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Book Review (Part I): Writing the Other — A Practical Approach

How comfortable are you writing about characters who don’t share your gender? How about your race?

What about characters who are different from you in terms of ability/disability status, sexual orientation, age or religion?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that for most readers, if your identity in one of the above categories is NOT a dominant one (cisgendered man, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, under 40 and either nonreligious or vaguely Christian), the idea of putting characters in your stories who don’t share your identity isn’t strange to you, as long as the identity they have instead is the dominant one. Because if you grew up in the West and/or consume primarily American media, the characters you see in other people’s stories will statistically be mainly cisgendered white able-bodied vaguely-Christian straight men under 40. This is changing, but it’s still a big problem with the stories told in our culture. That’s why when I ran across the book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, I went ahead and ordered it without seeing much in the way of preview material. Like I’ve said here before, I strongly believe that thinking about the kinds of characters we put in our fiction is important, and if 7 years of graduate school taught me nothing else, it’s that even if I’m pretty sure I understand a topic, I can usually benefit from hearing one more opinion on it.

If you’re someone who thinks about this issues, I’d recommend shelling out the $9 for this book. It’s short — barely 100 pages — but it has some interesting exercises and really useful ways of thinking about the problem of increasing representation in your storytelling. I’ll put my own thoughts about how writers can work with the different categories they choose to focus on in a different post — here, I’m just going to gush for a moment about how great this book is.

Shawl and Ward start out by acknowledging a fact that tends to make educated liberals (and college students) uncomfortable: we all have biases, what the book calls “lizard-brain” thought patterns developed in response to messages from our culture and environment. It’s these automatic responses that cause many self-identified “open-minded white liberals” to get nervous when they’re the only white person in a crowd, or that made one of my first beta readers assume that a major supporting character in my series, a highly-respected warrior and military commander,  “must look like Liam Neeson, right? Tall and dashing?” (Not-quite-spoiler alert: he doesn’t look like Liam Neeson. In fact, one of his major distinguishing traits makes him not look or sound much like the stereotypical Big Damn Hero at all). These responses are powerful, but as the authors point out, they’re also bypassable. We as creators can have the reaction, examine it and then set it aside.

Some other things I particularly liked about this book:

  • The authors talk about how to create well-rounded secondary characters as well as well-rounded protagonists. This is a problem I’ve had in my own work; I’ll spend all kinds of time on the main cast, making sure that they’re not flat or stereotypical, and then I’ll need an extra character for a crowd scene and find myself describing  a blond guy, about 20, with all his limbs and a pretty girl on his arm. Even if you decide to bring in a “minority” character, you need to be careful not to incorporate the stereotype wholesale. As Shawl & Ward put it:

Generally, a secondary character has one main character trait. However, a secondary character shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively… For example, don’t make a secondary character’s main trait be his gayness and then portray him as a bitchy, effeminate San Francisco florist with a great collection of disco-diva CDs… How about a secondary character who’s a bitchy, straight florist who has a pet house rabbit and thinks rap music has gone way downhill since Public Enemy’s third CD? (p. 43-44)

  • They also give a list (probably at least in part familiar to TV-Tropes aficionados) of things not to do if you’re trying to be a thoughtful writer of characters who don’t share your identities. These include avoiding scenarios like “Sidekicks-R-Us” (i.e., the heroine’s black best friend who gets no character development and has nothing to do other than be the black best friend; Tasha Robinson has a great article on “strong female characters” and “Trinity Syndrome” that’s been making the rounds this past week) or “The dark hordes attacked!” (Yes, Tolkien wrote in a different time. No, a modern writer probably could not get away with this kind of generalizing).
  • And the suggestion I liked most of all — maybe because I gave this advice over and over again in a course I taught on the sociology of identity — is that if you want to write about people who are different than you, you should be prepared to do some research. Read nonfiction about the history of the group you’re interested in incorporating into your story. Read memoirs; go to museums; and TALK TO PEOPLE from the group. They give some good suggestions about how to pose respectful questions; they note that not all people who identify as owning the same label are going to feel the same way about ANYTHING related to that identity; and they even suggest ethnographic observation, going to a setting where people who share the identity you’re interested in will be the majority and you the writer may be in the minority.

And there’s more. So, in short, this book is awesome. I’d strongly recommend all you writers go check it out.

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  1. Race in Fantasy Fiction: What Do Multiracial Protagonists Look Like? | Sociologist Novelist

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