15 tips for authors writing Australian characters

It warms my heart to know that romance readers love Aussie characters, but it takes more than the odd “no worries, mate” to get Aussie readers to believe that a character really is Australian.

To help authors out, here are 15 tips on how to make your Aussie characters more authentic. I’ve written them with romance authors in mind, but they apply outside of romance, too. Update: Check the comments for more great tips!

1. Eric Bana is a comedian, not a sex symbol. Do not, under any circumstances, compare your hero to Eric Bana unless he wears a mullet, and there had better be a very good explanation for that.

2. Aussies are obsessed with sports. Obsessed. It’s theoretically possible to have a hero—or heroine, for that matter—who doesn’t have at least a passing knowledge of cricket and/or footy (rugby union, rugby league or Aussie rules), but they’d better have a damn good reason for it.

3. We don’t buy coffee from Starbucks. The only exceptions to this rule are if: your character is still in high school; or the only other choice is Maccas (McDonalds). Even then it’s a close call.

If your character lives or works in a major city, there are no exceptions—not even if they’re in the US. I absolutely believe that any expat worth their salt will persevere until they’ve found a decent barrista within walking distance of work or home. We’re coffee snobs, and we only drink the good stuff.

4. We use the metric system. We measure distance in metres, volume in litres and weight in grams.

5. Welfare is nothing to be ashamed of unless you’re rorting the system. Aussies are generally proud of our social welfare system (although we like to whinge about bureaucratic bungling, but I digress). We assume people use the system because they need it. We are, however, enraged when we discover people abusing these benefits.

6. Many of us live at home for as long as we can. This is partly a financial decision, but also because we’re not forced to live on campus at uni if it’s within commuting distance. If your character comes from an immigrant family, it’s almost a given that they’ll be living at home until they take advantage of the first home buyer’s grant to buy property, or they take a job that’s too far away to commute daily, or they get married.

We’re also proud of our cultural heritage, so if your character has an Italian or Chinese or Greek or Irish or in fact any other ethnic background—and especially if their parents are immigrants—this will play a big part in their sense of identity. And on that subject, why aren’t there more Aussie heroes and heroines with Aboriginal backgrounds? Or paranormals based on the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories?

7. We love to travel and we love the outdoors. Working for half a year, then going backpacking for 6 months, isn’t unheard of, especially for the under 30s crowd. Lots of Aussies take a 2-year working holiday to the UK before they turn 30. If your character has lived or worked in one of the major Australian cities, they’ll have been exposed to a variety of cultures, and their eating preferences should reflect this. We get Chinese takeaway in clear plastic containers, not in those cute little white boxes.

8. Our financial year starts in July. Just in case one of your characters is an accountant. And while we’re talking about careers, not every Aussie hero/heroine has to be a sheep farmer, flying doctor or mining magnate. If your hero or heroine depends on the land for any reason—farming, grazing, wine growing, whatever—they need to worry about drought or bushfires.

9. We don’t like hearing people talk themselves up. We’re often accused of suffering from Tall Poppy Syndrome, and we’re suspicious of authority. This means that your billionaire Australian tycoon (under the Sexy imprint, not Presents or Modern Romance) may well be ruthless, but he’ll also be very good at empathising with your everyday bloke; otherwise, it’s hard to believe he could have been an effective manager on his way to the top.

10. We SMS from our mobile. We don’t text from our cell phone. We take the lift, not the elevator. We wear jumpers, not sweaters. We eat lollies, not candy. We have shops, not malls. We have petrol, not gas, stations. (They’re almost always self-service.) We take our cars to the garage for service. We step on the accelerator, not the gas. In fact, don’t mention gas unless someone’s having a barbie … or letting one rip. We have chips, not fries. We drink soft drinks, not soda. Babies wear nappies, not diapers, and they sleep in bassinets or cots, not cribs. We have Vegemite on toast instead of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. We drink Panadol, not aspirin, and we buy drugs from the chemist. We end sentences with a full stop.

11. We don’t drive to work in the city. Most people commute, unless your character is rich enough to either live in the city (but then, why would they need to drive in?) or successful enough that their employer provides them with a car space. When we do commute, we catch the train, tram, bus or ferry; we don’t ride the metro or take the subway. We get on the highway, the freeway or the motorway, but not on the interstate. We drive on the left side of the road.

12. We don’t say “off of”. Ever. There are no exceptions. Violation of this rule may result in your book being flung against the wall—that’s how strongly I feel about it.

