(updated on 6/21/16)
“Writing the Other” is a phrase people mostly use to mean one of two things:
- writing about/from the POV of characters/people that are significantly different from you, belong to different communities, particularly along lines of power and privilege (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, disability, class)
- writing about/from the POV of characters/people that are different from the “dominant paradigm” (e.g. not white, middle class, straight, Christian, cisgender, temporarily able bodied men), people who are marginalized in the societies you come from/write in
There are a lot of resources for writers on writing the other. I am offering those that I have found the most useful personally (including some link round ups).
My sense is that I am likely to be skewed in what I find useful, given my particular personal history, politics, and positioning around oppression and privilege. (For example, I have a lot more links about writing characters of color, which may be because I am white.)
This list is also skewed to SFF/speculative fiction and YA genres, partly because they are what I know, and partly because they have active fan/writer communities that discuss these issues quite a bit amongst themselves and with each other. I believe that even if you do not write in these genres (I generally don’t, though I read them voraciously), these resources can still be very useful.
I did not intend to leave out anything important (though of course I likely did), and this is not intended to be exhaustive. I invite anyone who wishes to offer resources that they find useful in the comments.
I would offer that in my experience in thinking about this, it is most useful to listen to folks from the communities you are writing about, particularly folks who have an analysis of power and oppression. This list is definitely skewed that way.
This is something I am actively engaging in continued thinking about, and would love to discuss with other folks who do anti-oppression politics and are writers. As this is ever evolving, I likely will add to and alter this list as time goes on. (I am also likely to blog about this quite a bit, and may add links to that as well as I go along.)
A Partial Writing the Other Resource List:
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” is a practical (and short!) book that I would definitely recommend. I’ve read it and found it very useful. Some pieces of it are gettable on the web. For example, the essay, “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” by Nisi Shawl is printed in the book, as is her essay “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation”. That said, I highly recommend reading the whole book.
This post by Daniel Jose Older on 12 fundamentals of writing the other
This post by Amal El-Mohtar, Writing the Margins from the Centre and Other Moral Geometries
This resource post by Dahlia Adler on writing marginalized perspectives.
Here are a few web resources about writing characters of color that I have found to be useful:
This link round up on researching about writing characters of color.
This post by Justine Larbelestier on writing characters of color when you are white.
Here is the transcript of a chat on diversity in romance that has a lot of useful ideas and advice.
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons, about why writing characters of color is so important This piece is one that I find very useful (a central piece of writing in something that has been termed RaceFail09, which blew up in SFF fandom in response to issues around white authors–one author in particular–writing about characters of color, though it expanded to a deeper discussion of race in SFF writing and fandom). Here is another recent piece about why it is so important to write characters of color, by Shveta Thakrar.
Here is a general link roundup for RaceFail09; you may find it useful to read a bunch of these and get a sense of the ways writers and fans engage around these issues.
And N.K. Jemesin’s post about why she thinks that in the end RaceFail09 was a good thing.
This recent piece by Rochita Loenin-Ruiz at Strange Horizons might be useful as well.
This post by Mitali Perkins offers a checklist for authors to critically consider how they have written about race
This post talks about the need for more than one character of color (avoiding tokenization) in any given text
This post by Suleikha Snyder focuses on writing characters of South Asian origin.
The next set of resources discuss describing characters of color (so that race is clearly marked):
One of the core things that happens in writing the other, especially around race, but also in general with any marginalized group, is something folks talk about as the “unmarked state”, the reality that all characters are assumed by the reader to be white (and straight, and able bodied, etc.) unless named otherwise. This is why most folks who discuss writing the other talk about intentionally marking characters. Some insist that this is particularly vital around race because of the persistent nature of whiteness. (As recent events around readers being surprised that Rue was a person of color in The Hunger Games might attest to. As would similar fan response to Blaise Zambini being black.) So then, assuming that it is vital to mark race…how to do that effectively and respectfully?
N.K. Jemesin has a series of posts about describing characters of color that are example heavy:
In addition to Jemesin’s posts (read the comments for really useful stuff too!) I found this post about physical descriptions of characters of color to be very useful.
This post explains why describing characters of color using food is a problem, and this companion post gives other ideas for describing characters of color. (I highly recommend the blog that those posts are from, Writing With Color, in general.) This post lays out what it would look like if white characters were described as food.
This post talks about the need to look at how you are describing skin color contrast between characters. (Read the comments, they are useful too.)
This post gives multiple examples of doing it wrong (i.e. describing characters of color in a reductive and racist way).
And here is a post by Malinda Lo that discusses writing about race and touches on describing characters of color as well.
One of the ways I’ve been working on writing the other is to read writers that folks I trust say are doing this well, and trying to parse what they are doing, how they are writing about race—read their books for this in particular. I’ve been trying to do this with a mix of books I have read many times (so that I am not caught up in plot movement or surprised and can focus) and also with work I have not read (so I can catch this afresh). A number of the links above list good examples.
I found this roundtable discussion of POC in fantasy to be a great source for good examples around race:
A few resources about diversity in YA
Here is a reddit where a few authors answer questions on writing diversity in YA
Beth Revis gathered quotes about the importance of diversity from YA authors
Here are a few posts specifically about dialect:
Amal El-Mohtar talks about reading two different versions of the same text (one where dialect was toned down)
Tobias Buckell talks about dialect in his own work
The ferret talks about reading dialect
Here are a few posts that are specifically about worldbuilding:
Dicey Tillerman lays out (in what I find a clear and concise way) why flipping demographic power dynamics in your worldbuilding does not work. Strange Horizons also discuss this in their writer’s guidelines.
