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.