Writing “The Other”. Then Driving “The Other” Mad. Then Eating “The Other’s” Cat

2 03 2015

As a thinking human, I reserve the right to change my mind.

There are concerns in the genre communities about cultural appropriation and writing The Other, meaning a character who lives beyond the experience of its author. Being a heterosexual, able-bodied, European-descended, middle-aged man, for me The Other is anyone not sharing any one of my traits. There is a lot of discussion about the proper method of assembling The Other.

Let’s consider assembling a character and also the nature of identity. I have dozens of attributes. Only a few of these would have any bearing on the plot of a short story. More attributes, maybe a dozen, are needed to write a character rounded enough to maintain a reader’s interest in a novel.

I had an idea where the latest technologies could be combined to create a robot existing unseen in a population as it spread terror. How would I best demonstrate this critter? Turn it loose in Philadelphia.

How could a character get involved emotionally in this critter? Make her family a victim? Too easy, plus there’s nothing to keep tension. The authorities could be contacted at any time to combat the critter with guns blazing. I prefer to write tight, claustrophobic stories.

Ah! The critter needs a friend who shares its motives, or who it can seduce into its motives. Which would make this less “The Terminator” and more “‘Short Circuit’ Meets ‘Rosemary’s Baby'”.

I needed someone who was suffering and faced huge social challenges. Not me.

Statistically, I needed woman from a racial minority. How should I attempt to write a young black woman in the U.S.?

The essays and comments I’ve read about Writing The Other fall within a spectrum. On one end, writers say “You cannot write outside of your experience capably. Do not try.” The other end: “Research as much as you can, then have the character vetted by a person sharing the traits of The Other, then use that finished story as the beginning of a dialogue with your reader, so that critiques become learning experiences.”

This other end is more reasonable. However, it does bring up a further perspective.

Every character in a story is supposed to be plausible and elicit sympathy. Even the ones who are just like the author.

Every individual outside your skin and not wearing your shoes is “The Other”.

Every character has fears. Every character has A Need (One Need per story). Every character has a rationalization that makes her the hero of her story.  No matter race, creed, preferences; the writing process makes every character into the Un-Author.

With this perspective, I began writing. I based the character loosely on a woman I knew. She had a cat, and pets are great foils and empathy-creators. She was educated and had been laid off from retail jobs. She was a reader of F & SF, which I used as the critter’s entre into her confidence. The critter used her yearning for a meaningful life to manipulate her into a quest against society. I included her tastes and preferences. I tweaked the character enough to suit the story’s needs, had the story vetted, then in a move that still unsettles me, I emailed the story to the woman.

It seemed the right thing to do. If she approved of the character, I must have done it right. The days of waiting for a response was unnerving. Had I offended her? Then I got her critique.

She was happy I kept the cat’s death off-page. Otherwise, she seemed content. Except she said, “This is a horror story? I thought she’d gone off and had adventures.”

I was startled. Then I realized I made the one big mistake: the story drove her instead of the other way around.

I rewrote and had the critter give her choices. Had her be more aware of what was going on, and knowing that she was in an ambiguous situation: was this a quest or some means of terrorism?

Does the story work? I got good critiques from my writers’ groups, but no one’s bought the story so far.

If this story gets published, I foresee getting mail from people taking issue with my writing someone who is not like me. Because the character is a woman and a minority in these tense times of the U.S., the mail may be confrontational.

I want to be a nice guy. I do not want to offend.

No level of research is going to be comprehensive. Not all criticisms are valid. In short, even if you get it right for the story, it will not be universally approved.

The best I can do is remember that no character should be taken for granted. Attention to details may not circumvent criticism, but it will make me more confident in all my choices.











One response

2 03 2015
Alan Breakstone

Along with the right to free speech comes the right to offend, either inadvertently or deliberately. Contrary to the current American belief, speech that offends no one is impossible. If we eliminated offense from everyone’s speech, we would all be silent. And someone would still be offended.

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