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Writing Excuses 7.40: Writing the Other

Writing Excuses 7.40: Writing the Other


Key points: Writing the other means writing people who are not like yourself. Beware the magical Negro, noble savage, and other tropes and stereotypes. Watch out for characters who are just plot devices. The best way to write the other is from personal experience and knowing people. And do your research! Do not assume that everyone is like you, and everyone has the same cultural background. When you write the other, otherness should be part of them, but not their focus. Try having two or more characters from the same culture, but very different. Go shopping with an open mind, and see what shakes loose.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 40.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, live at GenCon. Writing…
[Brandon] Writing the other with Maurice Broaddus.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] Maurice, introduce yourself, please.

[Maurice] My name is Maurice Broaddus. I write urban fantasy mostly, although when I think of urban fantasy, I think I'm saying things that people aren't hearing when they're hearing urban fantasy. My series is called Knights of Breton Court. But I also write science fiction, horror, fantasy, usually in the short story area. I'm also the editor of a series called Dark Faith, the Dark Faith anthology series from Apex books, which all the stories in the anthology turn on the idea of faith, so basically faith and race are pretty much right where I am, in terms of my writing.

[Brandon] Oh, cool. Awesome. You suggested this topic to us. It's a topic that I am very fascinated in. I think it's a topic that a lot of writers need to… Every writer needs to learn this, and it's writing the other. This… What we mean to say by writing the other, we mean writing people who are not like yourself. Other races, other genders, other cultures, other sexual identities… All of these things. It's one of the most difficult things to get right in fiction. It's historically been a kind of a stopping point for a lot of writers. They'll do it poorly, and then it becomes a big dialogue and discussion. On the podcast before, I've pointed people toward RaceFail, which was a few years ago. Just look that up, because there were a lot of essays written that can expand your understanding of this. But Maurice, this seems to be a topic that's interesting to you. Talk about why.
[Maurice] For a couple different reasons. One actually comes from a personal reason because… I mean, granted I'm like the only black guy on the panel, so you think, "Oh, well, he's the expert on writing the other."
[Howard] You're exactly like the only black guy up here on the panel.
[Maurice] But growing up however, I think I have… [Unclear -- I'm one?] With a unique skill set, but coming from a background… I grew up in a household, a very multicultural household, even though it was an all-black household. My mother was from Jamaica. I was born in London. My father is American. So I grew up the other in my own house. My mother actually referred to American Blacks as you people on a regular basis. So it's like… So growing up… It's like all right, so this is part of my future therapy bills it's going to be I'm exposing you all to… So I've always come up… Especially growing up Black and Geek, not to put too fine a point on things, that doesn't exactly set you off good in the black community. You are other among others, in some sense. That's kind of how I grew up. So I kind of draw upon that whenever I'm writing… Approaching the idea of writing the other. Because, if nothing else, I think… Think of it from a writer's point of view… I mean, we've all been in that space where we've been the other. When you're introducing the reader into your story, I mean, it's that invitation of you know, we're all others, come on into the story, because I'm about to drop you into a whole world that you aren't a part of anyway, so I'm basically inviting you in as the other.

