12 Fundamentals Of Writing "The Other" (And The Self)
How to respectfully write from the perspective of characters that aren't you.
We are always writing the other, we are always writing the self. We bump into this basic, impossible riddle every time we tell stories. When we create characters from backgrounds different than our own, we're really telling the deeper story of our own perception. We muddle through these heated discussions at panels, in comments sections, on social media, in classrooms — the intersections of power and identity, privilege and resistance. How do we respectfully write from the perspectives of others? Below are 12 guidelines to get you started.
1. Research is only the beginning, and barely even that.
Almost every lecture/essay/blog/panel I've seen about writing the other boils down to this single takeaway: "Do your homework." And then, the unspoken inference continues, everything will be all right; all those complicated, impossible puzzle pieces of privilege and power will fall into place. Except no. Writing about people who have a different experience or identity from our own is not a simple narrative challenge, and it doesn't have a simple solution. Plenty of writers who are "experts" on a given culture still create miserable trite stereotypes when it comes to fashioning that expertise into actual characters. The roots of Westernized research practice include eugenics, vivisections, forced sterilizations, and the often dehumanizing gaze of anthropology. This is not to say "all research is bad," but rather we have to be aware of the complex, often painful histories we're taking part in so that we don't repeat that trauma.
Here's American Horror Story writer James Wong: "We had done a lot of research on dark magic and obviously, there wasn't a lot from life to pull from because none of that is true [laughs]. But when we did research, we found out a lot about fertility symbols, and we wound up mixing and matching that stuff to create that ceremony." Regardless of how you feel about American Horror Story, here is an excellent example of how research is only step one. Having done "a lot" of research, the writing team then opted to throw it all into a potpourri mix of fertility ceremonies and come up with something new. Notice that the very idea that any of these beliefs have truth to them is laughable to Mr. Wong. A mixing of cultural elements can be done well, but when combined, as it usually is, with a blatant disdain for the belief systems at play, the result is a standard mashup, neither here nor there, synthetic version of sacred ceremony that is rooted in racist and disrespectful tropes.
2. "The baseline is, you suck."
Here's Junot Díaz: "The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck." The mark of a great musician is not their chops but their ability to listen. Patriarchy has taught men from day one that we're supposed to be automatic experts in any given topic, so why listen to what someone else has to say about it? To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn't the simple kind of listening, where you're waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don't want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.
Understand you suck. Then try to suck less and move forward.
3. Power matters.
They say conflict is the true backbone of story, and power is what makes conflict matter. But fiction classes rarely offer up a real discussion of power and its discontents. As fiction writers, we're not expected to be well versed in writing about power, the minutia, subtlety, complexity of it, the heartache. Usually, factual research replaces the in-depth conversations about oppression and resistance. There is only so much time.
Understanding power matters more than the factual details.
Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma. Power affects a character's relationship to self and others, and their emotional and physical journey through the story. If you ignore this, you get cutout dolls or white faces painted black.
4. Forget "the other," can you write you?
For all the time spent talking about "writing the other," we neglect the very real problem of writing the self. Privilege survives by invisibility and silence. Privilege also blinds us to who we are and how we are perceived in society, and we have a stake in the game of self-representation. So we see so many god-like, perfectamundo white savior types, or men that do everything "right" and know exactly how to act.
You may have no idea how others perceive you, especially if you are uncomfortable conceptualizing your own power. This kind of obliviousness in a writer jumps off the page. There is no shortage of books by white people about people of color; what we don't see a lot is white people writing about the emotional, political, social experience of being white, the challenges and complexities of whiteness. We don't see many men writing about patriarchy, how it has damaged us, how we dance in and out of these impossible gender binaries in our daily lives. Yes, these sound like essay topics, but really, these are exactly the kinds of inner conflicts that breathe life into a character.
5. "Racist writing is a craft failure."
Kwame Dawes pointed this out at AWP. I've quoted it before, and it bears repeating again and again. We talk about these issues like they are a moral/political issue alone, but stereotypes are clichés. If you write them, whether characters, plot points, or contextual cues, you are writing some shit that has been done again and again. It's boring and you can do better.
6. This is life and death.
Having just said it's about craft, let's be clear that it's also much more than that. This topic is usually couched in language like "offensive" or "PC." It's a topic for debate, a cute little back-and-forth. This is all a condescending and dehumanizing frame for the conversation. We're talking about the continued silencing and erasure of voices that mainstream white male culture has always silenced and erased. We're talking about life and death of entire peoples; we're talking about self-worth and humanity. And even as adults, we're barely figuring how to deal with negative imagery. Kids haven't been given any of the tools we have and they see it more than anyone else. High suicide rates and internalized racial/gender oppression are real.
We can't keep raising generations of kids of color on the notion that there's only room for them to be bad guys or doomed sidekicks or another generation of white kids thinking they're closer to God because of how they look. We can't keep promoting hetero/cis-normative sexist and racist ideas in our literature. That is the default setting. If you aren't consciously working against it, you are working for it. Neutrality is not an option, and the luxury of thinking it is has to go. To quote Junot once again: "I think that unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations. Without fail. The only way not to do them is to admit to yourself [that] you're fucked up, admit to yourself that you're not good at this shit, and to be conscious in the way that you create these characters."
