14.21: Writing The Other — Yes, You Can!

Your Hosts: Dan, Tempest, and DongWon

The single most asked question we get on the subject of writing cultures other than our own is some variation on “can we even DO this anymore?”

Short answer: YES, YOU CAN.

Our objective with this episode is to encourage you to put in the work, do the research, and write outside of your culture or personal experience. At risk of sounding cliché, it’s not easy, but it’s worth it.


Your homework is to show that you’ve done your homework. Make a list of the things you’re going to do (or have done) to properly research writing the other.

My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier, narrated by David Linsky

23 thoughts on “14.21: Writing The Other — Yes, You Can!”

  1. I still can’t get this episode in my podcatcher. Has it been pushed to iTunes?

  2. Same issue for me using the Podcast Addict app on Android. I would guess that there’s a 300-episode limit. What to do about it?

    1. No, I use Podcast Addict and am subscribed to podcasts with more than a thousand episodes each.

  3. Looks like the RSS had not been refreshed for over a week. If you take a look inside you will find this:
    Wed, 22 May 2019 01:21:45 +0000

  4. Our three voices, Dan, Tempest, and Dongwon, talked about how to write the other again this week. Do your homework, read, research, and talk, then write the best character of that identity that you can! Due diligence first, then give us the characters we love, and watch the space grow to include a bigger, more complex world. Lots of excellent advice, that you can read in the transcript available now in the archives.

  5. This focused a lot on real life identities set in the real world. But I was wondering about fantasy/sci fi settings. When creating a made up world, quite often real world cultures and history will influence your creative process, such as a certain cultures clothing. You will also have ethnicity’s in your world that will appear like a real world ethnicity, however the fantasy world history of that ethnicity may be completely different culturally etc from the real world counterpart.

    1. MikeC, I’d think it would be really similar. For example, if you’re doing sci-fi set in our world’s future, then you still want to be aware of cultures in the real world so you can have an idea of how it would influence the cultures of the future.

      On the other hand, if you’re doing a completely alternate reality, then it’s more complicated. It’s something that I’m trying to figure out myself. In an imaginary fantasy world, I don’t want to default assume that the people in these cultures will be white. Why can’t they be brown or black? But also, if I’m going to have imaginary non-white people, I want to be aware of the fact that fantasy representations of non-white people could potentially fall into unfavourable sterotypes, of existing modern cultures. (Like in Lord of the Rings.) So while you can’t have sensitivity readers of imaginary cultures, it’s helpful to be generally informed about diverse cultures and they way they’ve been represented in literature? Which can sound intimidating, but I don’t think it would actually take that much more research than researching one specific culture.

  6. Is the podcast feed broken? This episode isn’t showing up in the feed. I’m using podcast addict. thanks

  7. Yup, I can confirm the missing-episode situation is still the same. This episode hasn’t yet appeared in my podcast app either. And I’m also not seeing it available on various online podcast-hosting websites.

    I ended up listening to it directly here. ^_^

  8. If all we could do was #ownvoices, we couldn’t write fantasy or sci-fi. We’re not elves or aliens with pointy ears. “It’s only logical.”

    If you’re making up cultures, it’s good to know a lot about real-world cultures both current and past. Be curious about everything. Research. Watch documentaries. Learning is fun! I know, I sound like a cheesy high school guidance counselor. But it’s true. :)

    If you’re writing things set in the real world, don’t be afraid of writing the other. Research them so you do them justice, but also because… learning is fun! It shows you different ways of life, enriches yours.

  9. I feel inspired!

    But also have a few tricky questions:

    1) How do you get this right with minor characters?

    By this I mean characters in the background that get a few lines but you don’t have writing space to develop. When you mention a chacter’s race or sexual preference, many readers assume this will have some impact on the story, or that you must have mentioned it for a reason -as with any character detail. How can you most smoothly add diversity to these minor characters, stepping away from the default, if it really doesn’t affect their greater role in the story?

    Is it possible to step away from the default with the spear carriers, or does any characterization of a spear carrier make them stand out too much to be just a spear carrier in the reader’s eyes?

    2) What about taking inspiration from other cultures’ history, traditions or mythology?

    Simple example: If you’re not Chinese, can you write a fantasy based on Chinese I Ching without being accused of cultural appropriation?

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