Writing the Other

Last weekend, I moderated a panel on “Writing the Other,” whether that Other meant someone of another race, another gender, another sexual orientation, or another species entirely.  The panel description asked “Can a man write from a woman’s viewpoint?  A woman from a man’s? Should they try?”

The consensus among panelists and audience was that these were very silly questions, and we weren’t going to waste time on them.  Given the size and general wackiness of the Internet, I suspect that someone out there is probably trying to say that white writers shouldn’t be allowed to write nonwhite characters, that straight writers shouldn’t try to write LGBT characters, and so on.

There are also people on the Internet saying they’re actually Na’vi (from Avatar), or that the world ended a while back and our ghosts just haven’t noticed yet, or that Publish America is a really good publisher.  As it turns out, saying something doesn’t make it true.

Most of the time though, when I hear “We’re not allowed to write _____ characters,” it’s an author talking.  Upon investigation, it usually turns out that nobody told our author friend that he or she wasn’t allowed to write these characters; instead, someone criticized him for doing it badly.

Well … yeah.  If you write flat, unrealistic, or just plain bad characters, you’re going to get called on that.  If all your women exist only to swoon and get naked for your hero (*cough* Heinlein *cough*), then people might complain.  They’re not saying you aren’t allowed to write women characters.  They’re saying please stop sucking at it.

The panel mainly focused on how to do that.  Things like making your characters well-rounded human beings instead of “The Black Character” and “The Gay Character” and “The Christian Character” and so on.  Like learning to listen.  Like going beyond a single token “other”.

As an author, I do believe I need to be careful about issues of cultural appropriation.  Nisi Shawl has written about this far better than I could, and I recommend reading her piece.  But I think there’s a huge difference between “Authors should be aware of cultural appropriation issues” and “Authors aren’t allowed to write characters from other cultures.”

Discussion welcome, as always.