How to Write More Complex Rural Characters

I got rid of my southern Indiana accent on purpose. My father pronounces “iron” like “arn” and “Italian” like “eye-talian,” but as a child, I understood on a deep level that his accent was wrong in some way. The characters I admired on TV didn’t talk that way. Most of the characters who spoke like my family on television were portrayed as stupid.

I remember watching The Amanda Show — a spinoff of All That featuring Amanda Bynes — in the late 90s and seeing the running segment called Hillbilly Moment. The two actors emerge from a shabby cabin wearing overalls, a straw hat, and sloppy hair. They giggle, mouths wide with missing teeth on full display, and talk like a parody of my dad. And they are unintelligent. One of my biggest fears was to become them.

I grew up with a singular goal: To not talk like my family.

So I didn’t. And I don’t.

Now that I’m older, when I hear characters on television speaking with exaggerated country accents, I cringe. So when the trailer for the upcoming animated FX show — Bless the Harts — came on my TV, my mouth dropped. It turns out that even in 2019, actors can present rural people as caricatures without much backlash.

It’s time for that to end.

Let’s look at what not to do

To figure out how to write a poor or rural character well, it helps to see an example of what to avoid.

So let’s watch the trailer for Bless The Harts:

It’s a mix of some of my favorite actors, like Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph, representing country folks in an over-the-top way.

The accents alone are ridiculous. The show takes place in North Carolina. Clearly, the actors didn’t go through much training in how to talk like a North Carolinian. I have family in North Carolina, and they don’t talk like that.

Not sure what the characters’ accents should have sounded like? Here’s a real North Carolina accent:

And yet does anyone question the actors’ portrayal? Peter Dinklage has gotten a lot of flack for his lackluster British accent in Game of Thrones. But how many times have you heard people say, “Wow, that Southern accent Celebrity X did in that movie was so put on?”

I’m guessing rarely, if ever.

The showrunners should have ensured the actors got the training they needed.

And they could have made sure the actors didn’t pigeonhole their roles’ development. In a panel at Comic-Con, Ike Barinholtz talks about his character, Wayne, by saying, “The character is a very sweet but kind of dumb guy, and that just comes very naturally to me.”

Sweet but dumb. Sounds like a typical, tired portrayal of a Southerner. (To his credit, his accent is pretty accurate).

Then Barinholtz goes on to say that the show “takes tropes that you have seen before and puts a southern middle-class spin on them.” But the show isn’t about a middle-class family. In the show’s trailer, the voiceover says the story is about “a family that’s broke, but not broken.”

Broke is not the same thing as middle class.

Did Barinholtz convince himself this is a middle-class family because he would feel weird saying “working class” or “poor?” I have no idea, but whether you are writing a script or a book or an article, it’s vital to make sure everyone — from the other writers to the editors to the actors — is on the same page. That’s your number one job as a content creator.

This is your story. Control it.

Examining the show’s writing

I’m hoping that once Bless the Harts airs at the end of September, it will be a fair and thoughtful representation of its rural characters. For now, though, all I have to go on is the trailer.

Here’s a sample of the dialogue:

“Get me some cheesy grits.”
“I’ll have biscuits and gravy with a side of biscuit and a side of gravy.”
“That’ll be $21.80.”
“OK, everyone, look for loose change.”
[Cut to the car behind them of a man in glasses and a blazer and a woman with long blonde hair and sunglasses staring at them as they rustle for change.]
[The main characters find a credit card.]
“Can we put one biscuit on this card and write a check for the cheesy grits and hash browns?”

I mean, come on.

This dialogue is a pure mockery. It relies on 2 overused stereotypes: lack of money and poor eating habits. In less than one minute, we see Southern people portrayed as poor and fat. Not exactly innovative.

Not to mention, the from-behind camera angle turns the main characters into the others, the weirdos. We, the viewers, see the central family through the eyes of the “civilized” people in the next car and judge them.

I have been the other. I have stood in line at the grocery store while my mother produces a stack of coupons that takes the cashier 15 minutes to scan, angering the people in line behind her. I have shrunk down in the front seat to avoid being seen by the high school cheerleaders in my dad’s rusted-out car he bought from his buddy’s junkyard.

It’s not fun. And it’s not funny.

I wrote 3 alternate scenes in 5 minutes

Unfortunately, the dialogue doesn’t invite us to admire the main characters. And this framing isn’t acceptable anymore.

Honestly, it’s lazy writing.

I’m thrown off because the show’s creator, Emily Spivey, is from North Carolina. She says all the right things about creating Bless the Harts: She was homesick and wanted to write about her former neighbors; she hopes the audience will laugh with the characters rather than at them.

So why does the trailer do the opposite?

To add to the confusion, Spivey wrote an episode for King of the Hill and another for Parks and Recreation, and both shows represent rural people well. Bless the Harts is the first show Spivey has created, so maybe it’s gotten away from her a bit. I don’t want to judge an entire season based on the trailer alone, and I will watch at least 1 episode once it airs at the end of September, but the scene chosen to highlight in their marketing is telling.

This show is Fox’s first to be centered on female characters and created and led by women. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the creators are destined to get everything right.

So how can you write a better script, or book, or blog post? I spent a mere 5 minutes thinking of 3 alternate scenes.

