Voice of The Other


Credit: SkyLightRain.com

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

As a writer, I explore the human condition and human behavior. People fascinate me. As I create a character, I ask myself a lot of questions — in fact, I have a list of questions that I go through several times until I feel in my bones that I’ve gotten a character right.  Each character tells me who he or she is, history, desires, goals, friends and family. I listen and write.  There are times when I feel as if I’m channeling a character.  I believe this is how it should be when writing fiction.

Last week at nytimes.com, I read interesting commentary in their “Bookends” feature from Anna Holmes and James Parker entitled “Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories?”  When a writer creates a character outside the writer’s own race, gender, sexual orientation, income, and heritage, is the writer operating with empathy or exploitation?  Anna Holmes writes: “…identity is part of experience, and that experience (or the absence of such) should not preclude anyone from telling other people’s stories.”  James Parker writes: “To the degree that you are using a person, a character, simply to propel your plot or give shape to your ideas, to that same degree you are denying this character his or her full reality — and your story will suffer accordingly. Where empathy stops, in other words, exploitation starts.”  Holmes and Parker agree that writing about The Other must be done with care and profound respect.

Writers cannot limit themselves in any way.  They must write about whoever shows up to tell his or her story.  But I do understand that some writers follow formulas, whether that is for the romance, mystery, or thriller genres, and write plot-driven stories rather than character-driven ones.  I think that plot-driven stories can fall prey to the exploitation of The Other rather than empathizing through The Others’ voices and experiences.  Character development can be minimal in plot-driven stories.

"Independence Day" movie poster 1996

“Independence Day” movie poster 1996

I believe that it’s also important for each writer to know himself enough to know and understand his prejudices and guard against them or purge them.  A writer’s prejudices can leak into a story in subtle ways, stealthy and damaging to the writing. Just this morning, I saw an ad on TV for a new Independence Day movie, a sequel to the first which came out on July 4, 1996.  I recall seeing that first movie and while I enjoyed the action, what bothered me the most was that it was so American-centric.  Do Americans really believe that if earth, i.e. the entire planet, is invaded by aliens that they’d focus their attack primarily on America and only Americans would be able to save the entire planet?  I noticed that same prejudice in the ad for the sequel.  (How movies and the arts reflect the prevailing societal beliefs and emotions is a subject for another post sometime.) As an American writer, do I also suffer from this prejudice? Every American writer, especially those writing science fiction, need to be aware of it and open themselves to other possibilities.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107When Evan Quinn arrived, before he’d revealed his name to me, I saw him conducting the empty Grosser Saal stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. At the time, I knew little about conductors and I didn’t want him to be a conductor.  When I decided that he’d be an auto mechanic, Evan invaded my night dreams, dressed in his white tie and tails, his expression angry, and he scared me.  After four nights of him scaring me awake, I relented.  Evan was an orchestra conductor and that was it.  I would just have to knuckle under and do the research such a main character required in order to make him authentic.  When writing a character that is The Other, it’s important to be open to that person’s experience and life, to do the research needed to insure authenticity, to put yourself as the writer in that character’s shoes.  No matter how long it takes or how difficult.  I think this is true for any writer of fiction no matter that writer’s race, gender, sexual orientation, income, or heritage.

I want to conclude with a lovely quote from Damyanti Biswas at Daily (W)rite:

“A live story is to be as true to the character as possible, as true to the emotion, the circumstance as I can, and to always, always suspend judgement. More than anything else, it is about being true to my body, the urge inside of it to bend towards writing. Indeed, it is to use all of my body to write, and to obliterate from the story its teller, to leave as few signs of the artist and the craft as possible, so that the story takes on a life of its own, independent of me.”

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

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18 responses to “Voice of The Other

  1. I agree! I have a few characters that I feel are missing something. They are static almost as if they were hiding. There is a part of them that I have not quite figured out. So I try to toss them into different situations to see what they would do. But at the same time I myself have to think about what would I do in that same situation. How would I feel, what would I do would I run, hide or even quiver and shake hiding in absolute terror under the bed. It is a journey for sure.

    • Hi, Meryst! Thanks for your comment. It’s a good idea to challenge your characters with different situations to get them to reveal themselves. I sometimes also interview them. Rarely do I consider what I’d do. My focus is on the character. If I need to do research, then that’s what I do, as I did with Evan Quinn.

      • I totally agree! I will have to say my best one was I had the protagonist and the antagonist go out on a date. It was absolutely hysterical to watch them glare at each other. I watched them try and figure out how they were going to get away with killing each other.

      • A date! Wow, that’s brave. And they already knew they hated each other? I like that you wanted to defy expectations and not have them fall in love in the end.

      • It was fun to write. Nope they ended still hating each other as true enemies should. I should edit it up and post it.

