Writing Excuses 7.40: Writing the Other

Maurice Broaddus joins us to talk about “writing the other” — writing other cultures, races, genders — basically anybody who isn’t much like you.

We talk about common pitfalls, including resorting to tropes like the “magical Negro,” and the “noble savage.”

More importantly, we talk about how to do this well. Maurice has plenty to offer from his own experience, including some fun anecdotes about his crazy research.


You’re on a sidewalk late at night. You’re approached by three young, black males. Write the scene from their perspective. (Alternatively, simply jump off from “magical redneck,” but note that Maurice has already done that one.)

The House of Discarded Dreams, by Ekaterina Sedia, narrated by Robin Miles

34 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.40: Writing the Other”

  1. This podcast came at the perfect time. I’ve been working on a story with characters representing the “Other” and some of the problems mentioned in this podcast have definitely cropped up more than once.

  2. @Tony: Let me recommend that you start by reading “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh which is a very good discussion of white privilege. Don’t just skim it, read it.

    When I was initially trying to understand white privilege, I found this very helpful. What it comes down to is that there are a lot of benefits to being white that are invisible to the people who enjoy them, like me, because its the status quo that we’ve grown up with. Until we are confronted with the absence of these privileges, it is difficult to understand that other people did not grow up with them and, in fact, still don’t experience them.

    For example:
    I had to buy 10 identical picture frames at a store for a show. When the clerk was ringing me up, we realized that I had one that was different.

    She said, “I’ll just ring up 10, and you can go pick up the last one on your way out.”

    Great. That saved me some time. So I went over, put down the different one, and picked up the correct one to stick into my bag.

    The manager saw me, raised an eyebrow, and I said, “I paid for 10, but only had 9. The cashier told me to pick up the extra on my way out.”

    He said, “Okay. Some people I would think were shoplifting, but I can tell you aren’t that sort.” NOTE: He did not ask to see my receipt.

    That story would have played out very differently had I been black.

    THAT is one example white privilege, because it did not even occur to me that my behavior could be seen as anything other than swapping frames.

    So, take a moment, go read the essay and then come back and try to engage in the conversation. I also recommend John Scalzi’s Straight White Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.

  3. @Writing Excuses- I can’t thank you guys enough for posting this and exposing me to a great author I probably would have never found on my own. The Other, particularly race, feels like one of those unspoken topics in the realm of speculative fiction that isn’t really addressed very often. There’s few minority heroes and even fewer minority villains. It seems that writers of color are solely lacking from this type of literature. It’s also frustrating when you look for characters that are different yet the story depicting their differences race/gender/sexual orientation doesn’t revolve solely around the fact. I have yet to find a fantasy or sci fi novel that features a white protagonist and focuses on that character’s whiteness. And if there is it’s only because the main cast is of a different race. Looking forward to picking up some of Maurice’s books.

    @Tony-Mary brought up some good examples. You might want to also check out Tim Wise’s On White Privilege. It’s a really insightful video that’s posted in its entirety on youtube and vimeo.

  4. Wow, I’m going to have to check out these books by Mr. Broaddus. I spent some time living in the American south, and I remember really feeling the reversal he was talking about.

  5. Here’s an interesting incident which taught me that my “otherness” varied based on where I was, even within a culture. I served a mission for my church (same one as Brandon, Dan, & Howard) in Brazil. In the big city (Curitiba), my accent immediately gave people the impression that I was either American or German. But when I went to a smaller city far from the state’s capital, where fewer foreigners were expected, I was instead asked, “You’re accent is strange. What part of Brasil are you from?”

    Not all dwarves are Gimli and not all Brazilians are from Rio. Even within a single neighborhood, or even a family, as your guest, Maurice, shows, there can be significant variance from stereotypes. The more exposure to the culture you get, the more aware of the details you become and the richer pool of experience you can draw from.

    I highly recommend everybody have an “away from home” experience in their life. Become the other for a while and fill your creative well.

  6. @ Mary Robinette Kowal

    I read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and I must admit that white privilege as Ms. McIntosh defines it is quite evident in the United States.

    I do believe that the term connotes some malevolent intent that I contend is better described as racism. Perhaps ‘dominant culture advantage’ would be more accurate? However, I do know that white culture IS dominant culture in the US and so this a semantic nitpick.

    I do feel enlightened by the essay. I am now aware of how a minority citizen might not enjoy certain benefits that I have always taken for granted. Ms. McIntosh herself described some of these advantages as privileges any human should rightfully expect and so the question is what can I do about it?

    Seriously. I want to know what to do.

