It's time for this month's So Your Character is From Another Country! This is a monthly or bimonthly segment where I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last month's So Your Character is From New Zealand ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!
England and Scotland are two other locations I must go to! So many of my favorite things come from the British! Sherlock, Lord of the Rings, Merlin, Doctor Who, Narnia ... Can you tell I watch a lot of British telly? I must visit this country! It's a dream of mine to sit in the same pub the Inklings did and write something.
Let's welcome Mawa, Maria, and Emily to the stage!
Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts are as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.
Maria is an artist and writer who is technically Danish, but has lived in England since she was two. She lived in a ‘historical’ town in Surrey for about thirteen years, took an apprenticeship of sorts in Windsor, and moved to a small town in Cumbria a couple of years ago. She’s currently a part time art student in a college in Penrith.
I’m Mawa Mahima from bustling and iconic London. I’m an avid reader, blogger and exam-crazed student.
I’m Emily: reader, writer, dreamer, happiest with tea in one hand and a paperback or notebook in the other. I am English, from a town called Burton-on-Trent in the East Midlands, but I’ve lived just outside Glasgow for the past eleven years. I’m seventeen, in my last year of school, and soon off to do an English Lit degree. I am a Christian, an artist, a lover of music, a peruser of secondhand shops and a tree devotee. I blog at Ink, Inc., about ink in all its forms: reading, writing, and art. You can also find me on Goodreads, Pinterest, Bloglovin and Twitter.
NB: In terms of nationality, I think of myself as “English Glaswegian”, but for this post I’ll probably answer broadly about Scotland. I will drop England in there, too, though; keep an eye out.
What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?
Mawa: We are talking about the UK aren’t we? Well, there are lots and lots of local traditions in the UK. Every place has their own loyalties I guess. For example, tracing back to the War of the Roses which ended in 1485, there is slight antagonism whenever you mention Manchester to someone from York and vice versa.
In London we get all the good celebrations. For example on Good Friday, there was a procession showing Jesus carrying the giant cross while being led around by Roman soldiers. Especially around Trafalgar Square we get a lot of celebrations happening.
Maria: Well, the Royal Family seems to be kind of a big deal. Jubilees and important weddings get a lot of hype. There are a lot of castles and historical houses and so forth that get a lot of tourists.
Emily: I’m writing this on January 26th, so yesterday in Scotland it was Burns Night, which celebrates Robert Burns and involves haggis-eating, kilt-wearing and the recitation of Burns’ poetry. “Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o' the Puddin-race!” begins the traditional Address to the Haggis.
Another important day in Scotland is Hogmanay, that is New Year’s Eve; New Year rather overshadows Christmas. Both the 1st and the 2nd of January are bank holidays.
Guy Fawkes Night (November 5th) is very important in England as it marks the day Guy Fawkes tried and failed to blow up Parliament in 1605, hence the fireworks and bonfire.
Some other celebrations I should mention are dancing. In Scotland ceilidh dancing is a staple of any child’s education and we have ceilidhs frequently, at weddings and on other occasions. The English equivalent is probably Morris dancing. Look it up.
Tell me about your country's environment. What are some of your favourite places?
Mawa: Ah, this isn’t that hard to answer. The United Kingdom is a beautiful country if you’ve ever seen an aerial view of it. Green fields everywhere! In London, you have our distinctive cityscape. My favourite places have to include Waterloo which is right next to the river Thames. There’s always something happening around Waterloo, and there’s this huge book market right beside the river. I’ve found a few treasures through that book market.
Then there’s my area. Shoreditch, the hipster scene of all Londoners. I think I’ve got the male fashion of Shoreditch down to a tee: you have your rolled up skinny jeans, your big (brown) boots, your tweed (or similar material) blazer and more often than not a silk cravat. It’s either that, or you’re dressed in jeans, a massive shirt, and a big untameable beard. There may be tattoos involved.
Ah, but the best part about Shoreditch is how beautiful the streets are. There’s such a variety of shops, people, and things to do. You’re bound to find a nook somewhere that you can call your own.
Maria: England is practically famous for being cold and wet, which is somewhat true. It does rain a lot, (though not as often as people seem to think), and floods are pretty common. Winters are generally mild and Summers aren’t particularly hot. Landscape wise, there are a lot of hills, of varying sizes. One of my favourite places would be the Lake District up north, which is beautiful.
Emily: Climate-wise, Britain is rainy and cold. Think of it as America-lite: we have much colder summers and fairly warmer winters. To see a British city under snow is not exactly rare but by no means happens every winter.