There are so many other more realistic — yet still absurd and funny — routes the writers could have taken. For example:

  1. The loud rumble of the truck causes a ridiculous misunderstanding between the cashier and the family. (I have seen this happen.)
  2. A raccoon rushes in front of the truck in search of drive-thru biscuits. They accidentally run over it then throw it a funeral. (After going hunting for the first time, a friend forced her boyfriend to hold a funeral for a squirrel.)
  3. The family can’t get their order in because they have to say hello to 50 people passing by since everyone knows everyone. (My dad can’t go anywhere in town without seeing at least 6 people he knows.)

There.

That took 5 minutes to think of 3 alternatives for a scene that don’t center on a lack of money or poor eating habits. Imagine what a roomful of comedy writers could do in a day.

It’s not hard to write realistic rural characters. Let’s get to it.

Why respectful writing matters

Even an animated comedy impacts those who see it. A 2018 Brookings analysis looked into whether television is responsible for some of the urban/rural divide in the United States, and concluded that yes, it is.

Television contributes to people’s perceptions of those who differ from them.

And FX’s viewers are relatively wealthy. According to National Media Spots Inc.’s evaluation of the channel’s demographics, 47% of its viewers make more than $75,000 per year. Knowing that the audience is affluent makes watching the Bless the Harts trailer that much more painful.

The Midwest and South are “flyover territory on TV,” as the study says. Fifteen percent of all TV shows take place in Los Angeles — the same percentage of productions that take place in the entire southern United States.

At least this show takes place in the South. But it’s set in the fictional town of Greenpoint, another concept noted in the Brookings study. If a television show takes place in an urban area, the city is usually real, such as New York City or Los Angeles. But if a show takes place in a rural area, the town name is more often than not made up, such as Greenpoint on Bless the Harts (Emily Spivey is from High Point, North Carolina, likely the inspiration for the town’s name).

Why not set the show in High Point?

If you write fiction, use a real town as inspiration. And visit the location. If you do this, I promise — as long as your writing treats the residents with respect — you’ll have a community of automatic fans.

Examples of writers who did it well

Looking to write rural characters or characters who aren’t like you in some way? There are plenty of shows that do an excellent job writing about the “other.”

For instance:

Parks and Recreation

Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows, and not only because it takes place in Indiana. First, the show did its research. It does a great job of throwing in Hoosier-specific details — I see you, beer glasses from Upland Brewery. Although Pawnee isn’t a real place, the writers did their part to make it realistic.

Insert Ron Swanson, and you have yourself a fantastic example of how to create a rural character right.

Ron is a beloved character, written with love, respect, and dignity. He is also an anti-government, meat-loving libertarian.

The key reason viewers respect him is that the other characters admire him. Even when he behaves ridiculously, it’s clear no one is laughing at him. For example, watch this fantastic scene where Ron is forced to visit an organic grocery store and encounters an employee handing out vegan bacon:

My favorite part of this scene? April joins in and throws out the bacon as well. Camaraderie at its finest. Make sure your characters like each other.

Bless This Mess

Bless This Mess is a new show that I was initially skeptical of but that I have grown to love. The writing is superb. It’s one of those “city folks move to the country” plots, and it manages it with a whole lot of style and grace.

Take a look at this scene where the main protagonists announce they are farmers:

The thing I love most about the writing: The couple from the city is made to look silly, rather than the other way around. Through offering their neighbors turmeric crackers and announcing that they are now farmers, the rural residents eare made into the authorities.

Give your characters expertise. Don’t rely on shortcomings to bring a character to life. Make them really, really knowledgable about something.

Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek is another “city folks move to a small town” plot. For the most part, Schitt’s Creek makes its formerly wealthy protagonists seem like the ridiculous members of the cast.

My favorite part of the show is the relationships formed between the family — who at first keeps saying it’s going to sell the town and move away but slowly come around — and the locals. For example, check out this compilation of the relationship between the son, David, and Stevie, the woman who works at the hotel’s front desk.

Through the course of the show, Stevie teaches David how not to be an asshole. Stevie is a very reasonable person, with standard emotional reactions — even though she lives in a small town. *Insert gasp* When you’re writing your rural characters, make sure they are well-rounded — they feel angry, as well as sad, as well as happy and joyful.

Don’t stick to just one feeling.

The most important writing tool

What’s the most critical gizmo in your toolbelt while writing characters who differ from you?

A gut check.

If you have a nagging voice in the back of your head while you are writing that says you aren’t telling the whole story or your words are a bit too biased, or your character appears worse than you wanted, don’t push the voice away. Bring it in close and hear what it’s trying to tell you. More often than not, it’s your conscience saying that you have overstepped. Or you have used stereotypes. Or you have been unfair.

I’m not perfect, and I have ignored my instinct when I was writing about my family in the past. And I regretted it. At times, I have gotten negative feedback from my family, and I knew they were right.

Now I have ears wide open for misrepresentations — and you’ll need that, too.

Looking for more positive examples of TV shows you can check out? Try Stranger Things, Supernatural, Twin Peaks, Fargo, and others I’m forgetting.

These shows have complicated, interesting characters. They rely on wit rather than stereotypes to keep the dialogue flowing. Their punch lines don’t land straight in the country characters’ stomachs.

These productions prove it’s possible to write a script that takes place in the country while also having characters that viewers admire. Maybe if I had had more of these shows available to me when I was young, I wouldn’t have decided that I needed to lose my accent. I wouldn’t have been scared of being judged if I talked like my family.

Spivey wants viewers of Bless the Harts to laugh with the characters, not at them. We’ll see if she nails it in late September. But luckily for you, you can accomplish it today.

This piece was originally published on Medium’s The Writing Cooperative. To see the original, click here.

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