Writing “The Other”: Creating Characters Different than You by Brad Windhauser
Oh, I thought a woman had written this story….
You wrote this? But you’re white…
I’ve heard these types of comments expressed during fiction workshops—and not always at me. There’s a compliment buried in these reactions—in theory, the author rendered a type of character so well, that character felt real, as if the author had lived as that person. Is there a bigger compliment to a writer? However, there’s also an undercurrent of anger there: what are you doing writing about a person (or from a particular person’s point of view) who is not you? Meaning: stick to your own.
This last type of comment I have never understood. Based on that type of reaction, I should only be writing about white, middle-aged gay men. How boring would that be? I’m not saying that perspective is boring; but, why should I impose such limitations on my imagination? If anything, exploring a person different than myself—usually quite different from me—allows me to probe the types of stories that are universal. It also allows me to show respect for people who are different than I am. For these reasons (and many others), I often intentionally set out to craft characters different than me.
I don’t ever intend to write a “woman” story or an “immigrant” story. I do, however, hit upon an idea for a story and then consider the type of character to best visit this story upon. The choice has to make sense, though, and it has to feel important: why this character for this story? If I get the idea to write about race difference in a Philadelphia neighborhood, I have to decide why a Chinese character is better for the story than, say, a Korean character. I have to understand what about that character’s life experiences and particular point of view are crucial for the events I plan to explore? If the answer is unclear, the story will likely feel forced—as if I’m forcing some life lesson, a moral worthy of a car bumper sticker, onto the page.
But if the answer is that the story cannot be told another way, then I know I’ve discovered my character and I start working.
When a character is very different than me, the first thing I know I have to tackle is authenticity. This usually requires research: who is this person? Probing deep allows me to (hopefully) avoid stereotypes and hunt for the human being buried beneath the visible differences in identity—such as skin color or gender. This means visiting the library (or Google Books online) to find books, searching online for newspaper articles (for events related to the identity, such as holidays, rituals, or common issues) as well as blogs where individuals share their experiences.
All of this info might not indicate who the person is yet but it will help me eliminate the details that they are not. The more I eliminate the more truth rises to the surface. The clearer the picture, the bigger the reward: often, what I find is the thread that lays bare the universal connections we all share: Love, fear, compassion, desire, despair, dreams, etc. These are the details that inform the story (or at least their reaction to the plot).
The benefits of pushing myself out of my comfort zone to explore these type of characters extend beyond the page. First, I’m forced to see life through different points of view. This builds not only compassion for the people I care about but also random strangers I might have been inclined to ignore as I pass them on the street but who might need something as simple as a smile or a hand through a door. Second, I learn to appreciate different ways to express emotions, and in the process I remind myself not to judge so quickly. The more this happens, the better I get at approaching character in general in my writing. Third, I see other writers’ work more clearly. I’m less concerned with figuring out who is writing and instead focus on what feels honest on the page. This enhances the feedback I am able to provide as well as foster appreciation for character rendering.
There’s a lot you can learn—as a writer and as a human being—by working with “the other” in your work.