In terms of places, I really love Glasgow city centre. Glasgow is a very modern and vibrant city, in contrast to Edinburgh, which is more historical and “cultured”. It is Europe’s murder capital, and also friendliest city. Glaswegians are characterised by humour and a certain roughness, whereas Edinburgh are more “refined” and more anglicised. In case you haven’t picked up on my frosty tone, know that there is definite antipathy between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Think New York and New Jersey. Think US and Canada.
I also love the Highlands, of course. Scotland has a massive amount of wild places still remaining, with glorious mountains, lochs, rivers and trees.
Also the sea. If you’re writing about Britain, bear in mind that it’s an island nation and we have very strong connections to the sea. Right now, sitting at home, I’m under twenty miles from the ocean. That’s important.
Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favourite dishes?
Mawa: Bangers and mash is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about food from the UK. From my area we have a history of bubble and squeak, which the Jewish brought over all those years ago when they settled into Shoreditch.
Bubble and squeak is some sort of potato-based concoction in which you have boiled potato, herbs, and some other things (it can vary from meat, to just fried onion). You mix the ingredients together, roll them up into balls, dip them in egg and fry them. The “bubble and squeak” noise the egg coating makes when its being fried is what gives the food the name.
Maria: English food seems to mostly consist of meat, vegetables and pastry. We also have a tendency to stick currants, raisins, etc. into stuff like cakes and puddings, which children tend to dislike but adults love for some reason. My favourite food would have to be fish and chips though. Fish and chip shops are all over the place and I’ve yet to visit a town which doesn’t have at least a small one. Coastal towns have the best, of course, but you can get perfectly acceptable fish and chips in places like Surrey or London.
Emily: We really do eat haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) in Scotland, but mostly just on Burns Night and St Andrew’s Day. Other delicacies include Irn Bru (vile fizzy drink, bright orange, look up the advert which is genius); tablet (which is like fudge but … different), Buckfast (disgusting cheap weak alcohol); deep fried Mars bar (this is a thing); macaroni pie (basically in Scotland we like to put pastry around anything. The more carbs it has, the better). Also, did you know that the curry Chicken Tikka Masala was invented not in India but in Glasgow?
Roast dinners are very British. There’s a saying “meat-two-veg” which means a stereotypical middle class Brit. Yorkshire puddings are basically the foundation of the country. The appropriate pudding for a roast dinner is something baked or steamed such as bread-and-butter pudding, rice pudding, syrup sponge, jam roly-poly or spotted dick (yes it is a thing).
Fish and chips is very British. I published a story on my blog in the summer which mentioned queueing outside a chippie, and my American followers were both puzzled and amused by the idea. Apparently the States doesn’t devote entire fast food shops to fish and chips?!
A British doughnut doesn’t have a hole in the middle. It’s full of jam or custard.
As for tea, we drink a lot. Think Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Tell me about any different speech patterns in your country. Slang? Idioms? Words for things such as “biscuits” instead of “cookies”?
Mawa: London slang is very rich, and teenage slang even more so. It’s always changing, always transforming and so it keeps you on your toes.
- Bare – this has become a quantifier which ironically means ‘lots of’. E.g. you have bare pizza slices on your plate.
- Fam – short for family I think, but it’s used just as a general name of familiarity. E.g. You doing well, fam?
- Innit – replaces “isn’t it” in a sentence but most of the time it isn’t even necessary, nor does it make sense innit.
- Sick – this is the new “cool”, if you want to say something is awesome you say it’s sick. E.g. that show last night was sick, fam!
- Allow it – it’s a strange term, because it almost makes sense. For the most part when you say “allow it” to someone, you want that person to stop whatever it is they are doing that is stopping you from doing what you want to do. Essentially “allow it man,” is the same as “stop it, man”.
- To ‘bun’ something – to forget it, or to give up it. E.g. Bun exams, fam.
Maria: There’s actually a huge variety of dialects and so on throughout England. Someone in Cumbria will speak very differently from someone in Surrey. I’d recommend talking to someone in or very near the area you’re writing about to make sure you get the accents and slang right.
Emily: We do indeed say biscuits instead of cookies; a cookie is a specific type of biscuit, a soft one that might have chocolate chips. Candy is a hard sugary sweet like a striped candy cane; general sweets are called, uh, sweets. A chocolate bar is not a candy bar. “Pavement” for “sidewalk”; “car park” for “parking lot”. “Trousers” are “pants” and “pants” are “underpants”. There are a lot of other similar distinctions.
In terms of slang, this differs vastly from region to region. Tea might be “brew” or “char” in the north of England, and is widely referred to as “a cuppa”. In terms of pet names: in Glasgow you’re “pal”, maybe “hen” if you’re a woman; “duck” in the north of England; “love” further south. In Aberdeen, “fine” means “really good”.
