Writing the Other

In a less than metaphorical sense, all creative writing is writing the Other. Yes, memoir and autobiography too. Even when you’re writing about yourself, your Self is abstracted out into a literary echo of the totality of your subjectivity. An impression or expression is the best you can hope for. Because you are yourself not made up entirely of words. There are many parts of you that cannot be syntactically arranged, to say nothing of the parts of you that you’d never want to reveal.

When my partner read latest version of my play, he was surprised that none of the characters “sounded” like me. I laughed and told him that was the point. They aren’t me. They are themselves. They have their own voices, quirks, cadences. Sure, I gave them those things and to some extent they are a part of me, but I’m not the whole story. I must stress this isn’t that “oh, the characters have a life of their own” malarky. I generally think characters shouldn’t run off with your work. You’re God. Make sure it doesn’t happen…if you don’t want it to. Don’t be a gentle Jesus god, be more of an imperious Yahweh. Smite those sinners if they stray out of your Divine Plan. Unless they happen to improve the Divine Plan, of course.

The other half of the equation is the way your characters are interpreted. How the reader “takes” the character, so to speak. In this regard, we’ve little control over that. Even less with things like plays, in which character is further scaffolded with an additional layer of performance before interpretation.

The control we do have is best deployed through an assessment of authorial motivations and research research research. If you’re going to write the Other, you are by definition not the Other in that context, so you need to be clearly aware of why you’re doing it in the first place. If, for example, you’re a straight white male who wants to include a person of colour for the purposes of discoursing on racism, you might want to examine this a little deeper. Why must POC be ciphers for “racism”? Racism affects POC, no doubt. But must they always be the standard bearers for discussions on racism? There are other things going on in people’s lives, and it’s important to acknowledge that. So while it may be commendable that White Hetty Man wants to write about prejudice, he should be aware that ever-present prejudice tends to limit the range and depth of your character. People are more than the slings and arrows they suffer.

Conversely, the “just happens to be black/gay/Asian/Aboriginal/trans*” model can cause problems too, as it can tend to elide the lived reality of oppression. It’s a balancing act. And the pole you use on that high wire is research. All different kinds of research. History, autobiography, letters, ephemera, whatever helps you orient the way the Other has been shaped by social and economic forces within and without their communities. It also helps to give you perspective; that not all “types” of people are the same, not all people are Othered in quite the same way. Ah, I can’t believe I verbed a noun. I hate that. Oh no, I verbed “verb” too!

SF has historically had a bit of an issue with writing the Other, which seems strange given the genre itself has been a literary outlier of sorts, and also that one of the genre’s appeals is its capacity to reach beyond the real and everyday experience. The novel I’ve just finished is a sort of far future postcolonial dystopia. Two of the central characters are people of colour, but because it is in the future and in a context of colonisation (they are the colonisers, or the descendants of colonisers), their race isn’t much of an issue. At least, I haven’t constructed it in that way. So why make them people of colour, you might ask? My short answer is: “because.”* No, seriously. No one ever asks why you might make your characters white or straight, and we need to get to a point where this question becomes ridiculous. Because it really is.

Surely the point of writing the Other is to mark out and blur the boundaries that define the Other. It might be utopian to think so, but maybe if more of us get outside of our own experiences, we can get rid of the whole idea of the Others. Not to become some collective consciousness of gloopy Sameness, but to embrace multiplicity, plurality, fluidity. The wonders and banalities of Difference.


*the long answer is more considered, and involves major spoilers for the book, so I’m not telling just yet.


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