[Brandon] Okay. So let's talk… I mean, let's get into the gritty. How do we do this? Usually… Okay, let me ask. Let's do the negative examples first. What do people do wrong? Because it seems… Those seem sometimes obvious. What are the big red flags?
[Maurice] Well, sometimes I review books. Someone sent me a book, it's a self published book from the Christian market. I thought, "Well, I'll give this a shot." So I'm reading this book, and it's about this guy who started getting all these prophetic dreams from God and he doesn't know what to do about it. So he's going through his Hero's Journey and everything, and I'm not 50 pages in before he encounters the magical Negro. I'm sitting there going, "Oh..."
[Mary] Now, again, because we have people who don't know… This is jargon. So let's define the magical Negro.
[Maurice] So the magical Negro, and it's okay if you say magical Negro to me. I'm not going to be offended, I know what the trope is. I've had some people come up to me and say, "the magical African-American guy…"
[Mary] You're like, "Actually, no, not in this context…"
[Maurice] So basically, think of like a Stephen King novel, because he's… I consider him like the grandfather of the magical Negro…
[Howard] You heard it here first. Stephen King. Grandfather of the magical Negro.
[Maurice] Yeah. We may have to edit that one out, too. So basically you have an all-white cast based on the story. The hero's at a place where they're stuck. Suddenly they encounter this black guy who helps them on their journey. Then, more times than not, dies soon thereafter. So that's basically the… Once you've heard it pointed out, then you start thinking through every Stephen King story you've ever read and go, "Oh, oh, yeah." So it's a pretty common trope. So I'm reading this book, and like I said, 50 pages in, magical Negro. Okay, I'll give you a wash on that one. We'll keep going. Maybe another 50 pages in, there's an environmental disaster that happens. So the hero now encounters a Native American.
[Brandon] Oh. Noble Savage?
[Maurice] Yes. In the scene… I mean, as I'm reading this scene, I could almost picture the Native American character, like with a tear running down his eye as he's encountering this environmental disaster. I'm like, "Yeah. No, you can't do that." So that's kind of the frustration where… Okay, my first question usually, when I'm having this argument with this book, since the author's not in front of me. Like, "Do you have no black friends? Seriously, you couldn't have run this by anybody to go, 'Oo, that's not okay. You can't do that.'" But for that matter, it's gone… In the self published thing, it's a little different. But this is not a problem just for self published…
[Brandon] No it's not.
[Maurice] This goes through a series of eyes.

[Brandon] It shows up in cinema all the time over and over again. I think digging into why it's such a bad idea… I mean, it goes… It's certainly number one, it's racially charged. But if you dig into the storytelling reasons for this, it is basically having a character who's not there to do anything other than help out. They're not a person, they're just like a little plot device.
[Mary] Yeah, they don't have their own arcs. I think a lot of it stems from people… actually from good intentions of people being like, "Oh, I want to have a multicultural cast. I don't want to fall into the trap of making my only character of color be a bad guy. So I'll make them really, really good. Really… They're a saint. They're an angel. That's it!
[Howard] Oh, and really powerful.
[Mary] And really powerful. And forget all of the other character building aspects.
[Maurice] I'm not going to say I'm not guilty of this in my own writing, because I… Halfway through… The first book in my series is called Kingmaker. In short, Kingmaker is basically the legend of King Arthur, except told in the 'hood, basically. So I use homeless teenagers and gang members as my background. Then I realize… Because I'm all proud of myself, "Oh, I can write the other, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Then I realize, "No, I haven't written the other." This is an all-black cast. I haven't written the other necessarily. Then I realized the only white character I have in my story is a magical redneck.
[Maurice] I'm like, "Wow."
[Brandon] That's awesome.
[Mary] I think that could be the writing prompt, right there.
[Howard] There we go.
[Mary] Hey, I'm Bubba, I'm here to help you out. Got my pickup truck and some crawfish.
[Maurice] I didn't do that, but I can guarantee you, in my next story, that's how he's going to be.
[Howard] Yes, here's a shotgun. It'll fire two times.

[Brandon] All right. Let's stop for our book of the week. We're actually going to do a book by Ekaterina Sedia called House of Discarded Dreams. Maurice, you've read this?
[Maurice] I've read this book. I'll call her Kathy for short, because we are friends and I read her book. House of Discarded Dreams is one of those books… Kathy's background is… She's from… I can't remember if she's from the Ukraine or…
[Mary] Russia.
[Maurice] She's from Russia. But House of Discarded Dreams is told from the point of view of a young African-American lady. Trying to describe the plot of this book is kind of difficult but… Because it's just so… I mean, this book is so overcharged with ideas, it's like idea on top of idea on top of idea, so trying to tell the through story of the book is kind of difficult. But the point that drew me in is how well she wrote the other. Because Kathy is not black. She is a woman. But she's written this character who… I've passed this book around to my friends, and they've read the book and gone, "She's written my life. How'd she do this? She has written my life." I think part of that is, again, we're talking about reading and writing the other, we've all been that other. So with Kathy, she's had that immigrant experience, which she's drawn upon to map out this character. That story is… I've had the immigrant experience with my family being from Jamaica and England and everything, so that resonated with me in a certain way. But then having the story of… Drawing on African folklore and fleshing out the characters the way she did, I was just amazed. So amazed I was just… As soon as I was done reading, it was like, "All right, Kathy. How did you do that?"
[Howard] Fantastic. At out to You can start a 30 day free trial membership and pick up The House of Discarded Dreams by Ekaterina Sedia, narrated by Robin Miles.

