The Good Kind of Othering

In an attempt to stay well away from the toxic soup of political matters, I’ve spent a lot of time this past week doing Other Stuff. This, I promise you, is a Good Thing, because my snark-o-matic was maxed out and the uber-cynical button stuck in the ‘on’ position.

While I’m quite sure there are those who enjoyed the results, it’s tiring and kind of draining when it lasts long enough: I’m the kind of extreme introvert who needs plenty of down time to recover from bouts of mega-snark.

Which means that I really, really shouldn’t go near the rather sad rant of a certain award-winning author who managed to let slip that she knows she’s a token winner but still thinks that’s okay because those who disagree are ___ist.

Sweetie, I’m humanist (as opposed to humanitarian which, like vegetarianism, is a dietary choice I’m not ready for). I don’t give a flying what sub-sub-group of humanity you belong to. My criteria for books I’ll read is “a good book”. My criteria for people I’ll make friends with is “a good person” (for values of ‘good’ which are somewhat quirky, but that’s Odds for you).

Books – fiction of all flavors – tend to work better if authors treat their characters the same way. Let them be people first and vehicles for the plot or theme or cause or whatever very much second. It’s not even that difficult to, provided you actually have some notion of how people work.

The first thing to remember with character-building is that no, not all people think the same way. We tend to assume that everyone thinks just like us (this is, in my view, one of the rare advantages of Oddity – you tend to find out relatively early that you don’t think the same way other people do. Then you often need to work out that other people are still people, but that’s a different issue). It’s one of those human failings and why so many folk don’t understand how anyone could possibly believe [insert religion or ideology here].

It works kind of like this: when we’re babies and toddlers, we learn really quickly and tend not to forget what we learn – but the knowledge we pick up shunts off into the automatic systems where it gets used without any conscious input on our part. How often do you think about how to walk? But there was a time when you had to work really hard to coordinate your legs and arms and the precise tilt of your body, and if you got it wrong you fell over.

As well as the obvious stuff like how to walk and talk and so on, we also picked up our basic view of life – call it the personal Theory of Everything – during that time frame. This is mostly when we humans learn what not-family people are “our kind” (generally, anyone who looks or acts differently than what we were around when we were growing up), and what the rules are for interacting with other people.

Authors are supposed to make it possible for us to live inside the head of someone whose basic ruleset isn’t the same as ours. To do that, authors have to be able to imagine and understand someone whose life follows very different rules. This is a dangerous undertaking: it brings the risk of losing oneself to the Other (hence the heated debates that follow when someone tries to understand the motives and motivations of those who commit horrific crimes – there’s an almost atavistic fear that understanding something well enough will lead to it consuming the one seeking understanding… Where did you think the Cthulhu mythos came from? Whatever else he did and was, Lovecraft understood human fears like few others), as well as the fear that one will find it harder to mete out justice to someone whose motives are fully understood (this one does hold a certain amount of accuracy).

A good part of the whole notion that authors can’t write something they haven’t experienced or a person from a culture different from their own stems from this reflexive belief – as does the idea that a reader can’t identify with a character that isn’t enough like them.

To which I say bollocks. Humans aren’t telepathic. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head – but despite that we manage to be incredibly good at figuring out what other people think and what they feel. Of course we authors are going to use that in our characters, and of course readers are going to be able to identify with it if it’s done reasonably well. It’s one of the skills that we as a species are very good at.

Pity those who refuse to try for fear they will lose themselves to the Other. Pity them, but don’t let them make your choices for you.


  1. Did Nora really come right out and say she got the Big H because tokenism? Seriously? That’s retarded.

    Even I, cynic of the spaceways, do not think that. In my mind she won because Puppy Kickers needed to reinforce that the Big H is all about “QUALITY!!!1!” and nothing screams quality in lit’rachure louder than grimdark with a side of depression sauce.

    When an author is “other than white,” nobody can tell. Its a book. We can’t see you typing.

    1. I just skimmed it. I think it was more like she won because the people who think that sci-fi winners should only be people like them were roundly defeated. But like I said, I only skimmed it.

      1. Okay, I get it. Because all Puppies are straightwhitecismale haterz and we would nevvvverz vote for anybody not like us. Ayup. Fer shurz.