7. Ritual ≠ spectacle.
I recently edited Long Hidden, an anthology of speculative fiction from the margins of history. My co-editor Rose Fox and I received a number of submissions that had no speculative element at all but featured non-Christian ceremonies. Other people's cultures/beliefs are not fantasy. It's one thing if a demigod or spirit is out walking around, interacting with the world, and even that walks a complex line, but to have people simply celebrating their beliefs be a "fantastical" element is racist cultural imperialism.
Further things other people's cultures are not: a circus act, a freak show, a music video prop, a kitschy household accoutrement, a Halloween costume, a stand-in for having your own sense of self.
See the above quote from the American Horror Story writer: "none of that is true (laughs)." If the possibility that these beliefs are real is a joke to you, don't write about them.
In her breathtaking essay "Is Paris Burning?" bell hooks writes: "Ritual is that ceremonial act that carries with it meaning … beyond what appears, while spectacle functions primarily as entertaining dramatic display. … those elements of a given ritual that are empowering and subversive may not be readily visible to an outsider looking in. Hence it is easy for white observers to depict black rituals as spectacle." Later, hooks discusses how the documentary Paris Is Burning reinforces this dehumanizing depiction of spectacle over ritual when one of the people depicted in the film is murdered: "Having served the purpose of spectacle, the film abandons him/her … There are no scenes of grief. To put it crassly, her dying is upstaged by spectacle. Death is not entertaining."
8. The other research: History of the stereotype.
A common strategy for writing the other is the inversion of stereotype. It's only a starting point because you're still beholden to the original cliché, so really it has to go further than this. But to begin a counternarrative, you have to know what's out there already. Otherwise you play directly into the same old shit. Texts like Edward Said's Orientalism famously turned the tables on white anthropology, analyzing the analysis. This isn't what people usually mean when they say "do the research," but it's as much if not more of the subtext to the story you're telling. Be up on your oppressive representations history.
9. Avoid both One and Only scenarios
Speaking of stereotypes, let's take the Magical Negro as an example. It's one that my genre of choice, speculative fiction, particularly overuses. If your book has two black people in it and both just happen to have superpowers and represent the forces of good and evil, you have a problem. Between these two exceptional, magical characters dwells a swath of fully human, often non-magical but emotionally complex white characters. It doesn't matter that one of the black characters is a good guy; trust me.
The other, inverse, One and Only scenario is called The Chosen One, and really, people, we gotta move past this. The Chosen One is another avatar of the White Savior motif: In a sea of brown faces, there is ONLY ONE THAT CAN SAVE THE WORLD! We zoom in, the one and only is…also the one and only white face. I never would've guessed. As a writer, I get it. It solves a lot of narrative problems to have your character be pre-destined for an epic showdown. Built into the One and Only is the antagonist's reason for wanting to murk them, the stakes being raised, the inevitable but thrilling climax. Aaaand the same old BS we've seen so many times. Let's do better.
10. The fact that you will mess it up is not a reason not to do it.
There was a period in my twenties when I wanted to speak out about sexism, I knew all the words I wanted to say, and I wasn't saying them. One of the reasons I stayed silent was that I knew at some point, I was going to mess up, and whatever it was I did wrong would be compounded by the fact that I was one of those men that speak up about sexism. Then I realized that some weird, ultimately meaningless mind game about irony, ego, and self-perception — one I was playing all by myself — was keeping me from doing work I knew was important.
The same is true for writing about other cultures and experiences. You will jack it up. You'll probably jack it up epically. I know I have. This doesn't mean don't do it. It means challenge yourself to do it better and better every time, to learn from your mistakes instead of letting them cower you into a defensive crouch. The net result is you become a better writer.
11. Be clear on the context of a messy marketplace.
The current climate of the publishing industry still includes whitewashed covers, racism and sexism, cis-normativity, classism, homophobia and ableism. The majority of agents and editors are white, and white cultural norms rule the industry. Authors of color struggle to get our voices heard, and publishing houses that espouse diversity publish more white authors writing characters of color than anything else. Cultural appropriation matters in this context because it is about who has access and who gets paid, even beyond the problems of a poorly crafted, disrespectful representation. As writers, we have to understand that beyond the context within our stories, this is the societal context our work takes place in.
12. Have you considered The Why, and have you considered The No?
This process requires soul searching and feeling uncomfortable. Without discomfort, we can't grow. Sometimes, folks skip over the most basic questions: Why do you feel it falls to you to write someone else's story? Why do you have the right to take on another's voice? And should you do this? The answer isn't always no — as writers, we are constantly entering other people's heads. But too often we don't stop to consider whether it's the right thing to do. Sometimes, the answer is no.
Daniel José Older is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and composer. Salsa Nocturna, Daniel's ghost noir collection, was hailed as "striking and original" by Publishers Weekly. He's co-editing the forthcoming anthology, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, and his urban fantasy novel The Half Resurrection Blues, the first of a trilogy, will be released by Penguin's Roc imprint in January 2015. Daniel's essays and short stories have appeared in The New Haven Review, Salon, Tor, PANK, Strange Horizons, and Apex. His music, ponderings, and ambulance adventures live at ghoststar.net and @djolder.