    How does knowledge of white privilege inform your writing/voting/daily life?


  7. This raises an interesting point. How far are we responsible for the experiences and perhaps prejudices of the reader? If, for example, I create a fantasy world where there are black people, and yet the culture I create for them is not only NOT “Earth American”, but bears very little resemblance to any “Earth African” culture either, are people going to get upset that I’m not doing my black people right?

    Or, if I write a people whose appearance is approximately Asian, but give them a culture that roughly parallels a Central American culture, is that going to upset Asians or Central Americans?

    I suspect the ultimate answer is “write the story you want to write with the race and culture that supports that story whether it parallels any Earth analogs or not, and if you write the story and culture well enough and consistent enough it won’t matter.” It’ll just take more work, is all, as you can’t rely on traditional Earth “shorthand” for communicating culture (ie. this is a middle-eastern-like culture, this is a Norse-like culture).

    The same probably goes for sci-fi. Culture changes over time, and if you’re writing 500 years in the future are we going to have any cultures left that are recognizable from today? Are you going to offend people if you decide that their race’s culture didn’t survive the intermediate years? Orson Scott Card has culture being one of the few constants that survive the ages in his Ender/Bean books, but that far in the future will cultures still be so recognizable? There’s arguments both ways.

    The biggest pitfalls probably come in writing near-future, urban fantasy, historical fantasy or other genres where people would easily be able to bring their own experience to bear and decide whether your work “rings true” or not.

    This topic, however, tends to scare people, myself included, and to some extent the various W.E. episodes about it aren’t entirely helping, since the responses seem to vary widely from “you’d better do your research” to “write your characters as people first,”; from “you need to include other cultural/racial/gender/etc. viewpoints (but get it right!)” to “write what you know/tell the story you want to tell,” depending on who you talk to that episode. We warn about the dangers of not getting “the other” right, and then bemoan the fact that no one wants to write about “the other”. As long as it appears the danger of getting it wrong is too high no one will dare to try it unless they can write things so removed from reocngizable Earth cultures that no one can call them out on it.

    I know episodes like this are supposed to encourage us to be brave and explore the realm of possibilities, but I sometimes wonder if they encourage as much as scare us off. It may be safer to stick to what we know.

  8. @Mary Robinette Kowal- Thanks Mary for enlightening me. I have more books to read. But it saddens me to see that a Kindred award wasn’t even handed out in the year of 2006. I don’t know if that was due to an under performance of authors of color or a lack of numbers of work with that subject matter. It makes me glad that I’m a writer by vocation and not an athlete or musical entertainer, two areas in which too much focus has gone towards. Tolkien was my hero, Bradbury was my hero, Clarke was my hero, not because of their visions but because their stories were universal. Difference isn’t a color, but a cultural mindset. And it’s not just the black community, but all communities that could use more N.K. Jemisins, Ursula K Le Guins, and Caitlin R Kiernans. It makes me not only strive to achieve the Carl Brandon but the Hugo or Nebula award. But I’m delighted to have that topic addressed by a writer who has won one. Thanks again Writing Excuses.

  9. Mary: a lot of what I see in the Invisible Backpack essay (and your personal example) reflects a lot more than just skin color, at least in Canada.

    Judging from your photo in the right sidebar, you’re a well groomed healthy person who’s old enough to be out of the “tweens” – from that, it is reasonable to assume, regardless of skin color or gender, that you’re well grounded and not likely going to be stealing a picture frame (grooming and health means sufficeint money, and maturity means juvenile rebelliousness is out). The fact that you’re attractive and of the opposite gender may also have had an effect – several of my friends and I have noticed that we tend to be nicer to women, particularly if they’re attractive, than men, and it took a comment from a girl we were playing cards with to notice. (If you’re wondering why a group of men was playing cards with a single female, we were engineering students at the time. Even with outreach programs to promote engineering to females, it seems there’s always at least twice as many men in engineering as women.)

