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Cultural Clashes: Grist for the Story Mill

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

August 2010

". . .each family has its own culture, way of doing things that is unique . . ."

Some of the greatest works of literature arise from clashes between cultures: people from different countries, socioeconomic classes, and when you think of it, each family has its own culture, way of doing things that is unique and sometimes doesn’t mix well with another family.

Think of Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who came from an impoverished childhood in North Dakota and grew fabulously wealthy through bootlegging and securities fraud in order to win the love of high-society Daisy. Too late he finds out about the careless morality of the upper class and the tragedies that ensued. The Great Gatsby also reflected the decay of social and moral values that led to the crash of the stock market, and has relevance today, When your characters are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, even if you aren’t trying, you will have social commentary.

Think of Shaw’s Pygmalion, where a Professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, makes a bet that he can train Eliza Doolittle, a bedraggled girl who sells flowers, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume an air of gentility by teaching her manners and most of all, elocution. As Higgins tries to get her to nix the cockney accent, the play not only turns out to be a hilarious love story, but also a satire on the rigid British class system that existed back then.

D.H. Lawrence also created the clash of different backgrounds in his daring, sexually explicit, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the hot affair between Constance (Connie) Chatterly, the wife of a minor nobleman, and Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper on the estate. We learn from other characters that Lady’s Chatterly’s lover had been a commissioned officer and had had a good education as a child, something rare for the working class back then. But he chose to speak with the broad Devonshire accent and work with his hands to fit into his community. Unlike Jay Gatsby, we find out that Mellors is a man of true nobility despite the station that the world sees him in.

"The differences in the backgrounds of the characters are the heart of the drama . . .

The differences in the backgrounds of the characters are the heart of the drama in Tennessee Williams,’ A Street Car Named Desire. When Blanche DuBois, the “fallen” woman puts on airs, turning her nose up at Stanley Kowalski, her sister’s brutal blue collar husband, they strip each other of their pretensions. Stella, Stanley’s wife, has obviously married beneath her station, and has to witness her sister’s final ruin and decide whether or not to forgive her husband for causing it.

In Stein on Writing, (St. Martin’s Press, 1995) Sol Stein, a master editor, wrote that the process of identifying the different worlds that the characters come from is to make markers for each of them, easily identified signals that the reader will understand. For example, people from different backgrounds speak differently. They might have different accents like Eliza Doolittle’s cockney. Of course, your marker might not be as obvious. What if your character is a white guy trying to be black who greets another with, “Yo, yo, yo, Bro. Whazzup?” That would be quite revealing of his conflict. Perhaps a person who didn’t have an education was putting on airs. I knew someone like that. She’d pronounce mayonnaise as “my-on-oz,” and “irony” as “ear-on-knee” because she thought it sounded classy that way.

The way people dress used to be much more of a marker of social class as well, but now you can find Ivy League students in grubby sweats and inner city kids in the latest designer fashions. Still, if a character can barely pay his rent yet wears an Armani suit, you wonder if the suit was shoplifted? Did he lose his job?

If you see a guy on the street wearing ragged clothes would you expect him to be arm in arm with a woman who’s wearing a tailored suit and carrying an attaché case? Anyway, the reader will want to find out what in the world is between them.

A woman with fake fingernails, like claws, might be working class. With a man, dirt beneath the fingernails would define him.

What does the incessant chewing of gum mean about a character?

What does the car he drives show?

Food, drink, and the places that they are ingested, and how the food is eaten, are markers. Someone having a beer in a filthy bar is quite different than someone having a Manhattan at the Four Seasons. You wouldn’t find a gourmand at Mac Donald’s nor a cab driver having high tea at The Plaza. Someone unschooled in table manners, slurping their soup, bringing their mouth too close to the food, not using proper utensils, could be a sign of a lower class background. But have you ever seen the kids from the posh private schools chewing with their mouths open? Grabbing food from across the table instead of asking for someone to pass it? I have.

Means of transportation is a marker. A jalopy with a body so rusted that you’re not sure what color it is would probably not belong to a person who could afford a Rolex (not one of the knockoffs.) The only billionaire you’ll find riding the subway is Mayor Bloomberg.

Attitudes can be used as markers. The one Stein gives is:

“Arthur came to New York expecting to be insulted or mugged by every passerby.”

An inexperienced attitude toward travel or traveling on tours because you’re terrified to be in a foreign country under your own auspices will mark a character as different in sophistication from one who rides his bike through the small towns of Italy.

". . . check to see if there are some social class differences between your most important characters."

Stein suggests if you’re presently trying to write a novel, check to see if there are some social class differences between your most important characters. If you haven’t made those clashes, you might make your story stronger by including them. After all, strong plot is built on differences.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.