Never An Other

At Phoenix Comicon last weekend, a gentleman came to me after one of my panels and asked if I had any advice for him on writing women. I had a lot of things to say: fill your story with tons of other incidental women, so no one character bears the burden of demonstrating what it's like to be female in your story world; make sure she has agency in the story; please don't have her thinking hard about her relationship with her own breasts. 

But the first thing that popped out of my mouth was: write her just like you'd write a man. Because she's not really any different from you at all.

I've read lots of advice about writing the other. Much of it is sensible advice for achieving a new point of view -- research cultures and subcultures, make sure you read and talk to people in a culture and not just people who know it from the outside. But I was always a little unsatisfied with how the topic is addressed. I didn't understand why until that lovely young man asked me 'how should I write women.' And the problem I have is: talking about writing the other assumes otherness. It assumes a fundamental difference, even an alienness in priorities and perceptions. And I simply don't think there is such a thing as a human being who is other to me.

I admittedly have the privilege of possessing a remarkably broad swath of lived experience. I've been a minority in several senses, and just like everyone else around me; rich enough to have live-in servants and poor enough to have food stamps; I've been shy and unpopular, I've been the life of the party; I've made my home in a dozen places cutting across nations and regions, and spent time in a dozen more. And the thing that always strikes me isn't difference. It's how all the same everything is.

Wherever you go, people are fundamentally the same. Do parents want their children to succeed any less in China than in Chicago? Does an Iranian doctor feel any different about losing a patient than a Philadelphian? There are differences between cultures, to be sure, but the variation between individuals even in the same culture dwarfs it in scope. Who's more different from a gregarious restaurant owner and father of three in Atlanta -- the gregarious restaurant owner and father of three in Mumbai, or one of Atlanta's own homeless with crippling social anxiety and PTSD? 

So when I'm writing, yes, I do try to be cognizant of how the weight of etiquette and culture color a person's opinions and interactions. Maybe don't have the devout Orthodox Jew order the BLT, right? But also don't assume that no Jew would ever order the BLT -- not everyone practices their faith impeccably. Be sure you're operating from a credible perspective on what a culture's norms and standards actually are, and not groundless assumptions. Maybe don't have your Ugandan character behave as though they have never even heard of a mobile phone before, much less seen one. 

But at the end of the day, I think the key to writing the other is to discard the idea of otherness completely. Writing any character is an act of extreme empathy. You have to find the spark in you that understands what it would be like to be someone else -- how the world might treat you in different circumstances, how those different layers of reward and resentment would influence your reactions and change you into something different. All of us know what it is to be virtuous and terrible, petty and generous, brilliant and stupid, selfish and brave and worn down. Find the person-like-you first. Once you have that, the rest is just color.


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