Read Writing the Other

Read Writing the Other

During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong, horribly, offensively wrong, and so it is better not even to try. This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own. Nisi and Cynthia collaborated to develop a workshop that addresses these problems with the aim of both increasing writers’ skill and sensitivity in portraying difference in their fiction as well as allaying their anxieties about ”getting it wrong.” Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is the manual that grew out of their workshop. It discusses basic aspects of characterization and offers elementary techniques, practical exercises, and examples for helping writers create richer and more accurate characters with ”differences.”

This book had some interesting framing and specific writing advice on what and what not to do. A fair amount of the content was pretty basic level, so anyone who’s done any reading about writing people from other backgrounds will be familiar with many of the ideas. I didn’t do the exercises, which didn’t sound that helpful to me, but then I hate writing exercises 😉

ROAARS are the main categories that define and divide us:

  • Race
  • Orientation
  • Ability
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Sex

The unmarked state” = without explicit markers, readers often envision a character to be white, male, cis, straight, young and able -bodied

OK to plan on differentiating your background characters on a second pass – but be sure to look for where you’ve fallen into generalizations

Parallax: we all have expectations of what is normal, and when people in stories do things we find not normal without acknowledgment, it feels unrealistic

Congruence: create empathy between the reader and characters with different ROAARS characteristics by highlighting non-ROAARS characteristics they’re more likely to share (e.g. love of reading, picky eater, being deeply in love)

A secondary character usually has one main trait but shouldn’t be confined to only the stereotypes of that trait

Association = 1:1 connection between ideas (not explicit)

Resonance = complex of ideas that reinforce and highlight each other through connection (not explicit)

Related to ROAARS usually interpreted through social context

Disarm unintended ROAARS resonance by ensuring no trait is defined by only one character, and have characters express multiple different types of the same trait (e.g. have two Black characters, multiple POC from different cultures)

Avoid subtle victimization of characters outside the dominant paradigm, especially where they overlap with real world stereotypes

Make sure your “diverse” sidekick isn’t there just to make the hero look good

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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