western cultural flavor in it. Granted, there may be some unintentional western influence simply because I am American, but I've try to keep it to a minimum.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maxinquaye View Post
    Stereotypes, and I use the technical term here and not the perjorative term, is shorthand sometimes that lets you set a stage quickly without a lot of extra description. Say you want to portray a 1940 scene from Shanghai, then you could mention the rickshaws and the short chinese. But, and this is where it gets tricky, the more developed your character is, the less stereotypical s/he should be. So, for a walk-on part you might have a rickshaw driver, but for a side-kick or a main character, you need to know your stuff and make the character interesting.

    But you, of course, also have to make the character believable. An emancipated woman in that 1940s Shanghai scenario would have to be very, very thought out because Mulan is not real, and characters are influenced by society to a great extent. You would have to know about the state of women in pre-revolution China, and then construct a plausible reason for that character to be emancipated. This within the confines of the chinese culture of the time.

    Maybe that's what you beta picked up - that your Chinese character was not really culturally Chinese at all?
    Well, it certainly is possible that my depiction of a Chinese person doesn't ring true, of course. I've tried to tell the story in much the way that you're describing. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, there are very few minor characters in this story. Out of the ten characters introduced seven of them have a very significant part to play in the plotline, and honestly, I don't think I have the imagination to think of any more, lol.

    The other factor is the idea that many people have is that China is filled with one homogeneous bunch of people. It isn't, and it never was. Despite what is presented in today's media, China is filled with different ethnic groups, races, even cultures. This factor was even more true during the Spring and Autumn period. I worry that in an effort to make the story "sound more Chinese" to the western mind, I'll loose some of the historical authenticity.

    Quote Originally Posted by LJD View Post
    "recognized stereotypes." uggh.
    You know, no one in the Chinese half of my family has slanty eyes. No one.
    And in some cases, these stereotypes can be really silly. Should all uneducated Chinese farmers be good at science?


    Having said that, your setting shouldn't feel anything like modern-day North America. Maybe this is a weakness of your story? How much research have you done on ancient China?

    And have you read novels set in historical China to see how the setting is handled? One author I quite like is Lisa See. Her novels are set in a number of different time periods, and she handles it very well. You can see the different cultural values in every line of dialogue. (For example, daughters are treated completely differently from sons.)
    I've actually done quite a bit of research. Not exhaustive mind you, but I probably read through about sixty to seventy different scientific documents, old Chinese literature (when I could get it translated) and done six interviews with some Chinese friends, three of which actually live in China and know the geographical area of the setting quite well. I'm not an expert in Chinese history by any means, but I'm no slouch either.

    I actually have read some of Lisa See's work. She is quite good, isn't she?

    Again, thanks everyone!

    Laura
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  14. #14
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    Don't listen to him! That all sounds stupid. You can have Chinese cultural traditions to show you've done research and to make sure the story doesn't sound like it's taking place in North America, but do not stereotype the characters themselves. No two people are ever really the exact same in real life (They can be very similar, but there's usually something that sets them apart and makes them unique).

    Such stereotypes like them all being short, extremely productive, unforgiving, demanding, and excellent in math and science is just that. Stereotypes. Not everyone is like that. Even in ancient times, I doubt you could define an entire population with a few set attributes.

    Besides, who the hell wants to be typical? You're allowed to shatter stereotypes and go against what people think of certain races.

  15. #15
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    If the story is clearly set in Ancient China and the reader is told nothing to the contrary it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume the characters are Chinese.
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  16. #16
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    I also think you should discard that bit of advice instantly. If your book gets published, you will have angry people calling you racist, not your beta reader.

    If all your characters are Chinese, and in China, then they're not going to see each other as short, are they? They'll see each other as normal in height.

    And they're not going to think of one another as having exoticly-shaped eyes. Again, they'll see each other as looking normal.

    They're going to see each other as regular people, not members of a category. You had it right the first time; never use stereotypes. Your beta reader might have had lots of good suggestions, but that one bit of advice was both wrong-headed and quite offensive.
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    practical experience, FTW LJD's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lseeber View Post

    But my question is how much "Chinese" details do I add to find the balance between "authentic sounding" and "overdone"?

    I think the risk of crossing over into offensive or even satire is why I tended to try and steer clear of the classic Chinese stereotypes of the Western mind. The question now-- is the avoidance now becoming a hinderance?
    No. I would not worry about making your characters sound "Chinese" to people who are not very familiar with Chinese culture and do not know many people of Chinese heritage, and thus, their main "knowledge" is these sorts of stereotypes. Referring to these sorts of things would pull me out of the story. If it's set in ancient China why should there be a reference to Asians being good at math?

    Your "Chinese" details should be based on your research NOT stereotypes. This is what will make your story sound authentic for the time and place.


    Quote Originally Posted by jjdebenedictis View Post
    If all your characters are Chinese, and in China, then they're not going to see each other as short, are they? They'll see each other as normal in height....They're going to see each other as regular people, not members of a category.

    Exactly.

