How Not to Write About Brazil (Several Tips)

Let’s just say you’re going to write a novel set in Brazil. I know, I know, there’s not a whole ton of novels out there set in Brazil, but I think the world could use a few more set in South America. If you’re going to go that route, or even if you just want to travel to or talk about Brazil, there’s a couple common mistakes you’ll want to avoid. I’ve written before about getting the setting right, and I don’t feel fully confident I’d get Brazil quite right if I wrote about it, but at least I’d avoid obvious mistakes like having my main characters take their honeymoon off the west coast of Brazil. And now you can avoid mistakes that will mark you off as a naive gringo to all your native Brazilian readers, just by keeping these tips in mind!

First tip: Think about Brazil. Now let me guess two things that crossed through your mind: Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon. Congratulations! You’re right, both well known places are located in Brazil (and you must have learned something in Geography). But just because they’re both in Brazil, it doesn’t mean you should be planning plots where characters dash from the wilds of the jungle into the streets of Rio, or (in the case of tourists) planning vacations that dodge back and forth between those two places. They are NOT right beside each other. Not even close – to take myself as an example, I’ve been to Brazil twice and have only been once in the Rio de Janeiro airport, and nowhere near the Amazon. It’s like saying Vancouver and Toronto are beside each other, or maybe New York and Los Angeles if you’re from the States.

Why do people easily assume other countries are small, even when they know how hard it is to get around the place where they live? It’s a common problem – people in Europe ask me if I know people in Toronto, when they’ve never left the borders of their two-hundred-kilometre-wide country themselves. I think it’s because it’s easy to know the differences between places in the country you live in, but when you think of a place you don’t know very well, you tend to put the whole place into a single category. It’s only when you get to know a place that you realize it’s got just as much variety, or maybe even more, than the country you come from.

So maybe chalk this one up to a common human failing?

Next tip: Brazil is more than a jungle. Talking about variety – there’s about a zillion different regions in Brazil, with their own culture and climate, yes, the southernmost parts do get snow. What, you thought the whole country was a rainforest? While most stereotypical descriptions of the place like to portray it as the deepest jungle, any country that big is going to have a variety of landscapes. For example, where I stayed in the northeast, there seemed to be a lot of hills and tangled forests, fields of sugarcane, and (fortunately) absolutely beautiful beaches. Brazil is not as big as Canada, but it’s sure big enough. So clearly, if you’re going to write about it, you’re going to actually have to pick a region. Think about it on the same scale as you would if you were writing a novel set in the United States – you’d probably pick a state to put the story in, right? Fortunately, it’s tons of fun to find out stuff about the cultures of all the different regions in Brazil (and listen to them tell you why you should pick up their accent for your Portuguese, rather than the Rio de Janeiro one.)

Bonus tip! Rio de Janeiro is not the capital of Brazil either (that would be Brasilia). I’m told it’s a very beautiful city though, and that I must visit it on my next trip. 🙂

Two further tips: Brazilians do not speak Spanish, and obviously don’t enjoy being told they do. It’s not too much of an effort to remember they speak Portuguese, the sixth most spoken language in the world – apparently more spoken than French, which surprised me since I’ve been told since I’ve been in grade school that it would be the most useful thing in the world to learn French. I’m glad to hear learning Portuguese wasn’t a waste of time either.

Also, if you call yourself American – well, Brazilians are Americans too (South American, that is). Just like Canadians technically are Americans as well, we’re just usually too polite to argue about this. 🙂


In the interests of full disclosure, I’m going to reveal I did set one chapter of a terrible fantasy novel I wrote in highschool in Brazil, mainly because we were covering Brazil in school that year. But I did not do any research, and most of the chapter concerned a hidden base in the jungle where magical power was concealed. Clearly, I missed an opportunity to insert realistic culture and background into my novel! Oh well, perhaps I’ll come up with a better plot now I’ve actually been there.


What pops into your head when you first think of Brazil?


Filed under Brazil, On Writing

6 responses to “How Not to Write About Brazil (Several Tips)

  1. Well… because I recently watched Breaking Dawn Prt. 1, their pit stop there before the honeymoon, the directors were apparently informed by native Brazilians so that the location is actually fitting. Somethign I hadn’t considered before.

    I love that “West coast” of Brazil, so terrible.

    And how true! When I consider Brazil it’s all one blended up shmoss of famous landmarks without actually having them ordered into their proper location.

    Portuguese as the 6th most spoken language? That must robe rewarding to know!

    And being in a foreign land I get the whole “Oh ya, I’ve been to Canada. I went to Toronto once.” *ahem*, not exactly the same as where I’m from.


    • I haven’t actually watched the Twilight movies, but good to know they put some effort into making the setting accurate. I think countries do tend to blur into a “shmoss” of famous landmarks until you get to know them well. But yes – Toronto? No, Canada is so much more than Toronto!


  2. Marcel

    I really enjoy reading this article about Brazil! Parabéns Harma! De fato você está lendo o Brazil com os óculos certos. Esperamos que você volte para aprender mais da nossa cultura e continuar escrevendo coisas interessantes como essa.


  3. Alexia

    About Portuguese language – I learned recently, while talking to some friend from Portugal, that the Portuguese they speak in Brazil is very different from the one they speak in Portugal. For some reason, I was sure it was mostly the same, but no, she can’t understand Brazilian Portuguese. But then I thought about it, and I realized I don’t always get Quebec French either.

    As for that first tip, it’s the same with Paris, sometimes I think foreigners honestly consider it to be the only city that exists in France. And they don’t even see it for what it is, all they care about is the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysées. A lot of tourists also have this very romantic idea of Paris, they think it’s the most romantic city in the world. It’s always weird to me, I’m always thinking “Uh, you haven’t been here very long have you ?”


    • Yes, you always have to face the city you’re traveling in with open eyes, and see both the good and the bad (while I loved Paris, I could tell there were some flaws in that city 🙂 ) You are right, Portugal Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese are quite different – my Brazilian friends tell me they can’t understand Portugal Portuguese either. From what I’ve heard, it is mostly a question of different pronunciation. Most of their words are the same, except for some nouns that are different in the different countries (for example, Brazil calls buses “ônibus,” but Portugal uses a different word). I think they can understand better if they really put an effort into figuring out the different pronunciation, but it’s not exactly straightforward.


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