    As for the Invisible Backpack essay, much of the list is alarming that one would even think that way. Living in Canada, I’ve never met anyone who thinks of people in terms of race rather than individuals aside from profiling their driving skills in Richmond (and from what I’m told, even the Chinese population of Richmond admits there’s a disproportionate number of hazardous Chinese drivers). Point six, regarding national heritage, is inherantly white dominant for modern Canada (or the US, for that matter) – the majority of historically critical people in both countries were white. Those responsible for inciting the American Revolution were all white, as were those involved in Confederation in Canada. In Canada, we still remember Tecumseh alongside Isaac Brock as one of the key generals who won the War of 1812 (our objective was to not be conquered, as we weren’t we were victorious). I’ve never heard anyone comment about Mr. Obama being “a credit to his race”, as point 14 suggests he would. The only music shop I’ve ever used is the iTunes store, which has pretty much all music, I can’t find a hairdresser who knows how to cut hair long enough to comb into a recognizable form yet short enough to not curl (admittedly, on my head, that’s a relatively small range), and I don’t even know what manner of staple food fits Canadian cultural traditions, so it’s rather difficult to find it in a grocery store (point 9). Asking to talk to a manager in a store is, much of Greater Vancouver, more likely to result in a conversation with someone of Chinese descent than European (point 18). The essay was written 24 years ago, and I’d say it’s really starting to show its age.

  10. @Thom, there is no contradiction between “write the story you want to write” and “include characters of color”, or between other dichotomies you set up in your post.

    If you write a story set anywhere near the real world it will simply be a matter of realism to include characters of color. If you are writing secondary world, then racial diversity is also a point for your book’s world. Especially if you want to write something original, since the Western Europe has been pretty much hammered to death settingwise.

    Also, yes, research, but write characters as people first. It’s not contradictory. You take a character, and then you look at the conditions they face in their environment and think about how that character would react to them. A gay guy in rural US will have different reactions to his surroundings depending on his personality: someone will become closed off, someone will develop a confrontational mindset, and someone will try to blend in as much as possible. Just think about what sort of person your character is, and how s/he reacts to things life throws at them, and be aware that if the character is a part of a minority group some of those things will differ from what a white male usually deals with.

    I think that the horror writers claim to be in at the thought of writing a minority character is largely unwarranted, and in many cases simply a case of people not wanting to be bothered. Writers research all sorts of things: swordfighting, guns, interstellar travel, Ancient Egyptian contraception methods… Why not racial theory/feminist theory/etc, etc? There are articles all over the internet, and sites like TVTropes that will provide a useful list of stereotypes to avoid. (The Magical Negro, The Mammy, The Depraved Bisexual, The Gay Best Friend).

    Also, what is this “danger of getting it wrong” you speak of? There is no danger except maybe someone eventually posting something on the internet about it. There is a startling array of badly written “others” in literature, including published speculative fiction books with great fan followings and massive industry success. In the end it all comes down to this: are you invested enough in the idea of diversity in literature being a good thing to do some research and accept that not everyone will be happy about what you write? If yes, then it’s already a great start. If not, you’ll just be continuing the fine and time-honored tradition of only writing to the majority.

    @Rashkavar, Canada is not as different from US as it likes to believe on race issues. To say that “no one is thought of in terms of their race” in any country in the world is laughable right now. Maybe in the future we’ll have a society that sees race as ornamentation and nothing else, but that won’t happen for a while.

    If you want to see more recent perspective on race in the Western hemisphere, the internet is full of content for people who are open to reading it. Brandon gave a good starting point, and generally in any article on the subject there will be multiple links to multiple sources. I would also recommend N.K. Jemisin’s blog because she’s a wonderful writer right in the middle of the whole race-in-spec-fiction shebang.

  11. MKEast: I did say “I’ve never met anyone” not “not one of the 30 odd million Canadians in the world don’t care about race.” Anyone tuned to Canadian news right now is aware of the recent release of a prisoner from the war in Afghanistan into Canadian custody from Guantanimo Bay – he and his family certainly buy into the racial identity crap.

    Also, there are some fundamental differences between researching racial issues and what authors do actually research. For one, it’s possible to have a basic understanding of swordplay in a couple of hours of research (you won’t be an expert, but you’ll get by), while studying race issues takes far more time to start to understand. Another issue is that racial issues specifically, and sociology at large, aren’t big on facts. Most things you research boil down to gathering facts, be they about astrophysics and the implications thereof on interstellar transportation, or on what specifically was used for contraception, if anything, in . Finally, the biggest problem is that researching racial identity is often rather boring. I hate to say it, but people who aren’t either racist, oppressed, or championing the cause (in other words, those who find race is not a critical issue in their life) just don’t care enough about the topic to find it interesting. Most of the time, when I’m interacting with people, I see them as _people_, not Asian people, black people, etc…skin color and other racial characteristics only matter in its effect on their attractiveness. (The small part that makes me say most of the time is if I have a question that might be culturally insensitive, like when I asked another engineering student about the shape of his turban vs others I’d seen.)

