Writing About the Other

Writing a story from a foreign or external perspective offers not only the reward of expanding your own awareness about people but can also lead to empathy for others that you may not have had before. To write about foreign lives often requires research that can lead to discovery and will likely expose a writer to experiences unique to a particular culture. With the political climate in America being so polarized, we might all benefit from writers making an effort to explore the unfamiliar.

Yes, one could always read a book or watch a movie and share the journey a protagonist takes, but often, that story will be presented through a lens that is familiar to the reader. Meanwhile, if the story lacks a familiar viewpoint, then the experience might actually be alienating. Writing about somebody else requires an author to take an internal journey to connect with their character and understand their motives. If an author commits to their work, then the experience will likely be richer and more memorable than simply reading a story.

Think about a writing exercise that requires you to compose a story about somebody you dislike—or even hate—and see how hard it is to find connection with the character. You may even struggle to find a starting point for your writing. Since people tend to write about their personal lives, you could think about an encounter you had with somebody different from yourself and then simply flip the script—try to imagine what they experienced in the same moment you recall from personal memory. The process already sounds a lot like empathy.

Your story might require you to research a particular culture and ask others for input. If you don’t do the research, you risk creating a character that lacks verisimilitude or whose motives are unconvincing. I remember my own experience in which a playwright at a local theater asked me for feedback about a minority character in their script. “Did I get it right? Is that how they would act?” I chose to defer because I was conflicted about their writing. On the one hand, I consider myself non-representational of my minority, but at the same time, I thought the playwright’s characters seemed a bit stereotyped. I disliked acknowledging that people within my minority often behave exactly as they are stereotyped, and that’s what I told the writer.

“globalization can sometimes stall and turn to fractionalization or even xenophobia.”

Right now, I am writing a play about a lesbian who employs unconventional means to separate from her husband of thirteen years. The subject is almost completely alien to me, but I’ve also attended a men’s support group for the past year that’s proven educational. The group is a mix of straight, bi and gay men who meet to talk about issues in their lives, but lately there’s been a great deal of talk about divorce. For me, gay marriage hasn’t been around long enough to have any first or secondhand stories about divorce, but as it happens, two of the men in my group have separated from wives that were bi or lesbian. While I don’t take notes at my men’s group, my time there counts as research. Before I started going, I had zero connection with men’s issues like marital infidelity, patterns of narcissism/codependency in relationships, and the particular pain of child custody rights. Lucky me, I guess.

Much of my writing draws on my own emotions and personal experiences, but I admire people that take on the challenge of writing about “the other”. Globalization has created new platforms for writers outside America to launch their writing directly to our mainstream, and the self-publishing boom has also opened the way for minority or niche writers to reach a wider audience. Nonetheless, the progress of globalization can sometimes stall and turn to fractionalization or even xenophobia.

At what number does a population of a city have too many immigrants? Or refugees? Why would a straight, white man living in rural America go see a movie about the last Korean princess? I don’t have answers to those questions, but I do know that Korean cinema and TV has a huge presence on the Internet and is never more than a click away. Personally, I just binge-watched Arirang TV and learned that Korean audiences love to discuss and rate the “chemistry” between male actors. Apparently, bromance is big business.

Wow. Culture shock. Yet somehow it feels like a writing prompt.

–by Spriggan Radfae
Featured image by The Man Machine. Public domain.

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