First some caveats: I have no academic training whatsoever and the following blog has been written because I’ve decided to articulate some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for ages now(1). I make no claims to academic rigour or any other perspective than the tools I have devised to successfully write things down and then sell them. I hope some of it will be useful but I offer no guarantees. Anyone stealing this material to form the basis of an essay or, god help you, a thesis or something had better be prepared a) for abject failure or b), in the unlikely event of procuring a passing grade, to provide monetary compensation(2). Anyway moving on…
Since I write Science Fiction and Fantasy my definition of the other is quite wide and some issues that apply to some others don’t apply to other others(4). This blog will strive to differentiate and classify the various others into groups and then look at the relative levels of knowledge required to write with confidence(5).
Others, for the purpose of writing fiction, have two principle characteristics: one) what I think of their basic type, contemporary, historical and the fantastic, and two) their prominence in the fiction; point of view, foreground and background. We will deal with prominence first since this is the easiest.
A background character is precisely that; a character that exists only because you don’t want to have your principles act(6) against a void. In this case you can get away with a few telling details, often just a name, mode of dress or verbal tic providing, and this is important, you don’t step on a cliché bomb(7). Heinlein does a lot of this in Starship Troopers to show that his Terran Federation is an equal opportunities fascist state and my favourite example is a line from Robert Holmes’ classic ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’(9) “I was with the Filipino Army during their final advance on Reykjavik” which conjures up a far future in which the balance of power has radically shifted away from where it rests now.
Never get background characters confused with background; if your main characters are operating in another culture, say Feudal Japan, then you’re going to need something more than a verbal tic to get you through the chapter.
A foreground character, or culture come to think of it, is one who interacts enough with your point of view characters for the reader/viewer to get a real sense of their personality. If their role is tightly circumscribed within the work, they’re the pathologist in a crime story, for example, and we only meet them in the lab during autopsies – then as with a background character you can get away with a few telling details. If you’re planning to portray a truly multicultural society then you may have no choice but to treat some of your characters this way – just think about what you’re doing and have some respect for your own ignorance(10). Americans face a particular pitfall when writing about Europe, particularly Ireland and the UK, in thinking that a shared history, literature and pop culture(11) equates to a real familiarity with a particular culture(12). To write a foreground character with confidence you need, what I’ve decided to call on this instance, a working knowledge of their culture.
Point of view: writing point of view, which includes close 3rd person, of a character requires more than a working knowledge of their culture - you must be able to think yourself into their heads and that requires you to embrace the other to the point where it ceases to be the other and that, my friends, is a whole different ballgame(13)…
Next time on Writing the Other ‘Oi! Who are you calling the other?’
(1) Along with the Glee cover version of Amy Whitehouse’s ‘Rehab’.
(2) I’ve had some hard times(3)
and this has eroded my sense of humour about copyright infringement.
(3) I wanted to put ‘Will write for food’ on my card but my agent said no.
(4) Or indeed to other’s other others.
(5) They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no…
(6) I’m using ‘act’ in the broad sense of the word here.
(7) Cliché bombs and how to avoid them will be covered in a later blog but for now the rule of thumb is to avoid getting your telling detail from: i) film or TV, ii) background characters in other authors works, iii) some vague recollection about something that guy you knew did years ago…(8)
(8) If only you could remember his name.
(9) Both of these works have their own problems however.
(10) Surgeon’s Law applies to your casual knowledge of other cultures; 90% of everything you think you know is bollocks.
(11) And language of course.
(12) A good example of this is Lt. Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5 whose characterisation, while strong, is the product of the Russian Jewish immigrant culture of America with a few cold war cliché’s thrown in – rather than any imagined St Petersburg of the 23rd Century.
(13) Possibly one day cricket(14)
(14) I’d rather be home with Ray I ain’t got seventy days…