  12. If there’s no danger in getting it wrong, why do we keep having WE episodes about how to get it right?

    Isn’t the notion of “writing to the majority” somewhat prejudiced in itself? Define the majority. White people? Are white people somehow different from everyone else and similar to one another? If so, why do I have such a hard time getting beyond casual acquaintance with most white people? Why don’t more of them like the same things I like? Who is this “majority”, and how do I write to them? Statistically speaking all my stories would have to be in either New York or California, and about a white female baby-boomer working in the service sector, probably government. And yet if I did no more characterization on my character than that I’d fall flat.

    Research is great, but even then it would be difficult to find research that would teach you how to write black people as a category, for example. Even Mr. Broaddus’ anecdote about researching wasn’t just about black people or Hispanic people, it was about a specific subset–gangs. And once completing that he still wouldn’t be able to write all his characters based solely on that research. They would still all have to be unique from one another in some way that isn’t defined by their race, culture, or sub-culture.

    In the end every character we write, unless we staff our works solely with clones, is going to have to be “the other”. If you don’t know enough about any specific categorization while narrowing in then you might want to research, but if you stop there you’ll still “get it wrong.” You can’t stop until your character is a person who is only partly defined by the categories in which they happen or choose to fall.

  13. For a look at the difficulties of being Other in Canada specifically, might I recommend the TV show “Little Mosque on the Prairie”? The first three season, I believe, are on Hulu.

  14. @Rashkavar, I gained a basic understanding of racial issues in about an evening of surfing the net. I then went on to read more, but you don’t need to. Now, I’m from a country that doesn’t have the West’s racial issues (we have our own), so that meant I lost less time on denial and justification. That might have been a factor.

    You might be an enlightened and racially unbiased person, but racial bias exists in society; it’s systematic, and it’s real. There is actual research documenting it. If you don’t find the concept engaging enough to research it, that’s your right, but then your understanding on real-world society will be limited, and it will show in your books.

    I’m honestly not here to make you research race, and I expect neither is the WE team. If you don’t want it, then don’t do it. There are compelling reasons to do it, but if you don’t find them compelling there is no real way to change your mind. Make a statement of priorities, like Dan says: it’s not a priority for you to find out about racial identity. See, easy.

    @Thom, you misunderstand. What I was trying to say is that there is a _possibility_ of getting it wrong, but there’s no “danger”, as you put it. No one will take away your writer card. No one will make you eat your own book. You might get it wrong, but then you might get a lot of things wrong in a novel. You solve the problem like any other in your writing: you do your research, you have beta-readers who are experts, and when you get things wrong anyway you listen to the criticism and re-evaluate what you’ve written.

    And yes, “writing to the majority” is prejudiced in itself. It’s called “erasure”, and it happens every time you see a story with all-white, all-straight cast. And majority is: white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered (meaning not transgender), neurotypical (with no peculiarities of the brain that would make them differ from “normal” people), able-bodied. It doesn’t mean that most of the people in US are like that, but it’s the dominant cultural viewpoint. You can see it in Hollywood: movies are produced for the straight white male; “female movies” are automatically a niche thing, unless it’s a movie with Lara Croft as the main character and she is there to be sexually attractive to the male audience. A black person (unless he’s Will Smith) is automatically the sidekick, the magical negro, the comic relief, or non-existent. The gay character is comic relief, Gay Best Friend or non-existent.

    The point of “lumping in” all the white people is not that all white people are the same, but that all white people enjoy the same societal privileges by the virtue of being white. (or male, or straight, or able-bodied) And one of those is the privilege to see yourself depicted in media in variety of roles, as main characters, with depth and nuance.

    And yes, research is not the only thing to do, I wrote that. You do research to find out what challenges your character will face because of their minority status, and then you do the work you do as a writer for any character: you make them a real character by giving them personality, hopes, dreams, etc.

  15. Media whitewashing… as a white privileged guy, that annoys me. My toddler has fallen in love with a lousy westernized version of the story of the Russian space program in a film called “Space Dogs”. Among its many flaws, are voice actors that all have American or British accents (except the clearly Latino migrant fleas) despite the story taking place in Russia in the 1950s.

    Anyway, the bias is real and often subconscious. Part of Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink, covers research into the racial and cultural bias at work in the way we behave. Just because we agree that having separate drinking fountains is bad, doesn’t mean that we don’t alter our behavior around those different than us. It can be as subtle as not looking someone in the eye or turning away a fraction of a second sooner than you would with your own kind. It could mean verifying a store purchase at the exit with more scrutiny than someone else. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

  16. @Talmage, that’s another aspect of writing the Other: as a Russian person it always bothers me to no end to see Russians being brought up in any kind of USian media, because we’re always either criminals/spies or mail order brides… One would think the Cold War was over, but you just need to look at the modern shooter genre to see that it’s not true.

