learning to “write the other”

These days, it seems a week doesn’t go by without another debate about the merits of young adult fiction or diversity in fiction. We’ve made so much progress, but we have such a long way to go…

One frequent comment about the challenge of writing more stories featuring protagonists who are of color or LGBTQIA or have different abilities is that many writers worry they will get it wrong, so they would rather not try. Of course it’s much easier to write about characters like them and experiences they know, but hey, writing isn’t supposed to be easy.

To be honest, I have the same fear when I write about Korean protagonists, particularly for stories set in South Korea, and I sometimes feel like I’m appropriating my own culture because I’ve often felt like an outsider. And yet, though I am only half-white, for many years my stories were about white heterosexual male protagonists. I had absorbed so much information about the white experience from a lifetime of television, books, movies, and video games that this was a comfortable default for me. Lucky!

But I’ve also written stories with female protagonists and elderly people and lesbians and characters with schizophrenia and kids of different ethnicities… How the heck did I do that? The same way I write about robots, aliens, quantum mechanics, and hackers–I do a lot of freaking research. And I have a writing group and beta readers that include people who a) come from all different backgrounds, and b) will call me out when I’ve made a mistake or a lazy choice. Then I do what I can to make the story better, and it generally turns out all right. It’s always a lot of work, but in the end, I’m always a much better writer for it.

One of my favorite writing books, which I consider indispensable to every writer, is Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (Aqueduct Press, 2005). You should absolutely get and read this book, which will immediately have you questioning your own assumptions and defaults in writing and give you the tools to understand and improve. If you prefer more guided learning, there are also the Writing the Other Master Classes, which teach you to “write characters very different from you sensitively and convincingly.” The fall 2016 series of classes is already in session, and registration closes tomorrow, Sept. 8! Hurry!

This series of six two-hour seminars run from late August to late September, and include classes that dive deep into Writing the Other topics, such as: writing native american characters, diversity and inclusion for comic and graphic novel writers and artists, writing for trans and non-binary narratives, and more. Each seminar allows writers the opportunity to learn from and have a dialogue with experts in each subject, such as scholar Debbie Reese, author Sara Ryan, and Writing the Other authors Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

Writers may take individual seminars or sign up for the whole series. Scholarships are available for writers who need financial aid.

Seminars began August 27th and run through September 27th. Some of the upcoming workshops (Sept. 10 and 11) include “Writing Deaf and Blind Characters” with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, “Writing the Other: Comics and Graphic Novels” with Sara Ryan, “More than Eunuchs and Extraterrestrials: Writing Positive Portrayals of Asexual Characters” with Lauren Jankowski, and “Writing for Trans and Non-Binary Narratives with Ashley Lauren Rogers.”

Visit http://writingtheother.com/master-classes/ for all details, dates, and times.

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2 Responses to learning to “write the other”

  1. Ivan Izo Sep 8 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    An interesting post. I’ve always tried to follow the advice, “don’t write from your center”, which means don’t make your main character too much like yourself. When our protagonist is different from ourselves we must work to understand them. Our interest in a character will become interest for the reader. I’ve never tried having a protagonist of a different gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. It sounds like a good challenge for a future novel.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Marina Sep 15 2016 at 5:57 am #

    “Writing the Other” is an excellent book that helped me complete my postgraduate dissertation about the alien as other, and write a short story with a diverse protagonist. An excellent read!

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