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Writing the other

Red Dwarf – on a two year mission to explore a strange, alien world.

I’m here a year now, and I should be used to it, generally. The things I complain about probably won’t be the most significant things. I’m not going to talk about gun crime, drugs, partisan politics or the temperature, which at the moment is unsuited to human survival. What is annoying me at the moment are the light switches in my new house.

In Ireland or the UK, there are one or two switches beside the door in each room, and they turn on lights in the ceiling. There are sockets with switches beside them. I can’t imagine anyone being confused. Here, every switch is a step into the unknown. Do you turn it, press it, pull it? Does it turn on a main light? If so, in which room? Some switches turn on a fan, some turn on a socket. All too many appear to have no discernable effect – though I fear that I might be connected to some psychological experiment where a “volunteer” is getting repeated shocks.

How about the writing? Here’s what I’ve been thinking about at the moment. When you write fiction, there’s no point in writing about something that you didn’t make up. Something has to be different from real life – but it has to be tied to real life. At some stage, you are writing about someone other than yourself – someone whose experience is different than your own. People of different race, gender, class or background. People with abilities or disabilities you don’t have.

When you write fantasy or SF, that’s an issue you can dodge, if you want. Just make your
“different” people something totally different. Make it an alien, or a mutant. This can avoid the awkward issues, but it can’t hide underlying attitudes. Scratch a Jar-Jar, and a Stepin Fetchit pops out.

If you’re writing about humans, then what kind of humans are you going to portray? I’m a straight Caucasian middle-class male. I could write stories about straight Caucasian middle-class males – and many a good story has been written within those restrictions – but sooner or later I will probably write about women, or foreigners, or people with different sexual orientations. How do I approach this?

There’s an inherent problem here when stepping outside the very restricted range. You have to find a way to identify with people whose life experience is very different. You have also to bear in mind that in many cases, what you write is taken as your opinion of the entire group. If you have one gay woman character, then whatever characteristics you assign to that character might be taken as your opinion of gay women. It’s only too tempting to avoid trouble – to keep all the exciting, interesting flaws for the straight Caucasian middle class males, and to have a string of token characters to make up the variety, each of them virtuous, brave, exemplary and dull.

The only alternative is to trust your own instincts. To make your characters real to yourself as best you can do. I’m in the middle of a story featuring characters who are a long way from my own experience. I’m looking forward to hearing if I’ve got it right.

Meanwhile, the dwarfs had a very pleasant Saturday at the White house. Snow was the perfect host as always. This strange, alien place is very homely sometimes.

Leave a comment


  1. Patrick Donnelly

     /  August 6, 2012

    Writing about the largely unknown qualifies as fiction? The Ferengi etc most such terms are found in Victorian writing about the various tribes and the places in which the forces of HMG found them? Feel free to copy this as I have been refused patent on this idea so often….

    But if you forget the science aspect, it is mere fantasy. Electric Universe is science, just not as we know it, Jim!

  2. Well said. A writer’s characters do in many ways reveal his/her own prejudices and sensitivities. Fiction is a place where the mundane can turn into the surreal. So spread your wings and fly. If you are true to your characters, they will be true to you. A character, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs who moves the plot and grows–is a good one, warts and all.

    One of the first things I learned as a writer was that not everyone will like what I write, and they are not shy about sharing. The second thing I learned was I don’t care what they think. I don’t write for them, I write for me.

  3. Really great points! I think it takes a brave person to write about someone or something out of their comfort zone, whether it works out or not. 🙂


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