    It’s also very funny to see the USian version of WWII…

  17. This reminds me of a article I was linked to last year: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/08/23/step-into-my-film-school-the-importance-of-casting-in-breaking-open-movie-stereotypes/

    The most interesting (surprising, troubling, insightful) part concerns the feedback of a first-year film class. Now, most of us are here for prose, but writing for film is writing, and – as this episode proves – we cast our books and assign parts just as surely as any film is cast. Notice that the stories students come up with for their characters are similar regardless of the race and gender of the story-tellers. What we read, see, and are constantly surrounded by (whether we realize it or not) affects not only how we view ourselves, but the stories we tell. Unless we become aware of our own biases and question the so-called “defaults,” then we’re destined to keep regurgitating the same messages. It’s self-perpetuating.

    To be honest, I remember reading the article that kicked off Racefail several years ago my gut reaction was *not* positive. It was about the experience of a young Indian fantasy writer and the conflict she felt about her history of writing for and loving a genre deeply rooted in Tolkienian (and subsequently masculine, European) aesthetics. She was born to a culture rich in fantasy, so, in a genre where anything is possible, why did she continue to ape the culture and ideals of old British men and their cohorts? What does this mean about her, about fantasy and sci-fi? Replies of “What can we do to fix this?” were rebuffed by others as missing the point. Like many readers, I felt like I was being presented with a problem, then ignored (or insulted) when I honestly wanted to help. It made me angry. What was the point of trying if nobody wanted me to and everything I did was always wrong? The debate that erupted afterward went in many directions, not all of them constructive, but eventually I looked back and realized I hadn’t been interpreting that first article as it was intended.

    When someone describes a problem my first instinct is to brainstorm solutions. I’m a woman, but I’ve been told I have a more stereotypically male mindset in certain matters, and it’s gotten me into trouble with my friends a few times. I keep forgetting that, yes, sometimes the FIX EVERYTHING response really is missing the point. Sometimes I’m just being asked to listen. And maybe listening is part of the solution. Simply being aware of other people’s experiences, thinking, and second-guessing ideas I’d taken for granted goes a long way.

    Like the film students in the article above, we all have tendencies to cast our heroes as someone who looks like us, or who looks like what we have been told is a hero. This doesn’t make us bad people, just products of our culture. Unfortunately this silences a lot of voices, and the fear of writing others will only keep them silent. This episode has some wonderful, common-sense advice to avoid problems like tokenism and letting one aspect of a character define them, but I don’t think the prevalence of white male protagonists is really because writers are bad at anything else. There are so many talented authors out there – if they can make me believe I’m looking through the eyes of a dragon, or a king, or a magician, or a fairy assassin, then I don’t doubt they can manage other kinds of humans. My theory is that we all too often set up our cast of defaults, and the creativity kicks in later.

  18. I actually got tipped off to Maurice’s books because Chuck Wendig mentioned the new omnibus of all three, so when that hit I grabbed the eBook. When I’m not getting body slammed by work I am looking forward to reading them.

    On the topic of the podcast, lots of good information which will help me with my current novel where I’m doing a double layered other, the two main characters are oriental-ish (secondary fantasy so not asian literally, but of the same genetic stock) in a white culture where their people were conquered and some of them were originally forced to move to the mother land. I don’t know if I’m doing it well, but even attempting it has made me think about the implications of those sorts of things a LOT.

    I won’t claim I fully understand them, only having ‘lived’ it in my own head, but thinking about it as deeply as you have to trying to get into a character’s head is an experience I wouldn’t take back, even if the book ends up being horrible and staying in the trunk.

  19. I’m far from an expert on writing the other, but I have lived in a couple of different countries and have discovered that one of the most interesting ways to get inside the heads of others is to ask their opinion on an event or situation that you know something about.

    For example I have never been mugged, robbed, or otherwise threatened in the US, but when I lived in Brazil I was mugged. Yet many people in Brazil cringed slightly when I told them I was from the US and said they would never want to live somewhere so violent. In my mind the US was safer, in their minds the US was more violent. Who is right? Both of us of course, but only in our own minds.

    Another example is that when living in the UK I discovered that the American viewpoint on the reasons why the Revolutionary war ended is very different than the British viewpoint, though both groups clearly think that they’ve got it right.

  20. @Lee, I found the same thing. Brazilians thought America was the more dangerous country yet I had a gun pulled on me in Brazil and never have in America. Hollywood warps the world’s impressions of Americans and not necessarily in a positive light.

