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.