I have a Ph.D. in Literature. Specifically, I specialize(d) in Victorian literature and literary theory. More specifically than that, I have been most interested in Victorian women's fiction, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and theories of power. The Other, in the terms of these theories, is defined as not matching normal. The Other is marginalized, often feminized and infantilized. The Other is different, strange, scary, threatening (while also being powerless, less-than, useless). But in a nutshel, The Other is strange.
Now as a writer, I tend to incorporate the notion of The Other in terms of power quite a bit. If you look through the novels, I'm betting you'll pick up on that a lot. We Other people in our personal lives as well as our social, business, and political lives. Sometimes we say that these Others are "almost the same but not quite." They can never be like us, they will always be less than in some way (read Homi Bhabha some time on this theory).
But in matociquala 's terms in this particular post, writing the other is more about writing the strange--what is not familiar, what is not you or within your realm of intimate knowlege. As she points out, if you're going to write about aliens on another planet, you get more leeway because you aren't going to run into them any time soon. However if you run into a Mormon woman and she's read about the Mormon woman character you wrote, she might tell you a thing or two about what you got wrong.
That's scary. That you might actually get called on the carpet for mistakes. And that is also the writer's life. You can't just write what you know. You have to learn more, explore, reach out beyond. How? Well, books and the web are always great. But getting to know actual people who have the traits or background or beliefs or what have you that you plan to include is worthwhile. Yes, imagination and putting yourselves into the shoes of your characters is key, but knowing how someone might accurately behave is worthwhile.
Here's a for instance. When I wrote Sylbrac/Thorn, he had a pretty difficult childhood. And because of that, he has some attitude troubles as well as some general personality disfunctions. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be him and I tried to imagine the scars it would leave. I thought his behavior seemed authentic. But then I had someone read it with some experience in the area. I won't name names unless she wants to step forward. She told me where I got it right, then explained that no, he wouldn't probably do that because of a, b, c, and d. She clued me in to the reality of living on the street and what the long term effects might be on a person. So if you read Thorn now, I hope he feels very authentic.
One problem can be that people have idiosyncratic experience that skew away from the norm in terms of what you expect. Finding more people to talk to or reading widely on the subject helps you to recognize this.
I can't tell you how frightening it is to write someone not like me. And liberating. But there's a mental shift I have to make to try to get behind their eyes and experience the world they would. For instance, I read Brutal Women by the writer Kameron Hurley. She has diabetes and has blogged quite a bit about having to live with a disease that you have to pay attention to constantly. She referenced this essay on the spoon theory of diabetes. You should read it.
Now I already got some of this going on in my life because I have issues that will never die until I do. But they are not a daily issue necessarily. I can ignore them for months at a time. And they are not nearly so debilitating. But I have an inkling. This essay, however, has given me such a larger view. I can imagine what it must be like and tied into some pretty serious experiences for me, I can actually imagine the fear and dread. And that's all I have to do to make this real for a character.
One of the reasons that writers are always telling people that they need to read in order to write is because you read these things and they lodge in your head somewhere. And then at some point--you'll hardly ever know when--you'll resurrect that knowledge. It will dovetail with something and become fodder for your writing. It's a little coldhearted--Remember that Graham Green says writers have to have a sliver of ice in their hearts so that they can be the kind of observer needed to develop the knowledge to be a good writer. I also watch a lot of documentaries. Part of that is because they talk to people and their experiences reveal honest details of their experiences, and partly because I learn about others--people who are not me and whose lives are completely beyond me. And yet, not so completely. Because as Bear says, They're not Those People. They're people. People are us.
We keep journals. Not all of us, not always regularly, but many many many of us do. That's so we can record these things and remember them for when they are necessary on the page.
And now back to the writing.
Causes Diana Francis Supports
Primary Children's Hospital, Salt Lake City, UT:...