    The Brazilians I met that visited America said that we were a generally rude racist people. From what I gathered with further discussion was that since Brazilians are a more laid back open culture, they weren’t accustomed to American non-talkativeness with strangers. It wasn’t that those they met “hated” them, but partly that we’re culturally less chatty/friendly than they were accustomed to, even to our own kind.

    @MKEast, just because we were on opposite sides of the Cold War, it is no excuse to downplay or vilify Russia long after it was over. In WWII, Russia paid for the allied victory over Germany with tremendous amounts of their own blood. Kinda depressing how little credit we give you.

  21. @Talmage, well the Russia thing is just an issue closest to me, but in a broader sense any country that doesn’t have a media monopoly in our world is at risk of being defined solely by the country that does. That’s why Russia is a cold commie dictatorship full of drunk people and bears, all people in Mexico wear big hats, drink tequila, and work at drug factories, and Africa is one big country with nothing but poor starving children. Chimamanda Adichie on TED talks very well about it and writing the Other in general: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

  22. @Thom

    This might or might not help.

    First, I think I’m as other as I can get, Korean adopted to Russian Hungarian Atheist Jews who went to a Unitarian Universalist Church for ten years because they liked the music, but quit when it became too Catholic for their tastes. Oh and my Korean father is a Buddhist monk (though joined after the surrender). =P Try explaining that.

    I’ve lived extremely poor and extremely rich. I’ve been polarized as being one thing or the other based on the labels given to me. I pretty well know what it’s like to be kicked out.

    There is no danger in writing other–there is only danger that you didn’t research enough because you didn’t ask a group of experts and didn’t take time to read fiction from that group. (Who are the biggest experts on writing fiction about your intended group? Uhh… I’d say people who belong to that group)

    I’ve been writing about Northern India in the Kushan Empire at the beginning of the book. Supposedly about one of my ancestors who was from Northern India. I scrapped the thing 5 times over already and I don’t regret it one bit. I went from ignorant, thought I knew everything about India, and Hinduism classes and watching TV, eating food, etc was enough to, “OMG, what was I thinking? *Hits Hollywood* I was wrong and a lot and I had to apologize a whole bunch. I had to bow my head down and kicked myself a whole bunch. But in doing so, the people that have helped me thus far to understand the diversity that is India, and the richness, have also supported me writing the book, because I want so very much to get it right. Because those things, even within India aren’t represented. Because how much non-Mughal fiction have you seen from India on Amazon? And how much fiction set in India that’s fantasy have you seen?

    With Cultural Anthropology, you learn that being wrong isn’t such a bad thing, because being wrong eventually starts on a path of being right. My own humiliation is a good thing. I concede that I’m fighting myself, but in doing so, I’m learning about other human beings that are like and not like me, and the range that can be expressed by that. Even if a book gets scrapped, the lessons I learned don’t.

    Through this process of being wrong and eventually being more right, I hope I’ve grown as a person. And besides, I’d love to see more Indian Fantasy writers. Especially if it’s from a writer who is so sure I got something wrong and wants to answer back with their own book because they are Indian.

    So I say this: Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Embrace being wrong and prepare to apologize and be humble for it as fast as you can. Learn from that mistake and move forward. Being wrong is not a bad thing. It’s the refusing to apologize for your wrongs that make you look terrible. In exchange for the blow to your pride, you may gain a deeper understanding of the world around you. And to me, that’s not a bad thing at all.

  23. One minor comment on the episode too… Instead of thinking: “How are these people different from me?” I’ve learned to think, “How do these individual human beings cope with the same problems that I face? What is their given range for coping with those problems?” (Which was one of the reason for the last scrapping–which I self-imposed–it focused too much on the other, and pointing out the other rather than looking at commonalities of human conflict, but different coping mechanisms.)

    Also culture is the ideal set by usually the elite within that group, (which is terrible definition for anthropology, but good for writing). If you approach it that way, then you won’t be basing your one culture on another culture, but stripping it to the bones and rebuilding, which then isn’t cultural misappropriation. And you’re good to go.

    Some light anthro reading is good for Other World Fantasy anyway. I’d go for it over sociology when writing Other World because sociology tends to reduce people to statistics, whereas the basis of anthro is ethnography, which is more individualistic approach.