  18. #18
    Happy Spring!! backslashbaby's Avatar
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    It sounds like you have it covered. All I can think to add is that maybe you could remind the reader the characters are in China during long stretches of dialogue, family life, etc. via setting. Maybe food. Do you intersperse Chinese words throughout? I tend to like that.

    But if some readers fall into forgetting that characters aren't Western because they default to that strongly, that ends up being their own problem mostly, imho.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lseeber View Post
    When I asked him for further clarification, he basically indicated that I should use more of the recognized stereotypes when it comes to the Chinese people. For example, they're short, have slanty eyes, are extremely productive, unforgiving, demanding, are excellent in math and science.... etc.
    Laura, I think in this case, you are totally right and he is totally wrong. Some of my favorite books about China: The Good Earth and East Wind West Wind by Pearl S. Buck and Ties that Bind Ties that Break by Lensy Namioka. None of them use stereotypes like he suggested.

    If you are really unsure (and you haven't done it already) check out one of the books I mentioned. The Good Earth is long, but the other two are really quick fun reads. I think doing so will reassure you that you've made the right choice.

  20. #20
    Toughen up. gothicangel's Avatar
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    It sounds to me that you're covering all the bases.

    Which reminds me of when I read the latest Simon Scarrow book. I don't think I've came across such English Roman's before. I LOLed.
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  21. #21
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    A lot of person's mannerisms and ways of thinking (though not necessarily their thoughts) come from culture. For example, when I was in Japan, my host family put the donna (comforter) underneath the blanket, as a sheet. They thought I was crazy for putting the sheet and blanket down first.

    So I think rather than falling back on stereotypes, you should rely on detail to get culture across. It's woman-like to drink with your hand supporting the teacup in Japan, and frowned upon if you just pick it up in one hand. Now, if you have a Japanese main character, they don't have act this way - but the reactions of those surrounding them will be different, because they're acting differently from the expected. Similarly, it might be cool for a young woman who has mostly male friends to drink her tea the "male way", and they'd notice if she changed. There are always reasons behind details, whether it be culture, family or the people you interact with. It because details are generally (thought not always) learned behaviours.

    Humans are humans, but they act differently in the detail depending on where they come from. If you learn that detail, then you won't be falling back of stereotypes, you'll be creating characters.

  22. #22
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    I agree with what others have been saying here; there's a difference between being aware of the culture and stereotyping. Different societies value different things, on average, but that doesn't mean everyone within the society will conform to those values.

    For instance, American culture (and I'm aware that I'm making a huge generalization here) tends to be very individualistic, focused on self-actualization and "doing" as opposed to being. That doesn't, of course, mean that every American character should be a rugged individualist in a cowboy hat, but it does mean that the value placed on certain qualities will in some way play a role in that character's life. Same goes for Chinese characters. Whether they do or don't embrace the culture's values, it will probably impact them in some way, even if it's a subtle way.

  23. #23
    illiterate primate Bing Z's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LJD View Post
    Your "Chinese" details should be based on your research NOT stereotypes. This is what will make your story sound authentic for the time and place.
    This.

    Some food for thought:

    Can you do a global search & replace for "China" to "India" and the story or the details still work?

    How important are the details pertaining to the then China in your novel? Does it make a difference if they sat on chairs or on their ankles on the floor? Does it matter if they had long hair or short? Does it matter if widows could remarry?

  24. #24
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    How is someone "Chinese?" I have to wonder if the person who said that had a frame of reference. Were things not available in that time and place for them to have that world view like "wouldn't buy that, they didn't know what it was..." or were they really just totally off base?

    I love breaking stereotypes. Because maybe 1% of the people I met in real life were stereotypical. And they sure as heck weren't interesting enough to write about. It's the people that break the mould that are interesting, and it's the one that are so far from what you expect when you first see/describe them that are the ones worth reading/writing about.

    EDIT: Ok, with a tiny bit of thought now, not just reaction.

    Can you ask the beta-reader for specifics? Was it just "unexpected" (which would be good). Or was there something consistently off about the character that made them feel it was "off" about what China culture in that time period and setting was like compared to how they were written (maybe bad).

    In absence of context of the beta-readers comment, it's hard to say if the criticism was important, or shallow meaningless nonsense.
    Last edited by badlandz; 01-08-2012 at 02:07 PM.

  25. #25
    Unban Opty now, m'kay? Rufus Coppertop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jjdebenedictis View Post
    I also think you should discard that bit of advice instantly. If your book gets published, you will have angry people calling you racist, not your beta reader.

    If all your characters are Chinese, and in China, then they're not going to see each other as short, are they? They'll see each other as normal in height.

    And they're not going to think of one another as having exoticly-shaped eyes. Again, they'll see each other as looking normal.
    Absolutely spot on!

    Fifteen years ago I did a psychiatric night shift with a Chinese nurse. She was a lesbian and she was heavily into Kabbalah.

    Not Buddhism, not Daoism...Kabbalah. So much for Chinese conformity!
    Last edited by Rufus Coppertop; 01-08-2012 at 06:16 PM.
    Situation not optymum. Missing the pure, undiluted awesome.



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