One of the most difficult tasks in writing is creating believable characters outside of your own gender, race or species. Regardless of the type of fiction you write, the “Other” can be a daunting task for anyone, be they a beginner or a seasoned veteran.
Quite a bit of the “Other” I have encountered in reading Science Fiction and Fantasy works are one-dimensional and even stereotypical at times. The alien race of “noble savages” or of “enlightened beings” has been done to death and beyond. These races are projected as being a mono-culture; either everybody is a savage or everybody is an angel. AS an example, you don’t see or hear about any Klingon fishermen do you? Or of them drinking anything but blood wine? Do Cardassians drink anything other than kanar? Do they get drunk and beat their wives on Corusant? There is rarely room for diversity. Granted, there isn’t much time for diversity in short stories, but what’s the excuse for novella’s and novels, movies and TV shows? One show, Alien Nation, did an excellent job of fleshing out the day to day lives of aliens living on Earth.
Let’s take a look at the roots of the concept of the “Other”. If you go back in time to when we were living in caves and spent most of our lives foraging for food and water, we learned to wary of those outside of our immediate tribe or family. They were either competition for resources or out right hostile and out to hurt us; they were different. As we became more civilized, establishing communities, these ideas of the “Other” being different stayed with us.
When you meet someone for the first time, you automatically classify them by what strikes you as the most different aspects from yourself.
The two primary physical characteristics we use for identifying criteria are race and gender. This allows us to immediately judge whether or not the person could be construed as a threat to us in anyway. That’s the way the human race has evolved socially. Everybody does it, even the most enlightened people will do the initial knee-jerk analysis, just to put the person in a box where the can try to relate to them. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as it does not stop there. Otherwise, interaction between the two individuals has the potential to be inaccurate, even tragic.
How many centuries were Africans enslaved and mistreated, just because they were of a different skin color and did not partake of the predominant European culture of the time? Even today, African-Americans, along with Hispanics, Native Americans and people of various Asian decent are treated with suspicion and hatred by many white people because they think of them as the “Other”. Stereotypical representations in the media over the past six decades only exacerbated this. And a lot of them feel the same way about Caucasians. It cuts both ways.
In writing, staying at the surface will generate characters with little depth or breadth, and lead to a loss of interest or even outrage from your readers. Think about your own immediate family. Everyone has a different personality, likes and dislikes. Now, look at your extended family; cousins, aunts, uncles and so on. Their personalities seem different than yours, don’t they? And the look different from you. They are the “Other”, even though you are related to them. When you write about a different gender, culture or race, do you spend time world building? Or do you just grab bits and pieces out of thin air and hope for the best?
Draw on your own life experiences, especially if you grew up in an area with very diverse cultures. Pay attention to the news; see what is happening across the country and the world. Just because you write about aliens with tentacles and twelve eyes doesn’t mean they don’t have priests, cops, fisherbeings or even schizophrenics in their society.
Do research; Wikipedia is great for finding facts about other cultures. Ask your friends; they all come from different backgrounds and I am sure would be more than willing to answer your questions.
Writing about another race or gender is really writing your own experiences into the story. Whether the characters you write about are a different color, gender or from another dimension, they all have been influenced by a wide variety of circumstances growing up.
Take advantage of it; don’t fall into stereotypes and clichés. Allow your characters to express who they really are. Your stories will be enriched by them.