  24. Hi, I have listened to most of your podcasts and would like to request one specifically about space operas. It was touched on back in April of 2008, but I’m sure with Howard’s expertise you could bring together a good one. I’ve heard Brandon talk about it being very marketable and that for some reason not many people write it, so it definitely interests me. Is it mostly about the relationships, is there very much actual space battling and how does one go about writing that sort of scene, etc.? Thanks a lot, you’re all a huge help to me every week, please don’t stop any time soon!

  25. I’m glad to see the comments didn’t dissolve entirely into a mini-RaceFail fracas. (That’s part of the reason I stayed away – I have a way of saying things exactly the wrong way).

    There’s one issue regarding other-writing that’s not addressed, which the gentlemen hosts at least should be familiar with: creating alien societies that are thoroughly different from humans without becoming monstrous beings that one can’t relate to. Howard’s work with Schlock has introduced over the years numerous alien life forms that have a very different outlook on life than humans; Brandon’s Mistborn trilogy has two non-human species with society (admittedly the koloss can hardly be considered complex); Dan’s John Wayne Cleaver trilogy does an excellent job of creating horrific monsters that one actually feels for. (Mary, I _still_ haven’t actually seen your first book anywhere, and book 2 only in the library)

    It’s rather common for authors to rely on subsets of humanity for fantastic creatures. By the Tolkienin archetype, Elves are arrogant and withdrawn from the rest of the world, and much more in tune with nature (often having mystical abilities in manipulating or reading nature in some way). By said archetype, Dwarves are treasure-greedy, full of bloodlust, and like mining and making stuff out of metal. They also tend to be hoarders and shun outside society. (They also seem to be mysteriously lacking in females of the species and/or any means of obtaining food as they spend all their lives underground where agriculture is rather difficult).

    I’ve also seen authors blatantly use other cultures for their otherworldly beings. Raymond Feist does this well with Magician, and Janny Wurts joined in to create an excellent trilogy based in this other world. The Tsurani are recognizably based on the medieval empire of Japan, right down to the empire being run by a warlord as the Emperor has spiritual matters to attend to. Are there differences? Certainly (Japan never conquered half a continent, had sapient insect warriors as auxilia or had magicians who could destroy hundreds of soldiers by thinking hard – I’m not sufficiently well versed in Japanese history to point out the less obvious differences). Star Wars often uses this for individual characters or groups. Hutts are the mafia, for instance. (Come to think of it, Star Wars does a lot of racial profiling. All Bothans are hyperpolitical. All Hutts are crime lords (or, in very rare cases, underlings/apprentices). All Gammoreans are guards with axes and barbaric armor….)

    Or there’s the flip side – going for something completely new and different and making it something that we completely and utterly can’t relate to. I can’t think of many cases of this in published works (mainly because it tends to break things badly), but it’s often what happens to me in my attempts. (I’ve been known to create characters that are so monstrous that I give up on them simply because the getting-to-know-your-characters process is disturbing.)

    Any tips on crafting a society that isn’t “humans with green skin,” subsets of human characteristics, or directly porting a foreign society into your world, and yet also giving it enough humanity that a reader might actually like the character?

    @J. David Norman: I’ve read most of the older Star Wars books, and the only ones that really focus heavily on space battles are the Military SF branch. Stackpole and Allston’s X-wing books, for the most part. Space Opera isn’t fully defined the way most subgenres are, but the Star Wars movies exemplify the term rather well. It’s primarily about characters and the relationships between them, but you get to add enough cool technology stuff, space battles and new age mysticism to keep it from being just a character story. Babylon 5 is an even better example of a space opera – character interactions are 95% of the plot. The problem with Space Opera seems to be more that it fits better with the TV/Movie watching crowd rather than the book reading crowd.

    If you want to know how to do a space battle from a fighter’s perspective, those X-wing books I mentioned do a darn good job, though it may be difficult to transfer over to your story. They have inertial dampeners so the G-forces of flying are negligible (I’m sure most real fighter pilots would love to have something along those lines) and power miniaturized to the point of absurdity (Combat strength lasers with a 1.5km effective range would require crazy amounts of energy, on the order of modern city power consumption for a month+ per shot, if not more). Those books are also only a good example if you like space battles from a 1-man fighter perspective. Babylon 5 does a pretty good job of making space battles (both involving fighters and capital ships) both intense and believable (when they happen, which isn’t very often), but it takes a lot of digestion to get what’s happening on the screen written down on the page. (Screenwriters get to describe events in general terms and then let the animation crew have fun.)

    I’m nowhere near as good as a full podcast would be, but at least I may have given you something to start from in advance. (This podcast records well in advance because of travel issues, so if they didn’t already have one planned, it’ll be a while before you see it.)

