The Other in Fiction

This article got me all fired up, but it also got me thinking about the use of the Other (in the sense of Hegel, but I mean socio-politically, closer to De Beauvoir’s conception, as defined by and in opposition to a white, able-bodied, heterosexual male) in fiction. Of course, there are ways of writing about any character’s “otherness” that can be exploitative, and ways of writing about it that can be insightful–sometimes the line is clear, and sometimes it’s not. I remember reading a book in college (though of course I can’t remember the book) and learning from my instructor that a certain character’s disability was being used (according to her) for symbolic purposes, and that she saw that as exploitation of a disability.

What I’m concerned with, more specifically, is the relationship of the Otherness of any such character to plot. If a character qualifies as some sort of Other, or falls into a marginalized or minority group, must that Otherness be an issue in the story? Must it have a reason for being? Some would say that there must be a reason for every decision made in writing, and I would generally agree with that, but must the reason always be so clear to the reader that said Otherness becomes a focal point in the story?

I suppose to the extent that everything an author knows about her characters necessarily informs those characters’ decisions, which in turn affect the plot and become catalysts for other character’s actions, the answer is yes. But if that is not so apparent to a reader, what is the effect on the reader’s understanding of the character, and that character’s place in the story? Will the character seem like a token? I guess this is a more relevant question when considering minor characters, but maybe not.

For example, I’ve been working a story in which the female narrator is attracted (or simply infatuated), as an adolescent, to (with) another female character. I didn’t mean for this to happen. The narrator began as a male character, and, after having written most of the story, I realized that I was writing in the voice of a young girl, and not a boy. That was certain. However, the narrator’s infatuation with this other girl was integral to the plot. The solution, as I saw it, was to simply change the narrator’s gender, thus making her a kind of Other in the context of the story.

But is it reasonable to assume that, with this change in the character’s identity (and presumably, her consciousness of that identity), nothing more about the story or the character needs to be changed? Does a reader find Otherness that is not addressed in the story distracting? Furthermore, is it ethical and responsible for me to write in the voice of a character who experiences an “Otherness” that I don’t (only assuming I don’t)?

Would the answers to any of these questions be different if the category of Otherness were different–a question of race, for example? Is it exploitative to populate a piece of fiction with so-called Others (even as minor characters), or does it work to normalize the visibility and presence of said Others in fiction? I ask not necessarily because I don’t have my own opinions, but because I want to know what other (no pun intended) people think. Tell me.

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6 thoughts on “The Other in Fiction

  1. clsguppy

    Oooh, this is a really good topic, and a thoughtful one. First off, I’d say that to a certain extent, otherness is part of the human condition – or at least the experience of feeling “other.” I am too fat, too thin, too poor. My ears are too big, my butt is too big, my nose is too small, etc. I’m not trying to make light of larger issues: race, gender, disabilities, etc. But I think the reason discussions of “the other” make us uncomfortable is because they remind us of our own feelings of isolation and left-out-ness, which of course, we’d rather not feel. But which are, I believe, woven into the fabric of our being human. I think those feelings are at the heart of grief, of our longing for someone who can’t be here, and of our feeling cast aside by society because we’re not happy all the time.

    On that note, I’m actually going to quote Daniel Terry, who said that without books where men write as women, women write as men, black as white, white as black, etc., we would have no literature at all. He also said that without our ability to imagine the perspective of “the other,” we have no hope of ever ending war. (Personally, I don’t think we ever will end war, but it’s a nice idea, yes?)

    Having said all of that, I have also seen people/characters used as “devices,” to make a point, which gives me heebie-jeebies. But according to what you’ve shared about your story, that’s not happening here. You’re following your instinct. And the fact that you’re raising these questions at all pretty much proves that you’re not doing that.

    And I’m also thinking about Jessica’s novel about a transgender character, in which gender is obviously an issue, but not the only or even the biggest issue. He’s just a guy in love who’s trying to find his way. And I think that treatment gives her character respect and autonomy and dignity.

    So I guess all of this is a very long way of saying, Go for it. I think a lengthy discussion of the girl’s sexuality would be a lot more distracting than just telling her story, as a human being.

    Good luck. xo

    Reply
  2. Lo Kwa

    I love the questions you raise in this post. One thing that’s really interesting to me is the issue of otherness in minor characters (as opposed to, for example, otherness in your main character). Without much of an education in creative ethics (or, actually, fiction :/ ), I personally feel that otherness most risks being exploited in minor characters, precisely because to position a character as obviously “main” is to send an implicit message to the reader that that character ultimately deserves their sympathy. Main characters are never “merely plot devices,” whereas minor characters can sometimes be merely plot devices, and when this is so, they are, by necessity of storytelling, less humanized than the main character. Their defining characteristics might therefore be much more easily dismissed/stereotyped/disrespected by the reader–especially depending on the way the author handles/utilizes the Otherness of those minor characters in order to create the world of the story. I think?

    Though this is of a different medium, I’m thinking of Diablo Cody’s treatment of people of color in both Juno and Jennifer’s Body. The same Asian actress plays a role in both movies–and both her roles are awful, brief roles that encourage people (who presumably identify more with Juno than with Su-Chin) to laugh at the young Asian woman as an overeager embarrassment to herself. The whole point, the movies seem to say, is that it’s okay to laugh because her character is so minor, i.e. inherently unimportant to the real story… I’m not sure what I definitively think about this except to say that artists who render Othered minor characters as dehumanized are artists that I will expect to not even consider telling the story of an Othered main character. (This is not to say that all artists who render Othered minor characters render them as dehumanized.) That in and of itself is a big move that I would love to see made in contemporary storytelling–the presence of Otherness in more main than minor characters. Literally, a move from the margin into the realm of “having a story to tell.”

    In other words, I’d love to read your story. 🙂

    Reply
  3. bel

    “What I’m concerned with, more specifically, is the relationship of the Otherness of any such character to plot. If a character qualifies as some sort of Other, or falls into a marginalized or minority group, must that Otherness be an issue in the story? Must it have a reason for being? Some would say that there must be a reason for every decision made in writing, and I would generally agree with that, but must the reason always be so clear to the reader that said Otherness becomes a focal point in the story?”

    I just rambled a whole bunch to get a hold of my thoughts. So here’s my new two cents.

    You’re not writing an essay, you’re writing a story. Sure, address the issues as they arrive naturally in your work (your narrator’s advances are thwarted because the other girl likes guys; there’s a lot of confusion about sexuality because everyone’s young and hyper-sexual anyhow, confusing friendship for love…), but don’t make it the focal point of your book.

    I don’t believe in definite answers. The only truths that sit well with me are emotional. You’re not writing to address stereotypes, either of character or of experience. (Or at least, I hope you’re not.) Your focus is the story and your characters. In most scenarios, people are not consumed by their Otherness, there’s too much else going on.

    And when it comes to the reader, they’re going to read into the issues if it’s an issue for them. But I don’t think anyone ever returns to a book because of the issues.

    Write for the re-read, is what I guess I’m getting at?

    Okay. belline stops babbling now.

    🙂

    Reply
  4. rahurt Post author

    @Chris: But Brian’s a smarty-pants too. This post is actually the sum total of everything I learned in five years of undergrad.

    Reply

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