Writing about the Other

Tweet of the Day: Privilege and How it Affects Your Characters


“Write what you know,” or so goes the old writing advice.

But we don’t know everything and besides if we only wrote about what “we know” I suspect literature would have died a unremarkable death a long time ago. Instead we write about things that are outside our personal experience or at least deposit our personal experiences (in part or whole) into new situations.

Yet our experience is, at best, the seed of any story. But stories need more. They need interesting characters, exiting/exotic locations, and powerful adversaries that challenge the characters and make the plot come alive.

Enter the Other. That which is outside of ourselves, as individuals as well as whatever culture/subculture we identify ourselves with. A male author may asks himself how does he write a believable female character, an adult writer might have problems tackling a teenage protagonist and any writer would have some trepidation approaching a character of another race, ethnicity or religion.

Cliches abound, and while many cliches are grounded in (at times distant) truth, overuse can derail any narrative. Which can paralyze a writer that wants to “get it right”. An open mind and lots of research can help.

But remember that as a writer, you are also an outsider which gives you a unique opportunity to observe things that are “invisible” to the Other. Language differences are easy to spot, even among speakers of the same language, but other, more subtle  differences can breath life into any narrative. Climate and architecture go hand in hand. In the tropics many homes are built out of concrete, since it is durable and cheap. But in the northern and southern hemisphere building homes in concrete would not work because it is a poor insulator and tends to crack under extremes of heat and cold. Houses in one country may have cellars while in another they prefer basements. Or have neither.

Space is often a indicator of wealth. Spacious back yards are taken for granted in the U.S. but rare in British suburbs. Attitudes about sex and violence may vary wildly.   Media in Europe is fairly relaxed when it comes to sex, but squeamish about violence, while the opposite is true in North America.

While facing the Other might be daunting, in the end it can be extremely rewarding.

Just watch your step.


4 comments on “Writing about the Other

  1. You had to go and use that picture to illustrate the piece, didn’t you? ROFLOL


  2. It’s tough to write something that feels so far outside ourselves. But it makes us dig deep too.


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