13. Bathrooms are for bathing. Generally, though, we take showers. To relieve ourselves, we go to the toilet or the loo (in casual conversation). Dunny is used less frequently, although I remember saying it a lot as a kid. Maybe it’s a regional thing? I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ve been told that Aussie women are less likely to have a Brazilian than Americans, Canadians or Europeans. This may or may not be of use to romance authors.

14. Friday arvo (afternoon) is often known as beer o’clock. The legal drinking age is 18. This means pubs are often dominated by uni students who haven’t yet learned that puking on the footpath, not sidewalk, is quite unattractive. Australia has a drinking culture, as proven by having a Wikipedia entry devoted to Aussie beer. A lot of socialising after work happens with a schooner or wine glass in one hand, and this wouldn’t be frowned upon during a business lunch, either. (Unless your character comes back to work blotto, legless, or off his face.)

Anyone who even thinks about playing pool in a pub should be aware of Aussie pub rules (note the second last paragraph of that article).

15. Don’t root unless it’s a sex scene—in which case there’s no room for an ass. We barrack for our favourite sporting teams, and if we’re rooting it probably means the team won. We admire a nice arse. I suppose you could have an ass in a sex scene, but I’m not sure I’d still consider that a romance.

Okay, I’m stopping at 15, but I know there are heaps more we can add. I’m also fairly sure this list reflects my urban Sydney bias, so if you live in other parts of Australia, which ones would you remove, and what would you add in its place?

It’s over to you, readers—what other tips woul you give to authors writing about Aussie characters?

Thanks to @ericahayes, @evangelineh, @logophilos, @mcvane, @melbsmudges, @mieldv, @OzAlleyCat, @TezMillerOz and @tsinelas for their ideas and suggestions.


  1. I guess I’m not a real Aussie then, because I hate sport and I love Starbucks coffee :(
    Also, driving to work is normal in Brisbane because our public transport system is dying.
    “We don’t text from our cell phone.” – I’m pretty certain people say ‘texting’ up here too.
    Also for foreigners – The distance between Brisbane and Melbourne is more than twice that of between London and Berlin, and the cultural differences between north and south can be subtle, but are nonetheless distinct. Interstate rivalry is alive and well. Queenslanders call interstate immigrants to Queensland, ‘mexicans’. Please also note ‘sand gropers’, ‘banana benders’.
    People drive old cars here past the point of insanity. Farmers would not be seen dead in a SUV. You really can see kangaroos in back yards some times, but most people have only seen them in zoos. Ditto for wombats, dingoes and Tasmanian Devils. 90% of the population live in the main cities – 90% of the population fondly imagine themselves rugged outback spirits despite that.
    Australians are homophobic, sexist and racist, but believe in a fair go and sticking by your mates. Individual loyalty will trump bigotry, and loyalty to Australia will overcome suspicion of your origins.

  2. Kat says:

    Ann, I have a Sydney bias, so the Starbucks thing might be one of them (and I suspect it’s stronger in Melbourne, where they’re even snobbier about coffee). I couldn’t decide about texting because I wasn’t sure if I was only hearing it more because I hang out with lots of first-generation Aussies.

    My friend mentioned the distance thing. I think I left it out because I don’t drive and couldn’t appreciate how such an inaccuracy would annoy others. I couldn’t think of a way to explain interstate rivalry without inflating the post. *g* Also left out of the list were the kangaroos in the backyard. I can’t believe people still believe that of Australia!

    I was pretty sure the Queensland differences would stand out when compared to my list, so I’m glad you added those. Thanks!

    And I like your last paragraph. I think I agree with KS Augustin that it’s not so much phobia or ism specific of one thing, but a general sense of xenophobia, although I don’t generally see it much in Sydney—at least not in the inner city), probably because it’s so diverse you’d be perpetually unhappy if you couldn’t figure out how to cope with other people’s differences. Certainly in the suburbs it’s more pronounced, and even then it depends on the suburb.

    90% of the population fondly imagine themselves rugged outback spirits despite that.

    LOL You’re so right!