Some Scottish slang: “blether” means talk incessantly; “braw” is good or excellent. The favourite saying of my Glaswegian primary school headmistress was “mony a mickle maks a muckle” which means “a lot of small things add up to make a big thing”. “That’s the badger!” = English expression meaning “that’s the one” or “that’s it” or “yes!” See also “that’s the ticket.”
To be honest, I could spend hours and hours listing different slang and expressions, but the truth is, you need to visit a region and listen to people talk if you want to know their idioms.
I also feel it’s important for me to bring back the cheeky Nando’s meme which basically epitomises all British teenage humour and everything Americans will never understand about us.
Describe briefly a regular day in your country.
Mawa: Well there’s always something happening, and it depends on where you live. In London for sure there’s some sort of public event happening on your regular day. The schoolkids go to school, the people go to work, everyone feels some sort of rush hour on public transport around five to seven in the afternoon. Saturdays are filled with adventure and parks full of people, whereas Sundays are a lot more subdued with most opting to stay at home.
Maria: I don’t really know all that much about what counts as a ‘regular’ day, but I know a bit just from my siblings’ schedules and watching other people. School usually starts at 9:00 am or earlier, and ends at around 3pm for Primary School students and about 3:30-4:00 for Secondary School. A lot of people seem to walk or take the bus to school. I remember back of Surrey there always seemed to be a ton of people who worked in London.
Emily: Well this is a tough one because one person’s “regular” day is going to differ hugely from another’s. My regular day involves getting the train and walking to school … which isn’t very helpful at shining light on the British perspective?
How does your country compare to others, especially the States since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?
Mawa: Environmentally the UK is pretty Up There in terms of global warming stats. I know that’s not the context. America in terms of its buildings is quite new, and have their own style – but the UK, and especially the area I’m from, is rich with historical Victorian houses with all their flights of stairs. Mind you, there’s a few mansions dotted here and there as well.
Politically London is very much so quite left-wing. We’re stuffed with diversity, and although there are areas of London which are mostly all-white, and others which are mostly all ethnic minorities, central London is gorgeous and apart from the small area of the banks, there’s diversity everywhere to see.
In this way I guess we are a truly multicultural society. Whitechapel and Green St are the most Indian places I’ve seen outside of India, but even they retain their Britishness (perhaps in the lack of true Indian colour, and of course, the weather). We’re still not there, I don’t think, in terms of fully integrating all of our cultures but we are definitely getting there. If there’s one thing the London of today is, then it’s a melting pot.
Maria: Well, for one thing it’s really small, and not particularly varied in terms of terrain and scenery. A cross-country road trip would be considerably more manageable and less interesting than it would be in a big country like the US. I’ve actually driven right down to the other side of the country and back again many times. It takes a good 6-7 hours and it’s very boring.
Emily: Environmentally I already touched on. Politically Britain is a lot further left; your left wing is kinda our right wing, so the Democrats and the Conservatives have a fair bit of common ground. Our left doesn’t really exist in the US, and your right is a source of terror to us (I say that only half-jokingly). Culturally the difference is massive. Brits are definitely more reserved, we never discuss money. We’re not the most physically affectionate …
You know Cora’s mother in Downton Abbey? She represents an American stereotype through British eyes: loud, vulgar, unrefined. Britain is a lot quieter than America. We don’t have crazy things like beauty pageants and the right to bear arms …
Another important feature of Britain is the class system, which is far more pronounced than in the States. The American Dream is classless, and of course it’s also false and futile (my Great Gatsby knowledge shining through), but in Britain it is much more defined. This is not a pleasant aspect of our culture but it’s a very complicated one.
Briefly describe three historical events of your country's that you feel are important.
Mawa: Magna Carter in 1215 for reducing the king's absolutist power. The establishment of the Church of England for how it affected our relationship to the monarch and what it meant for England's status among the world (and also because I have a soft spot for Henry VIII). The end of WW2 which brought about social upheaval and the beginnings of defeating the rigid social order. I recommend reading the beginning of Parade's End by Ford Maddox Ford to get a real sense of just how strong and divisive the class order was!
|King Henry the VIII|
What are some stereotypes about your country that irk you?
Mawa: That we are all stiff upper lips, that we drink tea all the time, that we have the Queen’s voice – every single one of us.
Maria: A lot of the time it seems like every one in England is either Cockney (which is often exaggerated and a pain to read), ‘Posh’, or pretty much the same as an American. I rarely come across English characters in media from other countries that don’t live in or near London, which gets irritating. I’d love to see English characters from up North or near the coast.
