Friday, December 11, 2015

Writing Surfer Characters: 9 Things You Need to Know


You think you know them. They live in Hawaii, have blonde hair, smoke pot, cut classes, and are generally up to no good. They like to skate in their free time. They usually don't have any money, but they still manage to come across as super chill and cool.

That tends to be people's general view of surfers. Authors tend to reflect this view, or decide to reflect nothing at all by completely excluding surfers from their list of potential characters.

Which is a shame, because surfers are an awesome group of people that really deserve better than that. How do I know?

Because I'm one of them. While Lyme has recently stolen that particular hobby from me, I still foster the hope of jumping back into it sometime in the future. I live in a neighborhood chock full of surfers. Many of my friends are surfers. I still follow pro-surfing competitions online and through magazines. If any writer knows about surfers, it would be me.

And I can tell you with complete certainty: You know that image you have of surfers? It's wrong. So, so wrong.

So let me explain the characteristics and culture of surfers, why they can make awesome characters, and how to write them:
1. Surfers don't just live in Hawaii, Australia, and California. You know there are waves in other places, right? There is surf pretty much everywhere. And where the waves are, the surfers will follow. Surfers live in New Zealand, Tel Aviv, Sweden, France, India, Africa, Bangladesh, Gloucestershire, Brazil, Norway. Heck, people even surf Antarctica and Lake Michigan. And no, I'm not making that up. So before you plop your surfer character into some typical surf destination, think again. If you want to learn more about the many different surf spots, try watching Endless Summer. It's helpful, hilarious, and the cover is pretty. Even if you're not a surfer, this video is just plain fun to watch:
2. Not all surfers have long, blonde hair. I know, I know. But it's true. While the salt in the ocean does give people's hair a golden tint, it doesn't automatically turn it blonde. It'll just make it lighter. And, while some surfers (like my older brother) have long hair, others prefer it short. Or even shaved, liked Kelly Slater or Shane Dorian.

3. Surfers are of all ages. Surfing is one of the few sports that you can do at pretty much any age. I've seen surfers out in the water who are 5 years old (these guys are called groms, by the way). I've also seen 75+ year-olds out there (these guys are called awesome). So don't automatically assume that your teen character is going to be surfing with only other teenagers. Unless surfing in a secluded area, this just isn't going to happen.

4. Surfers use a lot of slang, but not the normal kind. Surfers pretty much have their own language. Sure, you'll hear some of the usual slang among younger surfers, but you'll also hear completely alien phrases. "The waves are firing out there, yah?"or "It's offshore!" or  "Party wave!" or "It's pumping out there! Did you see me get shacked?" I'd say "Stoked" and "Dude" are the most commonly used words, but there are so many. If you want to try and catch up on surf lingo, try watching the World Tour (pro-surfing competitions). There's actually a live streaming of the Pipe Masters right now, which is epic. You'll hear some pretty interesting things come out of the commentator's mouths. Once my brother and I heard an Aussie commentator say "He's like a cat on a hot tin roof!" We still have no idea what that means....

5. Girl surfers are not super common. Why? I have several theories, the main one being that surfing takes a lot of upper-body strength, which is not something most girls are gifted with. It's also impossible to be a girly-girl and still a hardcore surfer. You can either have nice hair and make-up or you can surf. You can't do both unless you want to have to be constantly removing and apply mascara and hair product. It's also possible that girls find surfing less appealing because it sometimes requires assertive and aggressive behavior. That combined with the fact that it often puts girls in a situation where we have to physically compete with a guy can be a bit difficult. So your female surfer should end up being very different from the other girl characters in your book/story.

6. Surfers have a lot of guts. I've seen surfers charge fast waves, take a nasty wipe-out, and then just wheel around and try for another one. The ocean is very powerful, sometimes scary, and is not for the faint-hearted. Surfers are a lot of things, but they are not wimps. They will get in intense paddle battles with each other to try and catch the best wave. Many of them actively seek out large, powerful breaks because they're psychotic thrill-seekers.