  3. Oh, I’ve heard the anti-Starbucks thing up here, but in London, it was a civilised place to get reliable coffee, and I feel the same here – their coffee’s no worse than most, and better than some. My problem is that having spent more than a third of my life overseas, I don’t necessarily represent ‘typical’ australian opinions anymore. But I did always hate sport :)

  4. Erica Hayes says:

    Well, I’m not homophobic, sexist or racist, Ann :) but I agree that many Australians are, same as in other Western countries.
    Kangaroos are most often seen dead on the road.
    Oh, and not only is the drinking age 18 — the driving age is 18, too. So our high school kids don’t drive to school, unless they’re in their final year, and maybe not even then, because many don’t turn 18 until halfway through that year.
    Many (most?) high schools, both private and public, have compulsory school uniform. So no fashion wars :) and I have no clue what a senior or a sophomore is — high school starts at Year 7, and goes through to Year 12. We have the school formal, not the prom.
    And no one says ‘sheila’ any more. Please :)

  5. “same as in other Western countries.”
    Well no. Really. Australians are really much worse in their publicly declared attitudes than Europeans. (and yes, I know there are many individual exceptions – I’m talking about mass, media-exposed type attitudes.) But then we’re more liberal about homosexuality – and sexuality generally – than Americans (again in the generality, not individuals.)
    The minimum driving age in Queensland is actually 16 with a learner’s permit – 17 to hold a provisional license.
    Senior students driving to school are far from unusual here, with many giving lifts to friends and/or siblings.

  6. wandergurl says:

    I think I could write a whole essay on this, seriously. I think I got up to 13 when you asked yesterday.

    My biggest beef is still sheila. And the use of non-aussie words.

    While as a migrant I have never experienced bigotry in Australia, I have heard others who have experienced it, and I suppose I live in a city and haven’t been far inland enough?

    Re: distance, only Syd & Melb generally have good public transport. The other states generally drive.

    Also I agree about the super old cars. I’m looking to buy one! hahaha

  7. Erica Hayes says:

    Ann said: “Australians are really much worse in their publicly declared attitudes than Europeans.”

    Maybe that’s true, Ann. I don’t know enough Europeans to judge, though from what I see on TV, immigrants get a lot of very public dissing in the EU for ‘taking up space’, ‘stealing our jobs’ etc.. Only nuts like (ahem) Pauline Hanson say things like that on TV here.

    At the risk of perpetuating the ‘quirky Aussie battler’ cliche: I reckon that an American wanting to get a feel for what makes contemporary white Australian culture tick should watch ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘The Castle’ (more Eric Bana=mullet action!!), rather than ‘Romper Stomper’.

  8. Tracey says:

    Hi, I am a Canadian living in regional Australia and I have to say that I had a smile/frown reaction throughout the list.

    As you can imagine, Canadians have a strong mix of the english and american language (with a bit of Cdn individualism:)) but here I probably seem more “american” as much to my Aussie husbands chagrin I stop at the gas station, don’t ask for basil, oregano, tomatoes like you, I buy diapers for the kids, I walk on the sidewalk and go to the “washroom” or “bathroom”. I do find Australians (read my husband especially) to be pretty harsh in regards to N.A pronounciation, spelling, different terms/words/sayings. The thing is, if I go to the “loo” I feel like a fake, if I greet my “mate” down the street I cringe at the way I sound and if I go to “cairns-cannes” on holiday no one knows where I ended up?? So, I am trying to proudly retain my identity whilst enjoying the Australian culture. However, I don’t really appreciate when people assure me that my children will speak “properly” once they start school. And, I might not hear “sheila” thank god but how about “old stick” and “some bird”. Cringe, grimace.

    BUT, I love love love Australian movies! One of my fave’s is Getting Square with David Wenham! I do love the Australian sense of humour.

  9. Erica Hayes says:

    Good on you, Tracey! I certainly wouldn’t want you to change, any more than I’d want to start saying ‘faucet’ or ‘cell phone’ :)
    I bet you could compile a similar list for Americans (and Australians!) on how Canadians speak and behave. What are the Canadian cliches you’d love to consign to ashes? You all hunt moose, right? And drink beer, and say ‘ay’ while watching the ice hockey, or something.
    Seconding you on ‘bird’, too. I hate that :) No matter what they say, it isn’t merely the equivalent of ‘bloke’.

  10. Kat says:

    I can’t believe I missed tap and bird! Why does the term “old bird” never sound like it’s about a beautiful, fluffy white owl. In my mind it’s always a skinny, screeching parrot (or cockatoo?).

    Tracey, it took me ages to be comfortable saying “mate”. I always thought it sounded fake without the broad accent, but after I heard some private school girls saying it less ocker-y, I began to use it more often (even though my partner laughs at me!).

    Also, in no way did I intend for this to be a checklist of what makes us *real* Aussies. I, too, miss a few—I usually say bathroom instead of toilet, and I can’t stand even the smell of Vegemite!

