These days, it seems like every novel is about somebody with a million dollar job. Breaking that trend and writing about those of more limited financial means can make your work stand out. It will at least give those of us with no interest in the story of a millionaire business executive and her mansion something to read. When crafting a poor or working class character, remember that realistic does not necessarily mean “stereotypical.” As with any group you can classify people into, some poor people fit some of the stereotypes of poor people, some fit all, and others fit none.
Poor people know about things like fashion designers and five star hotels. Some are interested in them and aspire to have them, while others do not.
Those who do not come from an economically disadvantaged background often develop a stereotype of poor people as sheltered from popular culture and the world of the rich. Someone from a poor background may or may not shop, eat, or stay at ritzy places, but most are well aware that these things exist.
There are poor people who wish to own luxury goods or experience things usually accessible only to those with a lot of money. They might save up to treat themselves to a pair of designer shoes or a special bag. Or they could have absolutely no interest in owning anything with a label on it. Characters who are happy with the simple things in life could live in the same neighborhood, or even the same house, with those who want nothing more than to be able to spend a weekend at the Plaza or experience a shopping trip on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Some poor people budget and some do not.
When you learn that someone grew up with limited finances, or has limited finances now, it is tempting to either assume it means they blow all their money without a second thought. Others might assume the person lives on a very tight budget.
Some who grow up poor refuse to budget. They reason that they don’t have enough money to budget, or that they never had anything, so now that they are getting a paycheck, they’re going to spend their money as they wish. Others are careful with their money, reasoning that they have a limited amount coming in, and noting that certain things need to be taken care of first.
Mix these tendencies in your poor family of characters. Either attitude is a realistic reaction to living in poverty.
Your taste in the arts can vary, no matter how much money you have or grew up around.
Open a scene in a play or novel with a character who has just come from the opera or the ballet, and your audience or readers will likely assume the character is rich. Show your character listening to the blues, country, or rap, and your readers will probably think you are writing about a poor character.
Try varying your characters’ taste in the performing and literary arts a bit. One poor person may indeed listen to country or rap music. Another might enjoy opera or classical music. Some poor people do prefer to sit at home and watch movies. Others would like to go to the ballet or the theater.
It is possible to “look rich” even when you are poor.
Popular television shows are often criticized for portraying unrealistic images of those who live with little to no extra cash. People rightfully point out that teens with one parent not working outside the home and the other working an entry level job in a factory would not be able to go out and replace their wardrobe in a single day just to copy another teen they met at school. Never wearing the same pair of pants or carrying the same bag twice is not at all realistic when your character’s only income is from a part-time job at Walmart. But finding certain clothing styles physically and psychologically comfortable to wear is not necessarily restricted by income.
Poor people may favor the latest trends they see on YouTube or in photos of their favorite celebrities just as much as rich people. They will just need to be a little more resourceful in order to get them. Shopping at discount stores that sell styles similar to those currently available from more expensive brands is common, as is shopping at thrift stores and yard sales in or near more affluent neighborhoods.