Writing The Other Other
Writing the other can be a challenge, it’s often difficult to convincingly portray a character that greatly differs from your experiences. Without a personal frame of reference the writer is forced to work harder to make sure their character is accurate and believable. For many writers the challenge is writing in a different gender, a different age group, or a different race, and there are difficulties in all of those. Fantasy writers have more substantial problems, when we write the other, we write the other. Yes it might be difficult for a middle aged man to write from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, but try comparing that to writing from the perspective of a magical squid-like creature that sees emotions with a sixth sense.
Even if your characters are not quite so bizarre, there are a number of difficulties in writing non-human races and other types of creatures. Most writers can fall back on research when writing the other, looking at books and other mediums for examples, even directly talking to the people they wish to portray. But unless you happen to know a real life magic squid, that’s not going to be an option.
If your book has staple fantasy creatures like elves or dwarves then there might well be sources that a writer can look at to base their work on. Though how similar you want your elves and dwarves to be to other writers’ will be an author’s choice. If you are creating something completely original then the going is even harder, there will be no reference material and you’ll have to start from scratch. Fortunately solving that problem requires two things that the writer possesses in abundance, imagination and intelligence.
It can be great fun to build a character concept from the ground up, creating a history, culture and mannerisms for them. You can give your creations new abilities and sinister powers, they might be able to fly, or to breathe underwater. The fact that your characters can be so different is one of the great draws of the fantasy genre. But for all the strangeness of these characters, remember you will have to write from their perspective.
As you design the character or race, think about what details you’re adding and what effect they will have in the narrative. If you have a race of sub-human monsters with little to no language skills, take that into account in the writing; the narrative voice won’t be talking about the politics of their war or appreciating the scenery, it will be blunt and focused on destruction. Think about how the character would act, how they would see the world, what they would do in a situation.
You take it even further, if you’ve created a race of tunnel dwellers that are blind but see through a form of echo-location, the writer needs to think about how that would work in the narrative, how their description would change. The creatures would have no notion of colours, but might have other tweaks to their senses like the ability to instantly map out the next room, making them impossible to ambush.
The key idea to remember is that if you’re writing the other, then they should be otherworldly. Avoid writing your characters as if they were human but with funny ears or stubby horns, let the reader know in every line that the character they are residing in is not of this world. There are a number of writers that do this well, Steven Erikson’s K’Chain Che’Malle are intelligent lizards that developed a civilisation thousands of years before the rise of man. Though there are few sections in his books when the narrative dips into their POV, those moments really feel like you’re in the mind of a different and predatory creature. The language and tone do a good job of creating the impression of an ancient being thousands of years old, and aspects of biology like the creature’s oil glands – how they’re used as part of communication and to trigger various states gives those sections an alien feel.
When writing the other, the nature of the character must have a presence in the narrative, whether through biology, or history, or even attitude. Giving the focus to specific aspects of the character’s nature can be a great boon for the writer and open up new avenues for storytelling, accomplished just by teasing out an idea and following it to its conclusion. If your fantasy race were telepaths with the ability to read each other minds then what kind of society would they have? How would that affect politics if no one could lie? How would it change day to day relationships? Would people work out ways to shield their thoughts from others, and what would be the result if they did? All these questions must be answered to convincingly write the other, to make them believable in context, and the answers will make the character so much richer.
Most of this work simply requires a little thought on the part of the author, but there are ways to lighten the load. There can be times when research is useful, even when working with outlandish creations. If an author did choose to have a race of flying creatures, then there is no harm in researching birds and other aerial inhabitants. Learning how these creatures fly by riding thermals of hot air, or about the variety of different wing types and levels of agility they provide can be invaluable in informing the writer’s work. Even if your characters are fantastical the germ of truth in their construction will give the writing confidence and legitimacy that the author has thought about how such a creature would exist. And while there’s no reason to obey the laws of physics or biology in a fantasy novel, it’s easy to find what you need from a textbook and extrapolate/tweak it for your novel.
While creating bizarre characters can be fun, like any aspect of writing craft it’s important to know the limits. Too much too fast could overwhelm the reader, so when writing the other it can be helpful to add in a few touches of similarity, something relatable to the reader that doesn’t detract from the nature of the character. It could be something as simple as showing jealousy between two members of our magic squid race, while everything else about them may be alien, having universal emotions or concepts can help to “humanise” them, or at least to help ground the reader in some commonality.
The fantasy genre provides the opportunity for such a breath of character options it would be a shame not to explore them. Whether it’s the last survivor of an ancient race or the mind of a monster, no creature should be out of bounds as we ride along in their heads. Doubtless there are some great stories with all human characters, but in a genre that’s all about possibility, why not give it a try?