Writing about ‘the other’

How we come to identify and know characters for novels varies greatly. Some writers lend from their own personalities and experiences; friends and acquaintances can inspire IMG_4523them; or random strangers we meet (or have never met) might be bought to life between our pages. In fantasy characters are sometimes concocted from mixed up blends of real creatures or from visions from in sleeping life.

In the mystery novel I am writing, one of the characters was inspired by a real colleague at my workplace. I did actually ask him if he minded me lending parts of him for this purpose and gave him the first few chapters to read. Luckily he was happy enough to even agree to let me use his real first name for the character.
Another of the characters in my novel has a job that is somewhat outside of the realms of my own experience, and not the kind of job that is easy to get an intimate insight into from Google. I could have written the profession as I imagine it might be, but was concerned that I would end up with a character who was a little two dimensional, or worse miss the essence of the characters work life all together.

Lamen Bay - Lamen Island, EpiIt mattered to me that I try to present this profession in a light that someone working in it would want it to be. So, I tracked down a workplace that employs people in the profession and sent an email to ask if any of the staff would be prepared to chat to me about the industry and what they do. I was lucky to get some interest and caught up with a woman who was happy to share her experiences and insights with me. It also gave me a chance to ask about what stereotypes they thought I should avoid and what they would like to see reflected in a character working in the profession. I undertook that I would send my manuscript for them to critique when I am done.

These experiences have made me ponder the debate about ‘write what you know’ which had been running hot in recent times. What does it mean exactly? And where are the limits? After all, if we took the advice literally surely there would be no fantasy novels with dragons right? The advice risks paralysing us into white-washing our words and delivering an oversupply of boring books about people just like us doing everyday things like we do. In my case it would involve a lot of dog walking and gardening.

When we interrogate what is actually meant by ‘write what you know’ perhaps it is more about emotions, desires and feelings and our ability to be sensitive to, and empathise IMG_4283with, the plight of ‘the other’ than it is about events and things. I would add that it obliges us to learn about our subjects and make every attempt to represent ‘the other’ authentically and where possible give the people you are representing an opportunity to critique your version of them before your manuscript sees the light of the publishing world.

We are after all writing fiction, which is about exploring the world in all its technicolor, not simply editorialising our own lives.


Main image: Hairdresser at WOMAD

Inset images in order: Resting woman, New York City; Paddling woman, Vanuatu; Pride March, New York City

2 thoughts on “Writing about ‘the other’

  1. Sonja

    What a great idea, touches on an overarching social work theme of acknowledging the expertise of each person in their own lives. Dragons respectfully excluded. Assumptions are easily made, in life and in fiction and acknowledging there is some responsibility on the writers part to avoid a stereotypical presentation of characters is respectful and potentially political. Personally a novel without some social justice theme, the more sublime the better, holds little appeal. A novel, again for me, is not only an invitation to engage with your imagination but also an opportunity to examine the world around us. To question, be the naive enquirer. This can only happen with a genuine interest in the characters being represented. A novel without this makes for dull and unfinished reading, perhaps destined to be written as a Hollywood blockbuster.

    Gotta have soul.


    1. Thanks Sonja. I do love the idea of interviewing a dragon over lunch, but suspect I would end up desert! I agree with all you say. Fiction is an opportunity to shine a light on issues in (hopefully) a new way but we must try to ensure the characters an opportunity to be authentic by exploring what their lives might be like if different from our own.


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