  2. I agree that “it’s also important for each writer to know himself enough to know and understand his prejudices and guard against them or purge them” but this is often (always?) a tall order. As a white, educated, western, heterosexual I believe it is not my place to attempt to portray, for instance, a black, poor, non-western, lesbian woman as a main character. No matter how empathetic I may be I admit that I will never get that voice right. To try to do so, is, in feminist studies, termed “appropriation of voice”. The same goes for any “other” whose world experiences are very different form our own. I believe we may possibly be able to pull it off with a minor character, one we do not need to know intimately. To attempt to go further invites outrage – rightfully so.

    • Hi, Yvonne, thanks for your comment. I understand what you are saying, and I’ve heard of women outraged by men who create women characters in fiction. But how do you create interesting, entertaining stories when writing about the same people as yourself all the time? How do you learn about how other people live, think, feel? I’m not saying to just do it. I’m saying to educate oneself, to do research, to interview people, etc. It would be an outrage for a writer to create a character without taking that kind of care and showing that kind of respect. And I don’t want to limit myself to writing only about women my age, my race, who share my beliefs. I want to learn about other people and what makes them tick.

      • All admirable qualities – to attempt to get into the place of the “other” and understand that person. In fact this is necessary if we are to learn to live in harmony and respect. I’m not suggesting we don’t create characters who are different from ourselves at all. It’s necessary or our writing would have little depth and be boring. It’s a matter of degree. It is, quite simply, not possible to truly understand how someone whose world view is acutely different from our own thinks. To pretend to do so insults the very group that person belongs to. I think for secondary characters this would usually work, but not for our main protagonists. I have been in situations where my best attempts at understanding were met with scorn and anger. And those who felt that way were legitimate in their reasoning. No matter how much I educate myself I have no right to speak as though, for instance, I understand the world view of a Muslim, Syrian, refugee woman. To do so would be pure arrogance on my part. The best I can do is listen and learn. I do not understand, for instance, why such a woman would choose to cover all but her face when living in North America. Yet some do “choose” to do so and state it makes them feel more free than if they did not. What makes sense to me is not what makes sense to her. I know I cannot accurately represent her point of view in my writing – because I do not understand it at the deep level necessary. Accepting is not enough. It requires true understanding. Without that we will misrepresent that person, even in fiction.

      • Hi, Yvonne (I love your name, btw),

        “It is, quite simply, not possible to truly understand how someone whose world view is acutely different from our own thinks.” But this is true for anyone who is not me. It’s true for my novel, Perceval’s Secret, protagonist who is a 35-year-old male musician/conductor who lives in 2048 under a totalitarian American government. How could I possibly know what someone will think in the future? How can I possibly know anything about the male life experience when I am a female? Each of those characteristics has nothing to do with me at this time, but I’ve had experience as a musician and that’s it. I did extensive research in order to bring authenticity to this protagonist. I’d love for you to read my novel and let me know how I did with him and with my other characters. 🙂

        I’m sorry that you’ve had discouraging experiences trying to understand other people, especially those outside your usual experience. I am not a Muslim, but that shouldn’t stop me from exploring what it means to be a Muslim, to talk with Muslims, to research Islam, to find out about the different cultures that embrace Islam. And to create a character who’s Muslim if that’s what he or she tells me he or she is. I’d be intensely curious about that Muslim woman who finds freedom in covering all but her face. Freedom for what? Freedom from what? And what is her definition of freedom? I don’t believe it’s arrogance to try to understand. If we as writers miss the mark, that can be fuel for a discussion that can lead to a deeper understanding. We cannot let fear govern our creativity. I agree with both Anna and James in the NY Times article — we must be fearless as writers, open to all possibilities, with open hearts to create with both compassion and profound respect.

        Then there are people who, no matter how hard a writer works to understand, to portray a character authentically, to be respectful, will still attack that writer for daring to create a character that is not exactly like the writer herself. It’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time, or even sometimes. In fact, is a writer’s job to make everyone comfortable and happy all the time? I think it’s important that this subject continues to come up and writers continue to discuss it, to try to find the ways into its inner workings and write our many ways out of it again. Be fearless. Write for yourself. Respect your characters because they are people.

      • Thanks on the name compliment. 🙂 And I see this as a valuable discussion. Whether we end up in agreement or not is less important than that we actively think about what is discussed.

        I used my own experiences only as an illustration of the reactions others have when we claim to know how they think when we do not. As I said, it is a matter of degree.

        On the one hand I see it as my duty as a citizen of the world to educate myself as much as I can about the differences in our diverse world. On the other hand I accept that I will never be able to truly stand in the shoes of someone whose culture, religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. are drastically divergent from mine.

        It is something that was discussed at length when I studied for my M.A. in Sociology with a focus on culture and gender issues. I’ll admit that we were far from unanimous in our conclusions. However, those that felt we COULD speak as though we were of another group, or could understand the others enough to speak for them, were those that grew up with privilege – white, western and herterosexual. Perhaps the immigrant experiences of my own family affected my ability to see the other side, in spite of my being white and European. One of my professors was lesbian. She definitely agreed with me, as did ALL the theorists we studied whose origins were in “other” minorities.