  11. Tracey says:

    Well, as a Canadian I truly would rather go to Timmies (Tim Hortons) for my coffee rather than anywhere else in the world (and yep its perked coffee!). I really did end nearly every sentence in eh? but I have noticed that I seldom use it now. Its definitely a cdn thing and a conversational requirement. Both parties need to use it for it to work! As for ice hockey, well I am a bona fide fan but alas as I do not have Austar I have replaced my hockey love affair with Rugby Union…..that is until the last couple of years without George!

    Hmmmm, I wish I could say that we really can pronounce house,about, mouse the way everyone else does but even with my husbands tuteledge I still sound Canadian.

    Moose, well I have seen heaps more Kangaroo’s. Ummm, skiing ability? My Australian husband taught me the last time we went back to Canada for winter.

    But, for a few of my tips for writing australian characters IMO:

    -The heroine would reach for a box of tissues and not kleenex.
    -they would be in the bush and not the forest.
    -they would where flip flops on the beach and (sexy)thongs under there pants not on their feet.
    -they would queue up, not line up, to meet the man of their dreams
    -BUT, no matter what, HE would look like Hugh Jackman, sound like Russell Crowe, and we would all live Happily Ever After.

  12. Kat says:

    Great list, Tracey. You identified a major gap in my list: Aussies respect the queue. Queue jumpers will be severely chastised (and declared un-Australian).

  13. Edie says:

    6. Many of us live at home for as long as we can.

    Love the list, except for the above,  In my experience that is more of a city/surburan thing, (with ethnic influences and real estate price influences as well) country kids, ockers and outer surburbanites move out as quickly as possible in my experience.

    Is it wrong that I will still say dunny? And still occasionally trip over reading they are going to the ‘bathroom’?

    As a Melbournite, I have to say I couldn’t name one person who would go to Starbucks unless it was an emergency..

    Also something that I think needs more of a shout out in Melbourne set romances, is we are a very culturally diverse city, even out to the suburbs and it has shaped the city a lot.

    mm.. I had a big list of odd Americanisms that throw me other day, and now I can’t think of any of them. Doona instead of quilt? Boot instead of trunk? The use of buggar? (did the powers that be, ever decide if that was a swear word?) sneakers instead of runners? Beer is cold and not light?? If you are going to mention sports, remember all Collingwood supporters are evil.. ;)

    And probably a smidge more than a lot of other states, Melbournians are generally sports mad, whether it be AFL, soccer, basketball, rugby, cricket.. someone can hate sports, but there is no ignoring it in Melbourne..

  14. Kat says:

    Fixed! Edie, I suspected Melbournians (Melbournites?) wouldn’t normally go to a Starbucks, but I didn’t think it was that bad. *g* I know you have a coffee chain that I’ve not see in Sydney. Hudson? Something like that?

    I absolutely CANNOT believe I forgot doona. I can’t stand it when romance authors use doona to denote the Scottish brogue.

    I think you said it better than I did: an Aussie can hate sport, but it’s almost impossible to ignore it.

  15. Vassiliki says:

    I love the whole list. And personally aspire to being called “the crazy old bird down the road”. My kids pre-school teacher is a great old bird!

  16. wandergurl says:

    OMG. Anyone that wants to write about Aussies has got to see “Muriel’s Wedding” for the entire bogan (tho she wasn’t entirely bogan…) experience and just to see the chick from brothers and sisters when she was young. Also maybe some of the newer Aussie movies like Cedar Boys (is that the title of the new leb movie?)
    I wouldn’t find an aussie book right if it didn’t have any jargon. Like I would suggest anyone attempting to write read aussie young adult books or something, because they provide a lot of good background, etc. that can be used when you try to develop the character and see where they came from.

    I also forgot to add on the really long list I tweeted you that most city aussies go to the gym and have some form of physical fitness thing going whether its walking or just going outdoors or going to a gym or at least being a member of one, even if you never go!

  17. Kat says:

    I watched Muriel’s Wedding for Daniel Lapaine (the South African swimmer). I was a bit infatuated after seeing him in King Lear (theatre). I think The Castle is more ultimate bogan, but Muriel’s Wedding has one of the funniest sex scenes I’ve ever seen, and it’s about women and love and marriage, so it’d be more fun for author research!