Emily: I think the main one here is the idea that, because we are tea-dependent and awkward and continuously apologetic (see the Very British Problems Facebook page, by the way, for useful info), we are also “cute." It’s patronising. No one over thirty even says the word “cute."
What media portrays your country badly be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Mawa: I recently watched London Has Fallen, and gosh is it one scary movie. It shows a terrorist attack on the whole of London, with most of the landmarks completely destroyed. Suffice to say I was sobbing, it was an incredibly scary movie and the worst part was that although it was in some parts a good movie, the Chief of MI6 had this really bad, totally Hollywood-style British accent.
Maria: I remember being extremely irritated at the representation of England in What Katy Did Next. Obviously it’s pretty outdated anyway, but it presented the English as being a bunch of dull, grumpy, unimaginative people, which was annoying.
Emily: I have to say that, despite the generally unwavering perfection of The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, I’m not madly keen on Mallory. I have met some very eccentric old British men and he’s really not out of place, but I think there is a prejudice within the British psyche that puts us off British characters written by non-Brits. “No!” we shout. “You know nothing!” Even when the author kind of does. (Which, I’m aware, is not that helpful considering this is a post dedicated to non-Brits writing Brits. I’m sorry.)
The Americanisms in A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin really get my goat. “Gotten” is an Americanism (apparently Americans don’t realise this, but it’s true) and it has no place in a medieval-British-inspired fantasy world.
What media portrays your country well be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Mawa: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman portrays London very well. In fact lots of books do, but this is my favourite depiction. In Neverwhere we have London Below in which Harrods becomes a black market of sorts for all sorts of fantastical creatures (amongst other things). I think with the way the streets are still so Victorian it’s great to make some sort of seediness out of London quite easily with stories.
Maria: Well for one thing it’s pretty easy to get hold of English books, movies, TV shows, etc. and you’ll usually have a pretty good portrayal right there. Some good contemporary children’s authors to try would be Jaqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Lauren Child.
I remember Splintered by A G Howard did a pretty good job of including a Cockney accent without overdoing it.
Emily: Following my previous answer, I’d say that most British media hits the mark because it’s not self-consciously British, if that makes sense.
If you want some material for research: Harry Potter is a staple, and the Icemark Chronicles by Stuart Hill are a charming example of a British fantasy series. Department 19 by Will Hill is a wonderful modern British paranormal series. Read Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison for a hilarious take on teenage girl hood in the 2000s. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is a beautiful, convulsively funny exploration of the touching weirdness of the British. The Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling) is set in London and is marvellous. Oh, and of course you must read Dickens and Austen and Eliot. Especially Austen. Her social comedies are wonderful.
Downton Abbey is good if you’ve got a stately home in view. The Good Life is an amusing urban vs rural sit-com. Other British films you could watch: Love Actually; About a Boy; Notting Hill (all starring Hugh Grant … I love him. Notting Hill is about an American in London, actually, so go for it!); The Imitation Game; Brief Encounter; I’m completely running a blank here and have forgot every British film ever made but go forth! Research!
Who are your top three favourite characters native to your country in books, movies, or shows?
Mawa: Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Bean, Oliver Twist!
Maria: Oh gosh there are so many. Just off the top of my head, Lola from the Charlie and Lola books, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, and Matilda from the book of the same name. *nearly adds Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle to the list but remembers the post is about England specifically and not the UK in general*
- The Golden Trio – obviously they are my top baes and I love them long time.
- Cormoran Strike – I guess I just have a thing for JK Rowling characters? (I mean, of course I do, she is my queen.) I love Cormoran to pieces, and he never stops drinking tea. I really relate to that a lot.
- Arthur Dent – from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide, as already discussed.
'Well, you look well on it.'
'I feel well. You look well.'
'I'm well. I'm very well.'
'Well, that's good.'
'Nice of you to drop in.'
'Well,' said Arthur, casting around himself. Astounding how hard it was to think of anything to say to someone after all this time.
This is from book five, Mostly Harmless, and is one of my favourite passages ever. It’s just perfect.
- Matthew Crawley – from Downton Abbey. I love him. He is very interesting in terms of exploring class issues.
Me: Thank you so much Mawa, Maria, and Emily for this wealth of information! I'm pining even more to go visit your beautiful country! Come back next month for So Your Character is From the Philippines ...!
Are you interested in participating in this project? Slots for Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and the Philippines have been filled, but if you are from any other country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail.com.
Are you interested in participating in this project? Slots for Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and the Philippines have been filled, but if you are from any other country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail.com.
Do you have any British or Scottish characters? Did this inspire you to write an British or Scottish character or set a book in England or Scotland? Are from this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for Mawa, Maria, or Emily? Be sure to thank these ladies!
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