        That is not to say that we cannot identify common threads in human nature that are shared by all people, such as love for our children. The difficulties arise when we attempt to portray social issues from the point of view of the “other”. There are experiences which are universal and therefore can be written about from a common viewpoint. The issues resulting from social disparities belong in a different category. It is my opinion, and that of the theorists from minorities I have studied, that we cannot, indeed have no right to, speak for them. To do so expropriates, or “steals” their voice. It misrepresents them.

      • Thanks, Yvonne, for your thoughts. I’m reading them and thinking about how I create characters for my stories. As a writer, I try to remain true to the character that comes in my imagination’s door, and that usually means that if the person isn’t like me, that I do my best to find people like him to ask if I may talk with them about my character. It always surprises me how welcoming they are, no matter who they are. I come into our discussion with some specific questions about behavior and mind set to begin, questions about culture, about language (if foreign), and about how their culture would respond to the situation my character may be in. Often how a character thinks, or what he believes, influences behavior, and so I want to find out about cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, and go as deep as necessary. I ask the people I’m interviewing if I can return if I have more questions. So far, no one has said no. I’ve also been very surprised by how respectful they’ve been regarding literature and storytelling. Is there a culture on this planet that does not have a storytelling custom?

        I follow the same procedure when a character has a profession I know nothing about, or something happens to the character that would require specialized knowledge and vocabulary. I’m not trying to “speak for” anyone. That, in my mind, means that I write messages or preach through my fiction. That, I think, would be arrogant. I don’t like reading that kind of fiction, and I do everything I can to not write it. I ask beta readers to point out to me anything that might be interpreted in that way so I can change it or leave it out.

        My primary concern is about creating characters in fiction, and being true to those characters, their backgrounds, their cultures, their languages, etc. And it is always in the context of the story that I’m telling which, again, is fiction. I read as widely as I can, not only white American authors, but also authors from other groups, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, etc. The main character of my Perceval series of novels is male. I’m female. So far, no male readers have told me that I got him wrong, or any of the other male characters in the book wrong.

        Maybe I have a naive hope that my approach is one small step in helping to foster understanding, acceptance, and respect of others no matter who they are. But I do agree with James Parker and Annie Holmes about approaching characters with profound respect and compassion, and doing whatever is possible and necessary to insure that happens. By not creating characters who are not like me, I am allowing fear — or everyone who isn’t like me — censor my writing. I cannot do that.

        Yvonne, what have you written? Where can I buy it or find it?

      • Your approach is sound and I applaud your diligence with your research. And, in the vast majority of cases that will be sufficient. The times it causes the kind of issues that I mention are when we choose to portray a main character who deals with the controversial problems associated with their particular culture (or sub-culture) – such as the examples I came up with. If those issues are not central to the story their is usually no problem. 🙂

        You can find me and my book links on my website at http://yvonnehertzberger.com. There are also sneak peeks of each book there. I write mostly a cross-over between low fantasy and magic realism. It allows me to play with those same issues without stepping on toes, though I’ll never match the likes of Ursula LeGuin. (oh, don’t I wish) Thanks for asking.

      • Oh, I do love Ursula LeGuin! I’ll check out your books. I’m more a sci-fi gal, but have occasionally read fantasy. I have friends who write/read fantasy and I’ll pass your name on to them. Thanks for the “talk,” Yvonne. You’re welcome here anytime! Cinda

  3. Great insight, Cinda! My personal beliefs (and opinions) cause a stalemate in my writing. My own search for fairness is reflected in my characters, even the ones that are the “enemy”. That could be a blessing and a curse, as Adrian Monk would say. 🙂

    • Thanks, Wendy! It’s hard to step back to assess when in the middle of the white heat of creativity. I tend to do this kind of assessment and revision during the rewriting stage. It’s amazing what I’ve caught in the past — and embarrassing.

  4. This past week, I read an interview in the July 2016 issue of The Writer of Kirstin Valdez Quade, author of Night of the Fiestas. She talked about characters:
    What excites me most about writing fiction is the opportunity to inhabit characters who are unlike me. I start a story because I’m curious about my characters and the situations they find themselves in. We get to know our characters the way we get to know the other people in our lives: by spending time with them, by seeing how they interact with others and how they function under pressure, by learning how they see themselves and how they want to be seen. If a character is difficult for me to get a handle on, then I know I need to spend more time with him or her on the page.”

    Quade doesn’t talk about researching the backgrounds of characters, their racial groups, religious groups, etc. She doesn’t talk about seeking out people like them in real life and interviewing them. She talks about spending “more time with him or her on the page.” I tend to disagree with this approach. I know from experience that a doctor, for example, thinks a little differently than I do because of her training and experience. So, if I have a character who’s a doctor, I’ll want to talk to a couple different doctors to get in idea of how they’d respond in the situations my character is in. I can see Quade’s approach working if she is so totally focused on the interior, and what a character does for a living, behaves, etc. do not have priority. Or maybe if her characters are like her. Or maybe if her characters come from a different time period like in the past or in a fantasy story. (Although all fiction is fantasy. :-))

    Any thoughts?

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