Writing the Other

What would happen to your “willing suspension of disbelief” if you read a story in which every character was just like the author–same sex, same culture, same occupation, same ethnic background–in other words, clones of the writer?
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That might actually seem like an interesting idea for a story. But then, how could a civilization function if everyone had the same job and was the same sex? So, if that wasn’t a deliberate part of the plot line, I’d guess that you’d be mystified, to say the least.

We’re sometimes told to “write what you know,” but the story I’ve described shows how unrealistic this can be. Writing what you know doesn’t mean that’s all you can write about. It just means that you need to be very careful when you start writing about things that you don’t “know.”

In my story, “The Tartian Egg,” Pierre buys an ancient saxophone. He takes the instrument to his hotel room and plays it. Then a musician read the story and told me that such an instrument would not be playable until its old reed was replaced. Time for a revision.

Even if we do research to allow us to write about what we don’t know, how can we know when we’ve done enough? How can we know what to look for, especially when it comes to creating our characters? Critique groups can be wonderful.

“Writing the Other,” a little book by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward, attempts to provide you with some guides to the concepts involved in creating characters different from “what you know.” Here’s my take on some of what they have to offer. (I hope that I’ve not done too much plagiarism of their book.)

Dominant Paradigm: What the majority in our society considers “normal”

ROAARS: An acronym for Race, (sexual) Orientation, Age, Ability, Religion, Sex–the differences from the dominant paradigm that our culture emphasizes. I think that these are the differences most of the people would think important when they find that their son or daughter is selecting a spouse. According to Shawl & Ward, “Class” is not one of the differences that the majority of our society emphasizes.

The Unmarked State: Possessing those characteristics that are not remarkable. A character in the unmarked state fits the dominant paradigm and is often considered to be white, male, heterosexual, young, single, physically able, human. The story can be read without coloring it with the character’s peculiarity: A man falls into the river, crosses it, and climbs out the other side vs. the marked state character–“A pregnant woman falls into the river…”, “An elderly Martian…”, “A rapist…”, etc., in which cases we would probably have much different thoughts when reading the story.

Real people who fit the unmarked state often enjoy (probably unknowingly) some sort of “privilege” (white privilege, straight privilege, rich privilege…) They get away with things that individuals in the “marked state” do not.

In a story, characters in the unmarked state should rarely be aware of their privilege; those in the “marked state” should be aware of their lack of privilege and probably suffer the consequences of that lack. An author who is in the unmarked state may have to work harder to write a realistic story which involves characters in the marked state. It’s important to know who has privilege and who doesn’t in the time and place in which your story is set.

Being in the unmarked state defines how a character treats someone in the marked state. According to Cynthia Ward (who grew up in Maine,) being born outside of Maine “trumps any other ROAARS difference” and places you in a marked state. A Maine lobsterman would never be best friends with a shopkeeper who grew up in New York. If, in a story, this is not true, there must be a plausible explanation to account for the discrepancy.

The Generalization Fallacy: When we make a universal claim based on a limited number of examples–all metals are conductors, all lemons are sour, all Democrats are liberals. A generalization may or may not be true; we just assume that it must be true based on some real or imagined instances. Creating a character based on a generalization (stereotyping) can produce an unrealistic character that some folks will find offensive–especially if we have only one such character (the only blonde in the story is a ditzy female.)

Congruence: Establishing ties between the reader and a character that has different ROAARS characteristics. 1) Give a marked character some traits that have nothing to do with how she differs from the dominant paradigm but which the reader might share or at least be sympathetic toward. For instance, he might be a picky eater, be in love, or be a poet. 2) Give a character traits from a multitude of different groups. For instance, a rich, lesbian, black, Irish atheist who pilots a jet plane back and forth between Mexico and the Vatican for weekly conferences with the Pope.

Associations and Resonances: Association–a one-to-one connection of two ideas. For instance, an evil character with a German surname is likely to be labeled a Nazi or at least evoke thoughts of Nazism. A woman named Angelina or Kim might be assumed to be very attractive. Resonance: Involves a complex of ideas that reinforce and highlight one another because of their many connections. After WWII, especially in England, anyone from Germany was assumed to be responsible for the bombing and deaths of friends and relatives. Whether intended or unintended, associations and resonances can make a story unbelievable or offensive to a reader. Should all the gangsters in a story have Italian names? How likely is it that everybody in a novel has Anglo-Saxon names?

“Writing the Other” ends with a series of “Don’t Do This!” examples. I suggest that you pick up and read the book to familiarize yourself with what sorts of things to do and to avoid when you try to write the other.

Actually, “Writing the Other” is just a section of the publication of that name. The book contains two other essays related to this issue which you should find of interest as you try to introduce realistic diversity into your writing: “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.”

Keep Reading/Keep Writing,

Jack