[Brandon] All right. So let's do the right way. Writing the other. How do we do this? Do you have… What are your suggestions?
[Maurice] A couple of different things. One… I'm married interracially. So I have an interracial family. We've been very conscious about raising our… Because I have biracial kids. Mary's met my kids. My kids aren't much darker than Mary. All right? Which…
[Mary] For those of you not watching the video feed, I'm… Have been described as frog belly white.
[Maurice] Which again becomes problematic when… My second son, he was in utero, but I knew in my heart… Well, I named my first son after me. Wow, you're a lot lighter than I envisioned you. Then my second son I named after a personal hero, I named him after Malcolm X. Before he came out blonde and blue-eyed. So this is the world I grew up in. Wait. What was the question there, before I [garbled -- confused?] myself?
[Brandon] Writing the other.
[Maurice] Oh, how do you write the other? So, how do you write the other? We've been very disciplined and very conscientious about having a multicultural life that we lead. It factors into our circle of friends, our neighborhood we chose, the school we chose, the church we chose, because we wanted to have that… Various races and cultures around us at all times. So in doing that, a side benefit of that is, I have the other around me. I'm in… Not just I get to draw from any culture willy-nilly to my own needs. No, I have relationships with people of other cultures. I know people.
[Mary] That is one of the key… This is one of those places where… We often talk, you don't need when you're writing fiction… If you need someone to be buried, you do not need to go and be buried yourself. But this is one of those places where that rule is less true.
[Brandon] Right. If you want to… Writing the other… I mean, going and living for a little while in another country where you will be the other can be very helpful. I mean, one of the problems with that is like… I lived in Korea for a couple years. I got to experience being the other. It was a very strange experience for a white boy from the Midwest. It was very eye-opening. The issue with that is over there I still had white privilege. So I was the other, but I was the other in a privileged position. It's… I would ask you, it's really hard to get your mind around… Growing up white male in America, you've got privileges right and left. Wrapping your mind around how to just not have that is really hard for me. Do you have any advice on that?

[Maurice] Well, as you were saying that, it reminded me of the time when me and my wife, we went to Jamaica for my family reunion. There all of a sudden, that was the first time when she really… It really sunk in, I'm the other here. Because it's all black faces all the time, in posters, when you go to the bank all the tellers are black. So all of a sudden, life is completely reversed. She fell into the habit of what I… Which she had taken for granted… When I walk into a room, yes, I'm going to count how many black folks are in here. That's just reflex. When she walked into a situation, she's like, "Oh, there's only three of us." Like, "Yeah, welcome to our world now." Then she… The thing that sold it most for me was when some little girls ran up to her and said, "Hey, can I touch your hair?" I was like, "This is it! This is…" You now have… It's all those little details that you don't get that… When you drop yourself into a new culture, now you suddenly see it from a whole different perspective. For me, like when I was writing my series, there was research that I had to do also, because it's not like… I'm a middle-aged, insecure black guy. If I don't write the other, that's all I'm writing about. So in the story I'm writing about, local gangs… I'm here from Indianapolis, so I have to do research on gang members and stuff. So when I'm going into gang areas, I learned a few things pretty quickly. One, if you show up with a notepad as people are trying to conduct their business, you will be confronted as the other fairly quickly. Issue number two, your wife will raise your insurance rates on you…
[Maurice] If you keep going into these gang infested areas. So part of how I do my research also then turns around and, practically speaking, is I go to YouTube and other forms of social media. Because I want to draw from primary sources as much as possible and YouTube has been invaluable for me in terms of… Like doing research even on… You would think it wouldn't be helpful with gangs, but you'd be surprised how many gangs put like their initiations online, for Lord knows what reason.
[Howard] Wow.
[Maurice] But I am thankful to them for that. Because again, I get to draw from primary sources that way. But then when I turn around and write a story set in ancient Africa, practically speaking, it's like, "Well, where do I start for something like that?" Well, I'm going to go to museums. I'm going to find any local clubs or charters or associations from that group that I can. I'm going to go to their meetings, I'm going to talk to people as much as I can, because I want to draw… I want to get into relationship with as many different people as possible.