Kate Elliott lays out how minimal worldbuilding often uses the status quo to fill in the gaps.
Aliette de Bodard discusses pushing against received narratives in worldbuilding.
This post by Stacy Whitman offers some questions to consider around culture
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz describes (among other things) the ways that traditional SFF narratives are based on a conqueror’s perspective.
Still Eating Oranges discusses the centrality of conflict being Western and an alternative structure for fiction called kishōtenketsu
Here are a few posts about the gaze and writing (they start with the male gaze, but expand from there):
Kate Elliot on not writing for the male gaze
s.e. smith on the normative gaze
Here are a few posts about reviewing the other that have some useful insights:
Nisi Shawl on reviewing the other
Samuel Delaney on escaping ethnocentricity
Roundtable discussion on reviewing the other
Here are a few posts about tropes:
One of the things that many people who discuss writing the other do is point out the tired overused and often offensive tropes that you likely want to avoid when writing the other. You can find a bunch of them described in the links above and I would recommend searching out commentary on the tropes that may come up in the specific thing you are writing. Google will help you there. It can be particularly useful to attend to writing by members of the communities you are writing about.
Here is one such description that is incredibly common in romance fiction and SFF(kickass damsel). Here is another post about this trope, referencing movies and talking about a particular problem, the character being kickass and having nothing to do.
Here is a description of common tropes about people with hearing loss.
Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s piece describing the magical negro trope
This post about inspiration porn, a common way people write about disabled characters that is best avoided. Here is a description of that disability trope: that disabled folks are inspiring just by existing.
Here is a list of disability tropes.
Here is a description of four common tropes about neurodivergent folks.
Here is a post by s.e. smith on the asylum (and mental illness in general) as horror metaphor, and another by the same author on tropes about mental illness in YA
Cynthia Leitich Smith writes about the “wisecracking minority sidekick” and how she thinks about diversity in her writing
Here is Malinda Lo’s post on avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes.
Here is a post describing a common trope about interracial lesbian relationships.
Here is a story that illustrates the common disability trope of magical cure.
Here is a post I wrote about a common trope about fat women in romance and erotica: immediately putting clothes back on after sex.
This poem by Sherman Alexie pokes at common tropes in novels about Native Americans
Here are a few posts that focus on cis writers writing trans characters:
This article and it’s related podcast by Casey Plett discuss what goes wrong in trans novels written by cis people. This post on the same subject also has useful insights, including a lengthy description of a novel that does it right.
This post by Tobi Hill-Meyer gives some advice about writing trans/cis lesbian couples.
This post discusses a common pitfall: the acceptance narrative
This post by Cheryl Morgan discusses writing better trans characters, with a focus on writing trans women.
This post of mine discusses writing trans characters & the cis gaze.
Here are a few posts about writing the other that are not focused on race:
Rowan Ellis’ video on writing diverse friendships and why that’s important.
This amazing post by Elizabeth Bartmess about writing autistic characters.
This post about writing characters with emotional or developmental disabilities. (Some of what she says in this post is contradicted by other folks I’ve read and trust, especially about the idea of focusing on sameness. There are gems in here, though, in thinking about characters motivations. I’d recommend taking this with a grain of salt.)
This post about writing characters with disabilities and illnesses. (There are really important ideas discussed here, and I’d recommend taking the process described in the main post with a grain of salt.)
This piece by s.e. smith critiquing representation of mental illness and offering suggestions for writing about mental illness. Here is another post about writing characters with mental illness.
This post about not using disease as a metaphor.
This list of tips about researching and respectfully writing disabled characters.
I wrote about my efforts to write disabled characters in erotica
Jennifer Dubois on Writing Across Gender. While we are on the subject of gender, here is Imogen Binnie in conversation with Chuck Palahniuk, thinking about gender and writing.
Here are a few posts on fucking up and taking responsibility:
This quote from Kristin Cashore about fucking up when writing about disability and how she grappled with that after having already published the work that now she wishes had not been so ableist.
Sunny Moraine talks about her early work and the “noble savage” trope.
Justine Larbelestier talks about racism and transphobia in her own work
This speech by Gene Yang gives some great advice about being afraid and making mistakes.
Lastly, I find this quote from Claire Light to be a good reminder about writing the other, something to sit with, even though it can be hard, so I am reproducing it here in full:
“In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t,” I want to say: absolutely.
It’s absolutely true. You’re damned either way. If you don’t do it, you’re a racist. Yes, you are. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, you’re expressing a racial privilege that you don’t, morally, have any right to. That’s a subtle form of racism.
If you do do it and get it “wrong”, you’ll get reamed, and rightfully so. It’s presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don’t belong to if you can’t be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.
Further, if you do it and get it “right”, or rather, don’t get it wrong, you’ll still get reamed by members of that culture you’ve represented who rightfully resent a white writer’s success representing their culture. After all, every American ethnic minority has its writers: good and bad. The good writers are mostly ignored. Inevitably, some white writer will come along and do a bang-up job portraying that culture and will get—in one book, in one section of a book—more attention than the poc writer got over the course of three or five or ten books.
You’re a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it’s wrong. And that’s so unfair to you, isn’t it?
Welcome to a tiny taste of what it’s like to be a person of color.
Oh, and quit complaining.”