        The usual doodoo, in other words. New term: its not a Big Lie, its a Lie Swarm.

        Nora can bite me. I didn’t vote for her scribbling because its a nightmare on a bun. Better I should hit my thumb with a hammer all day than read it.

          1. I don’t credit that one’s statements about #NeverTrump. If that is integral to the definition, I think the phenomena is better described in other words.

            The heads of the soviet union recruited a bunch of religious converts, promising the sun, the moon and the New Jerusalem if only they lied about how great things were. These zealots helped the soviets build a fortress of lies, which helped the dictatorship maintain its power. The lies eventually undermined the Soviet union until Reagan could make it fall. But the lie builders remain, still convinced that they are building their New Jerusalem as they mortar row after row of lies together.

  2. I think it’s interesting that there are cultures (and some individuals) have the idea that “understanding” is the same as “agreeing with”.

    As in “I understand your POV” means that “I agree with your POV”.

    Of course, this makes discussions between people with different POVs very “interesting”. 😉

    1. Which is a big part of why said individuals and cultures find it so dangerous to even look outside their little boxes.

  3. One of my grad school professors hammered into us that people are people, no matter when or where. Certain basic desires are universal. Now, the society built on top of those desires can be pretty odd-looking to outsiders, and there is such a thing as taking apparent similarities as having the same social cause when they don’t (like Ming-Qing Dynasty Chinese businesses that look like contemporary European corporations- and aren’t), but people are people. They eat, sleep, love, have kids, seem to like pretty things, are curious (in general), and the like.

    1. My mother’s observation was that in every culture that has underwear, they have the Mother’s Dictum of “wear clean $underwearthing, what if you were in an accident?” Strangely, this universal wisdom has not, to my knowledge, been studied by anthropologists.

    2. ” people are people, no matter when or where.”

      A person’s a person, no matter how small. If you don’t believe me, just ask Horton.

  4. Something I find funny is when readers mistake a characters’ thoughts and beliefs for the author’s. One of my MC is a very earnest, very liberal college student, and her thoughts and dialog reflect that. And I got some angry reviews about the book’s leftist slant. On the other hand, my mil-sf series gets reviews with the ‘fascist’ word tossed around, so I suppose it balances out…

    1. This is what I don’t get about actors and characters. I might care what some characters think about things (which is impossible to know by talking to actors since their characters are written by not-them), but who cares what an actor thinks about anything? They memorize and regurgitate for a living.

      Captain Picard’s views on socialism might be interesting. Patrick Stewart’s not so much.

      1. Well Captain Picard is a fictional character so “his” views on socialism are the views of the writer.

        So I don’t care about Picard’s views or Stewart’s views. 😉

        1. Captain Picard is a fictional character so “his” views on socialism are the views of the writer.

          While it may often be true that authors inject their views into characters, I can think of several counterexamples. Heinlein, for example — but more recently, and on the liberal side of the spectrum, Joss Whedon wrote the following line for Captain America in The Avengers: “There’s only one God, Ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” Great line, and more importantly, Whedon, an atheist, was/is a good enough writer to let the character have (and express) his own views that aren’t Whedon’s.

          1. Yeah, looking at Whedon’s politics, both Mal Reynolds and Cap would be flipping coins to see who got the first shot.

          2. True, good writers do that (which is the point of this article).

            But good writers and Star Drek rarely met. 😦

      2. Pretty much. I miss the old days when actors were roughly on the same level as prostitutes in social standing. The ability to recite lines on command doesn’t confer any special insights in political thought.

        1. Any more than being very good at one thing (say, nuclear physics) makes a person very good at something else, or even moderately knowledgeable about something else (say, biology).

          1. In “Lucifer’s Hammer”, Niven & Pournelle gave a “fore-telling” of events by having a geologist saying that the comet won’t come close to Earth. 👿

    2. One of my Mil-SF novels (Minutegirls, ) will doubtless evoke some mixed reactions, as the first American military unit encountered, on the front lines against China (well, sort of) — all female — is from the Bella Abzug Brigade.

  5. Available from Third Millennium,, which also is bringing out out as I type the paperback of The One World — The Musketeers Invade the Land of the Amazons.

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