Thoughts on Writing “The Other”

Once again I got the increasingly common question from a white writer about how to write non-white characters (in this particular case how to write Cherokee characters) without getting it wrong and offending someone.

There’s always a risk of “getting it wrong” when you’re dealing with writing about anybody outside of your own experiences. I worry about it all the time as someone who writes characters of different cultures, nationalities, even characters who live with disabilities that are beyond my personal experiences. The best you can do is research, talk to as many people as possible within that group, and when someone from that group tells you said or did something offensive or problemsome, listen and learn. Another important thing to remember is to respect when someone from that group says “No.” It is not their responsibility to educate you, but if you are respectful and open, your chances are pretty good at finding someone more than happy to talk to you.

As far as how and where to gather your research outside of the obvious talking to people from that group and asking respectful questions ( and honestly listen to the answers), go to the experts. Not just a random person from that particular group, but one of their scholars, educators, community outreach folks, etc… For example, every tribe, in my experience, will have departments dedicated to historical and cultural information.

One very important thing to remember is do not assume if you know about one nation’s traditions, that information will suffice for all Native American traditions you write about. It won’t. This may sound like a “duh!” statement, but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a writer send me something that was a mismatch of tribal tradition, region, housing, food details, etc… When I told them Native Americans were not hive minds and the author had to “choose a tribe” they didn’t understand what the big deal was. It’s a huge deal.

For me personally, if you want to write Cherokee, or any contemporary Native American character ( please are plenty of poorly done historical depictions, unless you must do history fiction to keep your muse happy, please set your native character in a contemporary or even futuristic setting) hit up the website of the Cherokee group you want to center the character in, and not only talk to the cultural department, and see what books on the website or by e-mail they recommend to learn more about their traditions, stories, and history. There is a lot of crap out there. The experts within the tribes themselves can help guide you through the minefield of garbage to where the the gems lay.

Many contemporary Native Americans feel invisible in the eyes of the average American, only remembered as seasonal trimming during the thanksgiving holidays or as the mystical advisor for some white hero in movies or books. We need the faces of contemporary Native Americans in the stories read, as well as TV movies or any other sort of popular entertainment. Realistic examples of contemporary of Americans, not caricatures or unrealistic idealizations no one could ever live up to. It’s not as hard as some people think it is. The “Others” in a lot of ways we’re not so very different. It’s important that people remember that we can be heroes too, we can have romances, we can fly spaceships.

Authors do not have to be afraid to write POV characters who are not like them, as long as they’re willing to do the work it takes to do the best they can, and be willing to listen and continue to learn even if they do get something wrong.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing “The Other””

  1. This article seemed to poke me in the ass as a writer today and I thought I’d just babble a bit. I’ve been fighting with my present manuscript for almost a year and it is close to completion. One of the main characters in the story is a Native American – Cherokee if you believe that 😉

    Christopher’s father is Cherokee and his mother Irish. I chose this mix of cultures because my mother was both Cherokee and Irish. He looks like most people would believe a Native American should with one exception–he has an odd shade of blue-green eyes.

    Early on in the story he has a confrontation with the leader of the paranormal group who is investigating a series of murders in the town he calls home. He informs the leader that all he’s doing is stirring up crap for him. Bad enough that the townspeople and his own tribe give him a wide berth due to his mixed heritage, but now he’s going to make them believe he’s behind the murders terrifying their town.

    Of course the man in charge says What would make you think that?

    Promptly he answers You wouldn’t understand what it’s like. No matter how smart I am or how much education I get I’ll never fit in.

    When I wrote this scene I was caught up in Christopher’s anger and pain. Later I began second guessing myself. How would people in general react to what the character was saying? Would readers think that his feelings were unfounded that things like that don’t happen?

    I nearly drove myself nuts until I started thinking about my mom. Of all the kids in her family she was the one that appeared the most Native American (her grandmother was full blooded Cherokee) with one exception; she had curly hair. I remember her telling me how she was given the nickname Papoose when she was an infant due to her dark coloring. That nickname became a taunt when she entered school and though she was proud of her Cherokee heritage she found it difficult to make and keep friends as a child and found herself hating her appearance.

    It was then and there that I decided that I had to stay true to the original concept I had for this character. I’ve tried my best to do it right and show respect for the culture that my maternal ancestors came from. Whether my editor will agree with my portrayal is yet to be seen. I hope I do my mother proud because in the end Christopher Redwing will represent more than even he realizes.

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  2. All you can do is stay true to the character. I have news for every writer/reader out there…you can bust your hump to do a culture as true as you can but there will ALWAYS be someone who argues it, gets ticked off, and is offended. If you write something that is different from what history says (meaning information that contradicts the bull in historical books) then you will get ripped. If your character is of a culture that flies against a certain stereotype, you get ripped. If the character uses a word that half of a culture approves of but the other half doesn’t, you will get ripped. No matter what, someone will always rip you. I say bring on the ripping. Even when you piss people off (unintentionally) that’s still free press. *winks* lol

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  3. My in-laws are from a pretty small native nation, as in less than ten thousand enrolled members. Not only do they get marginalized as natives, aka ‘timber niggers’, they also get homogenized with better known groups when their language and culture are distinctive in the region and endangered. It’s hard to keep traditions alive when the only available dating pool is all ‘foreigners’. Whether they marry into the predominant culture or another Indian nation or somebody from outside the USA, they are constantly mistrusting one another and suspecting each other of not being real natives anymore. This means the children are easily alienated completely by anything labeled ‘traditional’, because the next person they ask will dispute the authenticity of it.

    It can be a vicious cycle of identity crisis, so naturally anything a non-member tries will be discounted immediately. Do not even ask them! Pick a bigger, more well known and stereotypical ethnic group, is their usual response.

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