Writing the Other

I recently read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which is designed to help writers approach and navigate the potential pitfalls of writing characters who are very different from themselves. I would highly recommend reading this book to all writers, but below is a distillation of the most important lessons I learned from it.

 

People are scared of writing characters who are different to themselves, in case they ‘get it wrong’ and are criticised. But every character you write will be different to you in some ways, so you shouldn’t be scared of writing characters who are very different.

 

It’s okay to make mistakes:

  • everybody does it

  • you can learn and do better next time

  • even if you get everything right, some people will still find fault with your writing

  • that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try

Difference is not monolithic. Not all people in a particular category will have the same experience or the same attitudes. You should always make your characters individuals, not representatives of their group as a whole.

 

Various group memberships can influence behaviour. But none of these categories’ traits need have a constant, overriding influence on your character:

  • my age influences my actions and attitudes on occasion, but I don’t spend all my time thinking about my age

  • characteristics will influence a character, but don’t have to be at the forefront all the time

Congruence:

  • when writing characters who are significantly different from you and possibly also your readers, give them some characteristics (habits, feelings, experiences) that are easy to relate to for lots of people

  • build potential connections between your characters and your readers

  • highlight possible similarities as well as probable differences

  • also draw out connections / similarities between characters who also have obvious differences - show their common humanity

Secondary characters usually only have one main character trait:

  • but they shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively

  • don’t have all their illustrated traits be indicative of that one characteristic or group, especially if they are stereotypes

  • making secondary characters unusual but believable makes them much more interesting

Unintended associations and resonances:

  • readers will bring their own interpretations to your writing and this can be good when they imbue it with clever meaning you didn’t know was there - but it can be bad when they make associations you didn’t intend in problematic ways

  • you can’t control what associations readers will bring to your writing, but you can educate yourself to be aware of possible and unintended interpretations, so you can avoid them or prepare for them or disarm them

  • getting a variety of people to read your work before publication is a good way to discover what unintended meaning your writing might evoke - especially sensitivity readers

  • but you have to be prepared to make mistakes, have them pointed out to you, learn from them and do better next time

  • reflect appropriate levels of diversity to fit your setting - no point peopling a story with wildly diverse characters in a real-world setting where that level of diversity doesn’t exist

Common mistakes to avoid:

  • good (white, straight, Christian analogues) vs evil (different to that) - fantasy tropes of all of a different race being evil or stupid or greedy, etc

  • presenting a minority issue (eg slavery) only in terms of how it affects characters from the majority - you can show that as long as you also show how it affects those most impacted

  • straight white male protagonist with a very different sidekick who only exists to make him look good - or including only a few different characters in bit roles, or in more significant roles but who are all killed off

  • having all layered and complex characters but all the ‘different’ ones are victimised in some way or are criminals

  • white saviour

  • fetishising otherness - beautiful Asian love object, noble savage, no gradation of character

  • disrespectful dialect - use of dialect is generally a bad idea, unless you can do it very accurately but without making it hard work for the reader

  • portraying a victim as incredibly saintly in order to make the crime or oppression even more reprehensible - creating a one-dimensional good character is just as much a problem as a bad one - it actually makes for a more nuanced story is a victim has flaws or isn’t entirely in the right (bad acts should still be bad, regardless of who they are committed against)

Being aware of the pitfalls is a very big step towards being able to avoid them, and fearing them shouldn’t stop you from going down the road towards diversity.

 

The old adage is that you should write what you know. But that doesn’t mean you should restrict yourself only to your own experience. What it means is that you should become knowledgeable about other experiences, and then write them.

 

THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE IS NO EXCUSE FOR NOT MAKING THE ATTEMPT.

AND EXCLUSION IS THE BIGGEST MISTAKE OF ALL.

 

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