  18. Graham says:

    Loved the list Kat. I’m a naturalised Australian (been here about 15 years) and even now I still worry about getting it right when I use Aussie characters in my writing. It occurred to me I should create a check-list from your post and the many, great comments and, each time I use an Aussie character, run them through the list to see how many ticks they get (NB ‘ticks’ not checks – also ‘cheques’ not checks for that matter.)
    I’m glad Ann spoke up for Brisbane’s differences. I worked there to about ten years – drove every day (to the CBD, not ‘downtown’ or to ‘the city’ mind you) and held countless meetings in Starbucks (as well as other coffee shops). My daughter – who’s been her most of her life – left home the first day I accidentally left the front door ajar and she definitely texts her friends on her mobile. No-one I know well – and no-one in my daughter’s crowd – likes sport or even talks about it. Maybe there’s a generational change coming.
    I left Brissy a couple of years ago to live out in the country (the difference between the town, the country and the bush was one it took me a long time to master – also hard for an ex-pom was working out what a ‘homestead’ was, or a ‘township’ or a ‘city’ – and why were were there no villages?) Now I really do have kangaroos, echidnas, quolls, etc.  in my garden (but my garden is now a ‘property’ – 46 acres of bushland – note the persistent non-metric unit there.)  The diversity has also gone. Just about everyone here is Italian! You hear it spoken in the streets and in the shops all the time.
    My recommendation for a show to watch to catch great Aussie dialogue is ‘East of Everywhere’. I really hope the ABC is selling that overseas (but not ‘abroad’).

  19. Kat says:

    Graham, thanks! The list keeps growing, and I’m glad we’re getting some non-city, non-Sydney perspectives. I admit, I know almost nothing of living in rural Australia. I’m going to have to watch each of the films recommended on this thread. For research purposes, of course…

  20. Jen says:

    So true about #1. There is nothing (overtly) sexually appealling about the guy, though I have a small bias for him since he comes from my end of Melbourne town (yay Tullamarine!)
    I beg to differ on the Starbucks thing. I was in one franchise in the CBD last Saturday—it was so packed. In fact, ALL our cafes in the CBD are packed. But that’s just the CBD I guess. The outer suburbs (or well, any suburb that’s not inner Melb) have more homey feels with business driven by locals’  loyalty mainly. If I had to choose a big coffee giant though, it’d be Gloria Jeans instead.
    Who the hell uses Strine these days anymore? I think it died with Barry Mackenzie… And urgh, have you seen The Thorn Birds mini-series? What a horror it is—no wonder Colleen McCullough loathes it so much. Very authentic Australian production, to be sure.
    Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High and We Can Be Heroes are great (satirical) ‘reflections’ of what we are, or at least play up the stereotypes—and considering how some people thought these were actually true documentaries pretty much says it all! Ja’mie is spot-on, and Phil is so cringeworthy—s’brilliant.
    Y’know, I long for the day when there’s a romance written involving an Australian graphic designer with—I dunno, an IT consultant or a programmer or sommat. Lots of in-jokes there.
    Oh and there is no elementary school or middle school… Nor are there freshmen or sophomores. And we go by year 1-12s (although I remember being labelled grade 1-6, and then year 7-12?) not first grader to twelfth grader.

  21. Kat says:

    Jen, that’s interesting about Starbucks in Melbourne. I think you’re right—in the CBD every cafe is pretty much guaranteed to have clientele. Or maybe the ones in Sydney just had crap barristas. I did know people who drank Starbucks just because they had such huge cups.

    I love Summer Heights High!

    Have you read any of Melanie La’Brooy’s books? She’s not technically romance, romance, more like a chick-lit crossover (first person, there’s a love story but it’s not the focus). She *gets* the personality Melbourne and Sydney very well, and the differences between the two cities. I know one of her heroines worked in an art gallery—is that close enough to graphic design? :-D

    There’s also Disco Boy, although the people I’ve recommended it to have so far told me they didn’t like it (the protagonist is a bit of a lazy arse, but I can sooo identify with that! lol).

  22. Michelle says:

    I agree mostly, but it doesn’t highlight the fact that someone from Sydney is different from a person from Melbourne, and different again from a person from Darwin. In fact, after five years in Darwin, one of my friends has developed an accent that I’ve only heard in films.
    I’m a Melbourne girl, so this probably will only make sense to other people from Melbourne, but we take trams in the city instead of buses, and we carry around an umbrella and/or jacket just in case.
    And you forgot that we drive on LEFT side of the road so the driver sits on the right. The number of American tourists who get into accidents here and in NZ for driving on the wrong side of the road always scares me.
    Speaking of NZ, we practically adopt everyone from there too.

  23. Kat says:

    Thanks, Michelle! You’re right—there’s a lot of regional variety that isn’t captured by my original list. I can’t believe I forgot about driving on the left side. :-D

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