  26. Thank you very much, Rashkavar, you’re definitely a help. Brandon equated Space Opera to Battlestar Galactica, one of my favorite shows ever (except for that dreadful final episode), so I could see writing something like that without having to delve too heavily into interplanetary war while still having it present. Partly I’m not sure how much the warring and battles would need to be included and how much romance would need to be involved. BSG had romance, but it seemed more focused on character arcs and moral dilemmas with romance just a consequence of the interactions (as opposed to Soap Operas, where it’s highly focused on such). What is considered absolutely required? I worry at the lack verisimilitude in my writing regarding space technology like you mention, despite that it’s not Hard SF. On top of it all…the Hugo award usually goes to a Space Opera nominee, which is even more reason for me to want to try my hand at it.

  27. Well, I’ll have to say I’m not a fan of BSG, so take what I say with a grain of salt (I found it too focused on romance, and the season 1 ending where some of the least reverent members of a rather sophisticated spacefaring race do some remarkably stupid things due to the cancer-drug generated hallucinations of a schoolteacher-as-president matching up with very well known visions mentioned in religious prophecy killed my willingness to stick with the series). That said, I can definitely see BSG as epitomizing Space Opera – far more so than Star Wars (which is, if anything, high fantasy with space travel and very shiny swords) or Babylon 5 (which, while it does have a lot of character focus, is primarily a political story).

    One thing you should keep in mind is that it’s not the most well defined of genres – all it means is a science fiction story that’s focused heavily on character arcs (along the lines of soap operas being pseudo-true life stories with heavy character focus – I’m reasonably certain the sappy, over-the-top romantic fixation isn’t so much by definition as it is by the number of screenwriters who see romantic turmoil as the absolute pinnacle of character development). So asking how much the story has to be science fictiony vs how much operatic character stuff (to use what may be the least technical terms possible) is largely a matter of opinion. I would say BSG focused too heavily on irrelevant character development rather than what I considered important – the politics and the war – but then, I’m more interested in Hard/Military SF. You, as a fan, would likely say that they had a good balance.

    It may be better to come up with your character arcs and space war arc separately — Dan’s breakdown of the Matrix in his lecture referenced in the next podcast on 7 point structure shows how one can tie together several disparate plotlines into a coherent story and make particular moments more intense by having critical points of several plotlines all happening at the same time — and weave the main points together in a way that you feel is balanced.

    As for verisimilitude, space opera can be all over the map. It often trivializes major technological points (Star Wars has artificial gravity, inertial dampeners, hyperdrives that allow one to cross the galaxy in maybe a couple of days, lasers small enough to mount in handguns and powerful enough to kill (or small enough to mount on snubfighters yet powerful enough to blow up potentially very large objects like the dome structure on the Executor in Return of the Jedi blowing up after one strafing run – I’m not sure which of these applications is more unlikely), invisible shields that block light (but only if it’s enough to cause damage) as well as projectiles, etc…all with absolutely no explanation. BSG’s pilot, as I recall, has a spaceship (admittedly, Galactica is an _enormous_ space ship, but that just makes the armoring issue bigger) take a nuclear missile that’s contemporary with enormous space warships with only minor damage (I don’t recall any mention of an energy deflection system other than the big wall of metal) – the amount of armor necessary to protect against even today’s high power nuclear weapons is so extraordinary that the US felt the SDI/Star Wars Program was a more reasonable alternative in the Cold War (which calls for sustained pinpoint aim on a missile that enters low earth orbit on a specific chosen point of the fuel tank long enough for a laser to melt through the casing at several thousand miles). Not to mention the fact that both series rely significantly on the supernatural – the Force in Star Wars, or whatever all that metaphysical stuff in BSG was referring to. (Heck, they pulled off a complex spacefaring civilization of at least a dozen colonized planets worshiping a couple of minor Ancient Greek gods.)

    If you don’t have to worry about the hard physics involved, you can make pretty much any technology work. (And to be fair to the genre, unless your story involves scientists or military engineers or the like, it makes perfect sense to not explain the physics that underpins the technology – how many of us can even explain exactly how a car works? The fact that we consider rocketry so complex that something “not being rocket science” is idiomatic exemplifies this – the fundamentals of rocketry are pretty simple – you just need a fuel and something to make it burn really fast, mixed together in a sturdy enough chamber with a small enough opening for the enclosed fireball to release energy in a consistent direction. It’s not all that much more complex than releasing a filled and untied balloon and having it fly around the room – it’s just a lot more dangerous because you have an enormous explosion in the balloon instead of air.)

Comments are closed.