[Mary] Yeah. I think the key thing that we are all kind of circling around here is that when you are writing the other, whether it is a secondary world other or real, is that you should not assume that everyone is like you.
[Maurice] Super.
[Mary] And that you should not assume that everyone comes from the same cultural background.
[Brandon] I'm working with this in the next book I'm working on, the next Stormlight book. One piece of advice that really hit home for me was the idea that… If you're going to write the other, you need to make the otherness part of them but not the focus of them. If it becomes… When it becomes the focus, that's when you end up with these stereotypes and these tropes. Beyond that, if you're only going to put one in, you're going to make them a stereotype. One of the easiest ways to write the other I've found is make sure you're putting two people in. This is… You may say, "Hey, I write epic fantasy. It's all other world." Epic fantasy is just rife with this problem, where one person represents an entire culture, and they become a parody of themselves the farther the story gets. All dwarves are like Gimli is what it turns into. This is really bad writing because it just gets boring. It gets boring so quickly, the character has trouble even interacting because they just become a joke. The way to get around this is like, "All right, I have to write two characters who are very different, from the same culture." Then you start to get into this is a character, this isn't just a race.
[Maurice] I've run into that same problem, even writing as a black guy writing about black people, I have that same hurdle to clear also, because I can't… Like with my gang members, I can't have… If gang members are the only people who I'm writing about, then all of a sudden I'm saying… Or am I saying, well, all people are gang members? So I have to diversify even within race. So I have issues of race and issues of class that I wrestle with in all my stories.

[Howard] One of the things that I… I live in white bread Utah, a.k.a. Orem. What I've found is that… I love… I'm a foodie. I will go shopping for bulk spices often at the Latin American markets, where instantly I'm surrounded by a whole bunch of people, some of them are Mexican immigrants who are immigrating, some of them are migrant workers, some of them are just Latin American folk who happen to live in Utah County and like the same sorts of food I like. When I'm there, it is fun to ask myself the question… Not how are these people different from me, but how are these people different from each other? So I'll quietly shop and people watch at the same time. It's very eye-opening. As I'm people watching, I'm reminding myself, these people make different decisions than I do, they have different beliefs, they have different tastes, and for them, those things are right. Why? What is it that makes you believe, or makes somebody else believe that the decisions they've made are right in their own lives? I'm not saying I come up with answers by going shopping for taco seasoning, but it opens my mind a little bit so that I can ask those questions when I'm writing, and it helps shake stuff loose.

[Brandon] Maurice, I'm afraid we're out of time. I do want you to repeat the title of that book that is King Arthur in…
[Howard] Please.
[Brandon] What is that book again?
[Maurice] It's the Knights of Breton Court. That's the name of the series. It's Kingmaker, King's Justice, and King's War are the three books in the trilogy.
[Mary] I can recommend them.
[Brandon] They're not on audible, which is why they weren't listed as the book of the week, but they sound awesome.

[Brandon] Do you want to use the magical redneck as our writing prompt, or do you have another one?
[Maurice] Yeah. Well, that's a good one. Although the other one I think of also is, all right, so you're on a sidewalk and you're walking down the street. It's late at night. There are three black males… Young black males at that… Approaching you on the sidewalk. Same sidewalk. Write from their perspective.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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