Writing “The Other”

Toby Buckell linked to this post on Strange Horizons about the act of “writing the other” in SF. Or, I guess, just writing the other in general, really. It’s an interesting post. I suggest you read it, especially if you are wanting to write from the perspectives of people (or other creatures) who are not of your culture.

I’m really torn on this subject.

You might be able to tell from my photos that I am a white male, and you might be able to tell from my bios that I am from the great mid-west of the United States. I am also of an age somewhere between hippy-dom and disco. This makes me of the exact mold (dare I say stereotype?) of the kind of person/writer this article is gently pointed toward. I admit that I get conflicted by these kinds of discussions, but (being a Caucasian male of a particular age and region) I think about them a lot.

You see, I write stories from female perspectives, and I write them from male perspectives. I write them from the perspective of white characters and black characters and characters of mixed ethnic backgrounds. I write from the perspective of single characters and married characters, I write from the perspective of straight characters and gay characters. I write from the perspective of robots and from non-human characters. I once wrote from the perspective of a leopard.

I can tell you that it’s really daunting to write from all these perspectives. It’s really hard. It’s important to me that I respect all these characters, and that I capture who they are properly. I work at it. I pay attention to things as best I can. I like the elements of the article in question that suggest that merely including “the other” in a serious fashion is a good thing, because that’s true, and I like the general suggestion that attempting to get something right about a culture is the most important thing–and that in the end it’s “okay” (if I can be so bold) to get something wrong (though you should basically just fess up if called on it and agree you’ll try to do better next time).

Because, you know, it’s always wrong. I can’t possibly get every detail of a different culture right.

Of course, the truth is that I can’t even get every detail of MY culture right (assuming by “culture” you mean race or nationality as the article in question is discussing it).

I mean, holy smokes, one of my best buddies growing up was a white male of my age group and from my city. We went to the same schools, liked the same bands, and breathed the same air … but he was, and still is, a University of Kentucky fan! I can’t freaking believe it. Now, before you go off on this, before you make light of this simple example, I want you to realize that there are deep, deep blood differences between a Louisville fan (like me) and a UK fan (like him). The differences are strongly tied to race, actually. And they are just as deeply tied to city/rural perspectives. This is not just a fanciful example that I’m pulling up to make light of a very serious question. This difference separates us. In all seriousness, if I were to write a story from the perspective of a white, male UK fan of my age, I would need to work very, very hard to treat that character properly. And I might well get it “wrong” in some important ways that would off-put some UK fans.

The article would suggest that a (the) way to resolve this would be for me to find UK fans and have them read it. I suppose that’s not a terrible idea. But it won’t help. It won’t help because one UK fan’s experience is not all UK fans’ experience. No matter if I run this hypothetical story through a thousand UK fans, there will be a UK fan that I err with.

My point here is that writing characters is serious work. All of it. And I don’t think you can really “get it right” merely by having someone of a culture read the work. Sure, that’s a fine thing to do. And it’s not a bad idea because it’s always good to learn from someone with real experience. Just don’t expect that to fix your problem, because merely sending the story to someone else is not sufficient to resolve problems of a lack of respect.

And my other point in this whole “you can never get it right” conversation is that I can say this because the world is huge, and because once a story is published the audience will read what they want to read into things no matter what you do. An example: I recently had a short story titled “The Collector” published in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters anthology. It is set in the early 1900s and told from the perspective of a black man. I worked hard on this character and the setting. As hard as I could. And I told a story that I thought was true to the time, and important to the character (as well as relevant to today, too, really).

Here are two comments it drew from readers on Goodreads. I submit them without any complaint or whatever. I’m using them only to show how a story can be perceived by two different people.


The story “The Collector” by Ron Collins, was the best re interpretation of what a person would really do with magic. Full of hatred at the injustice against freed slaves that still fills the US into the late 1890s, and crippled from fighting in San Juan, Gamba is raging inside against everything. When trapped by an evil magician Gamba is faced with a choice, use his magic for good or seek vengeance. He never goes down the path to evil, but he is still consumed by a motivation for change. Because of this he uses his magic in an evil way for what he believes will be a good end, and that is the interesting part. Will you sympathize with him or vilify him?


And then there’s “The Collector”, in which the only African-American mage in the entire volume is also the only main character to choose Dark magic, which really makes it stand out… and not in a good way.

I have no idea what cultures these two readers come from. All I will say regarding these comments is that I was a good enough writer to bring one of these readers to the point I wanted, and not a good enough writer to take the other one there. I guess this is where (according to the Strange Horizons article) I say to the second reader “my fault, I’ll try better next time.”

But, you see, I won’t try better.

I’ll try just as hard. And I’ll succeed just as well.

I say that because to be a writer is to understand that we are only half the equation. The reader is the other half. And the truth is that I cannot expect to satisfy every reader, perhaps especially those who come from a culture that is not mine (or a perspective that is not mine … is there a difference?) and who is looking for me to fail. Luckily, though, all I need to do is to tell stories to the best of my ability. And to do that all I need to do is to respect the characters I’m writing. I need to treat them as the creatures they are. I need to get inside their heads, and know them as well as I can. I need to treat them with respect (the example in the Strange Horizon’s article of writers wanting to use a culture’s belief because they are so “cute” and “funny” is merely a case of writers not respecting a culture…and honestly, I have never heard such a phrasing before, but maybe it’s just because I’m a white, mid-western male who is immune to such commentary).

I don’t begrudge the reader I quoted above his or her comment about my free negro character (there were no African-Americans in the 1900’s, after all, that’s a tag that came into existence considerably later…okay, I admit that might be a little catty…sorry). All readers are free to make their assessment of my writing. It’s fine. And, perhaps technically both readers would say I succeeded in “writing from the other” as far as the character on the page, but one would suggest I disrespected a culture by making the story choice I did. I can parse that a couple ways.

In the end, though, I think that “writing the other” well is about respecting your characters, and that respecting your characters is about living inside them to the best level you are capable of. It’s not about asking “what would I feel like if I were in their shoes?” It’s about asking yourself “How does that person actually feel.”

And no matter what culture you’re writing from, that’s damned hard–because the truth is that in the end, every person is their own culture.

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