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 orientation, 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."
"Along with personal experience and examples, the book presents exercises to help writers step outside their own ROAARS. The exercises, developed from workshops the authors have conducted, reward writers with learning more about developing characters—including those who are 'just like' themselves—and understanding past and present stereotypes."– Paula Guran, Writers.com Newsletter, Vol 9, no. 3
"[...]a timely book. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, two Seattle-based science fiction authors, have developed a useful, nuts-and-bolts approach to creating fully realized, well-rounded characters substantially different from oneself…. Much of what Shawl and Ward advocate is, quite simply, good practice: the avoidance of clichés, flat characters, unintended effects, and other hallmarks of lazy writing. "– Genevieve Williams, Strange Horizons, June 26, 2006
"This book can help interested writers develop characters to exhibit the complexity of the human experience (and, since we're talking genre here, multifaceted non-human experiences as well)[...] What I like best about this book is that Shawl and Ward encourage people to acknowledge their fears and concerns, but also to try anyway."– Broad Universe, November 2007
The Dominant Paradigm
When writing the other, you will depart from the dominant paradigm. For now, let's just loosely define the "dominant paradigm" as what the majority of people in our society would call normal. (We'll explore this construct further later, when we discuss a literary concept called "the unmarked state.") Of course, no one is truly normal. Acknowledging the ways in which we deviate from so-called normalcy is an important step in learning to write the other.
Why This Guide?
An incident that took place while Nisi and Cynthia were students at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 1992 gave rise to the original impetus for this guide, the class of the same name, and the original essays that also appear within these covers. One of our classmates opined that it was a mistake to write about people of different ethnicities: you might get it wrong. Horribly, offensively wrong. Better not to even try.
This seemed to Nisi to be taking the easy way out.
Nisi's essay "Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere," which originally appeared in the writing how-to magazine Speculations, addressed writing about characters with racial and ethnic differences. But as Nisi soon realized, similar problems arise when we face the difficulty of creating characters whose gender, sexual orientation, age, and so on, differ significantly from our own. So our Writing the Other class extended and expanded on the techniques the essay outlined.
Writing the Other graduates have consistently improved the plausibility of their divergent characters. They've tried, and they've succeeded.
You, too, can learn how to think and write about characters who aren't like you.
We wrote this guide to help.
We will show you what works (and what doesn't) when writing about characters of races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, nationalities, and other traits and features different from your own. We'll demonstrate the common mistakes and pitfalls of writing about differences and show you how to avoid them.
Of course, as we said earlier, everyone differs in one way or another from the dominant paradigm. However, our culture emphasizes certain kinds of differences. It tells us that these differences are the most important ones, the ones that truly divide us.
For these categorizations, we've invented the term "ROAARS." It's an acronym. ROAARS stands for Race/(sexual) Orientation/Age/Ability/Religion/Sex. ROAARS differences are highlighted by majority culture.
You may notice that one profound difference has been left out of this acronym: class. This was a deliberate omission. As we've said, the focus here is on those differences that are generally presumed to be important. While class is arguably as important as race in terms of categorization, and is certainly more scientifically quantifiable, on this continent it's not a difference majority culture recognizes as significant.
The text in this guide's first section is accompanied by writing exercises. You can practice these exercises as frequently or infrequently as you wish, but we advise you to do all the exercises at least once. Because they were designed as part of the Writing the Other class, some of the exercises work best when done with a partner or in a group. However, you are not expected to show anyone the results of your exercises or to incorporate the direct results of doing these exercises into your work.
These exercises are not tests, and you cannot fail them.
We've also included suggested times for completing each exercise. Though you're not on a tight schedule such as that students attending live Writing the Other classes must contend with, we encourage you to try writing to the ticking of a timer. Try it at least once — taking a moment before you start to clear your mind of distractions, of course. We've found for ourselves that the pressure of producing under these circumstances can force you to switch off your internal editor and just get going!