Screenwriting : A question about writing foreign characters. by Dougie Brimson

Dougie Brimson

A question about writing foreign characters.

I posted this on another site and it soon deteriorated into a bizarre cultural exchange bordering on a slanging match so I'll post it here to see if I get more sensible responses. Assuming most of you guys are base in the US, could I ask, as a UK based writer, what work you would put into developing a British character were you to feature one in any of your scripts? Would you research dialogue, accents, look, etc, etc to make sure they were authentic or would you simply write them as generic or even stereotypical characters? I ask purely because over the years I've seen some horrifically badly scripted British characters in everything from Oceans Eleven to Frasier and it's always bothered me. But in addition, I can't help but think that badly written characters and/or dialogue would inevitably hinder the chances of a project being taken on were it to pass across the desk of, for example, a Brit.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Depends on the story. If it is a comedy and he is a key supporting character you might want to have some fun with it. If it is a more serious drama and the UK Character is a lead and a key focus on the story arc and the character arc. then yes as much research as possible. I would refer to some books and see what their take on it is. Perhaps : "The Screen writers Bible" by David Trotter. Anyway, It is ALWAYS a good idea to do research you have an audience they may be smarter then you think. They could probably smell phony.

Shawn Speake

Happy Holidays, Dougie! I wouldn't even try. I'd flip the components and make it an American story.

Dougie Brimson

Hi Shawn, and a happy holidays to you too! I like your thinking. And I'd love it if you could spread that gospel throughout Hollywood! :-)

Shawn Speake

... My man :)

David Levy

I know people from the UK. England, Scotland, Ireland. I would write my character as if they were someone I knew. No stereotypes there. I might add a quirk or something general that the average viewer could relate to about someone from the UK, but not stereotypical. Example: Can't stand American beer, always criticizes it and gives reasons.

Dan Guardino

I have several scripts with characters from Australia and I write it like they talk.

David Levy

LOL. Nah, I don't think anyone would appreciate that considering the time it took them to break away. I've heard enough already when I was in Dublin. Not to mention I married a Galway girl.

Kristopher Rickards

I've got a handy little book called "Essential foreign swearwords". This way I can have everyone speaking English for the most part & then slip in a cultural colloquialism. This technique can even get a lower BBFC rating even when they have suggested the most vile and obscure of acts.

Pierre Langenegger

With apologies to the op. Oliver, please clarify. What do you mean by borders?

Dougie Brimson

I suspect Oliver is being what we commonly refer to as, a bit cheeky.

Pierre Langenegger

That's what I suspected, Dougie. Back to your op, it really depends on the story and the specifics of the foreign character in your story as to how much research you should put into them. Do you put that much effort into your British characters as well? I don't think you should feel the need to put more research effort into a foreign character than you would a local character. When you say, you have seen some horrifically badly scripted British characters in US shows and movies, are you referring to the character description in the script or the character portrayal on the screen, because the two are not necessarily connected? I cringe when I see poorly portrayed Aussie characters in US and UK shows and films but I simply put it down the actor's blind interpretation and the director's equally blind acceptance. Generally when I include a foreign character (foreign to the story location), I will do whatever research I think I require for that character's moment to shine. I might simply describe the character as speaking with a foreign accent or I might go all out and describe them as dressing in a foreign manner. It really just depends on that scene at that moment in time and What I'm trying to get across in the story. Do I want a moment of hilarity or should this be a serious scene or a combination of the two. You should do what you feels right for the story and not worry about a poorly portrayed foreigner. Look at Manuel from Fawlty Towers, there probably wasn't a single Spaniard who wasn't offended by this character but he worked so well in that show.

Dougie Brimson

Pierre, a great post. There will obviously be exceptions to every rule and Manuel is a perfect example of this as, ironically, is Basil. Indeed, comedy obviously lends itself much more to stereotypes than drama and one could almost expect any foreigner to be used as a foil of some sort. However, my issue has, and always will be, more with the details and authenticity and to me, that starts with the script. Personally, I'd never create an American character from (for example) the deep south without doing some serious work into their backstory which includes how they live and speak, and I would certainly expect more work to be done on that character as the project developed. Whilst I'd do that work for my own sake, part of what would drive me to do it is the knowledge/fear that if it dropped on the desk of a producer who actually was from the deep south, I'd like them to see that I had done my homework and was actually serious about my craft. Because if I'd not, and had instead created what was akin to a cartoon, I would expect them to be offended (as I would be were the boot on the other foot) and treat my script accordingly. If that makes sense.

Pierre Langenegger

Dougie, that is 100% correct and I couldn't agree more. I had to laugh when I read your response because coincidentally one of my stories has a character from the deep south and I put more research into that character than any of the others because I felt a mistake here would stand out like dog's balls, to use Aussie slang. :)

Dougie Brimson

Perhaps my attention to detail when it comes to characters is overly influenced by my other life as a novelist. However, I also think that working on, and knowing, my primary characters as opposed to 'pulling them out of my ass' (as someone said in response to this on another forum) reflects on my commitment to the project generally. Indeed, I always write with specific people in mind for each role and so not only do I know what I would want from them, but I know what they are capable of and as a consequence, I give them everything I can from the outset. Because in the back of my mind is always the thought that if I am lucky enough to get to the point where that person actually reads the part, they will instantly see themselves in the role. Ironically, I'm in that exact position at the moment with a film we're in pre-production with and the wait for feedback from the actor concerned is killing me because if he doesn't take it, I'm screwed!

Kristopher Rickards

Was Elijah Wood's character originally an American in Green Street? Or was that something the other screenwriter(s) altered?

Dougie Brimson

He was always American although EW wasn't my choice for the role. Long story....

Kristopher Rickards

I do think it helps to sell a UK film in the US, but not the other way around. I sometimes suspect the inclusion of a British character is either because they have lower rates or due to adding a little quirkiness.

Dougie Brimson

I do think the producers of James Bond might disagree, but I do take your point and it's probably correct.

Robert Rosenbaum

I think a good character is a good character. We all have think in stereotypes. In a comedy it could be funny but it could also seem racist - you just need to be true to the character. As writers ALL characters are foreign to ourselves - possibly even when writing about ourselves. Most scripts written by men have female characters and visa versa - and let's face it, that is the most foreign character you could possibly write! As I writer I always try to be and think like the characters I am writing which makes me a bit schizophrenic, but "writers be crazy." I think a good character will shine through any shortfall in cultural idiosyncrasies.

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