7. Surfers tend to be pretty chill. More so on land than in the water, since it can be a bit competitive in certain lineups, as mentioned above. After a long, fun session, you get out of the water feeling limp, happy, and dazed. I think this is why people often think that surfers spend most of their time high. We're not high. We're just in this weird ethereal place that sometimes comes after surfing.

8. Surfers have lives outside of the ocean, and it doesn't always involve cutting class. Or smoking pot. Surfers do, in fact, have jobs. And many surfers I know actually completed high-school and are in college now. It's common for surfers to be skaters as well. And they all have other hobbies besides surfing. It can be anything from photography to video games to art to reading. In short, surfers are actually people with real interests. Who knew?

9. Surfers like to have fun. The ocean can do things to a person's mindset and outlook on life. Straddling a board out in an enormous, powerful ocean will give you a feeling of focus and contentment. It also gives you perspective. Surfers are more willing to just get out and have fun, relax, and enjoy the simple things. Because of this, you may sometimes hear people say that surfing is more of a lifestyle than a sport. I'd have to agree.

And there it is. 9 facts about surfers that you should be aware of. Surfers are awesome people that could make some great characters. I've never seen a book about surfing (or a book with a surfer character) that didn't stink of stereotypes and misinformation. I'd really love for this to change. So if you want to write a surfer character, go for it! If you have questions or thoughts to add, please leave a comment below!

Note that the above post is about surfing, not big wave surfing. That's a whole different beast. If you want info on that, try watching the surf video called "Step Into Liquid." 

Related articles:
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
7 Cliche Characters in YA Fiction That Need to Stop
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

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  1. Huh that's interesting. I'm land locked over here in Oklahoma so if I ever find myself writing surfers I'll refer back here.

    About #5, not that I'm a surfer but I am a girl. I would venture to guess that it's the strength required and the competing against boys that deters them, not the need to girly. I say this just because I know many girls (myself included) who don't dress or act "girly". I act like a girl but not "girly" if you get what I mean. In fact, I love nothing more than getting covered in mud sweat and chicken poo while working out in the yard. Couldn't care less if there are boys are around or not. Just a theory there for ya.

    Cool post! Never knew these things about surfers. :)

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm cracking up because your description of the girls you know are exactly opposite of the ones I do. Many SoCal girls are very boy conscious and don't like getting dirty. Maybe that's the difference between OK girls and CA girls? Personally, OK girls sound like more fun. =) Anyway, loved reading your comment! Glad you enjoyed my post.

  2. Good point! I didnt consider the differing cultures. Oklahoma girls are definitely great but I bet CA girls have their perks too :)

  3. One of the best books featuring surfers that I read is Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar. She also wrote Night Beach, in which her main characters (female) also surfs. None of her characters are stereotypes, and they're not in any way defined by their hobby, although it is a great part of their lives.
    Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play by Tennessee Williams, and the phrase it's usually used to describe someone extremely anxious, someone resembling Maggie's character from the play :)
    A very interesting post, Hannah! You've got insight into something wonderful - I always wanted to learn to surf, but alas, it hasn't been in the cards for me :)

    1. I haven't heard of that book. I'll have to check it out!
      Ha! The mystery is solved! Now I'll have to check out that play, too. How funny. Thanks for the comment!

  4. "Cat on a hot tin roof" is actually a phrase I grew up with my mom saying, though she was never anything close to a surfer, so I have no idea where she picked it up if it's true surfer lingo. Basically though, the idea is that once a cat got on a hot tin roof, it would burn their little pads on their feet, so they would be jump-walking to get across the roof. It basically means you're quick footed and nimble, but also a little jumpy and never staying still. :)

    1. Awesome! That explanation of "Cat on a hot tin roof" actually makes perfect sense. The surfer pulled this weird aerial where his feet barely touched the board, which prompted the comment from the commentator. How cool! Thank you for explaining. Now I can stop wondering about it. =)

  5. Not a surfer myself, but two of my sisters have an interest in surfing and the ocean (one's even studying to be a marine biologist). Both are probably the most relaxed and chill of my siblings.


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