Being the Other

One of the hardest things for a human being to do is to understand, and empathize with, the Other.

By which I mean any sentient thing that is not the human’s specific self. The more different the Other is from that self, the less easy it is to relate.

I’m not just talking about animals here, either. I’m talking about Other genders, Other cultures, Other ways of viewing the world. Most if not all of our wars and conflicts either originate in or devolve into some form of this–from invading a country that has resources we want or  need, to declaring a particular tribe or nation or faith or skin color “evil” or “deluded” or “lesser” or  “not us,” to allotting specific, value-weighted traits to each gender.

History doesn’t escape this, and neither does fiction. Animal training is loaded with it. So is anthropology, psychology, sociology. The history of human thought is, to a large extent, the history of biases and value judgments codified into “universal” laws–nearly always written in the judges’ favor.

So what brought this on? Years of raising and training horses, of course–learning how to train them most safely and effectively, which means learning how to think like them. And also years of academic study as a historian, and years of being a writer of historical and fantastic fiction.

Writers, like historians, spend a great deal of time studying the world around them and finding ways to make sense of it. If they’re successful, they create or describe worlds in which their readers or students can also, vicariously, live.

Lately in the field of science fiction and fantasy, there has been a great deal of discussion of the Other–some of it extremely heated. There’s a widening consensus that non-English-speaking, non-US-centric, non-white/Caucasian/Western European/insertfavoritetermhere authors as well as works and worlds have been unjustly neglected. And there has also, even more recently, been an upsurge of recognition of the gender bias that is fundamental across most of human culture, but notably within the field itself.

And then, last week, there was this. Which boils down to this line of sheer and savage brilliance: “History is not a theme park.”

For years I’ve been looking for ways to explain why so much historical and fantastic writing falls short for me. In historical work, I look for something that I call “period sense.” It’s the ability of the writer to evoke not just a fully realized past, but a past that rings true to the primary sources and the history of that place and time. Many dearly beloved and bestselling works may have splendid stories, memorable characters, super settings and seriously cool costumes–and the authors will claim years, if not decades, of research. And yet…they’re missing some essential element. Something is not connecting between the story and the period it’s purporting to bring to life.The whole thing, elaborate as it is, feels like a theme park.

Now I think I realize what it is. In the voluminous comments on the Marquise’s post (she is, in fact, a highly trained historian and a fine writer of fantasy), I found a word that seemed to fit. That word is Empathy.

By this I mean, the ability to put yourself inside the Other’s skin. To feel what they feel, to know what they know. To see the world as they see it–directly, and not through the lens of your own cuiltural biases. When you are in this state, you are the Other.

A horse trainer learns to do this when training especially sensitive, reactive, opinionated horses. She puts herself in the horse’s place, understands his instincts and biological imperatives, and doesn’t judge or punish when he blows up over what to a human is a trivial or nonexistent threat. What she does, instead, is correct and guide and reassure, and mold his behavior in ways that make their interaction safer and more pleasant for them both. To such a trainer, the horse is not an inferior being driven solely by Pavlovian reactions, or a dumb animal to be shown who’s boss, or a piece of sports equipment. He’s a fellow sentient being in a symbiotic partnership. And if she’s doing it right, that partnership is solidly two-way.

For a writer, the “horse” is the story, and the words that make up the story. The mind being guided is the reader’s. And if the reader feels that the writer has broken any part of the contract between them–to tell a well-crafted and believable story with both honesty and integrity–the reader will feel justly betrayed.

It is not possible for the writer to please every single reader. Readers bring their own biases to everything they read, and some stories will hit buttons that the writer never meant to hit, or just not catch the reader in the right place or with the right signals. That’s normal, and acceptable, and is why the same book will be panned by one reader and adored by another. The books the Marquise discusses have legions of passionate fans and have received major awards–so clearly they speak positively to a large percentage of the readership.

But there is in such books (and many, many of those are bestsellers and multiple award winners) an element missing. Only a few readers may realize this–usually readers with expertise in whatever it is (horses, cars, guns, knitting, the Civil War…), but it goes beyond technical details. It means going inside the world and the period, and seeing it from the inside out.

And that’s hard. Getting inside the Other requires the writer to recognize and set aside her ingrained cultural biases. She must realize that ideas and values that she regards as default may not in fact be current in the Other world at all, and that her assumptions not only are not universal, they may in fact be regarded negatively by the culture she is writing about. And–as the Marquise notes–she must beware of treating it all as a game. To the people who have to live through it, it is absolutely and devastatingly real.

Usually when I get to this point in the discussion, someone asks, “Well, what about time travel? Or if you’re not doing that, how about a character who is out of synch with the rest of the culture, and reflects our assumptions instead?” These are valid workarounds and have been used successfully many times. But in order to do it right, the author has to realize that she has certain assumptions–and one of them is that her culture and values are superior to those depicted in the book. In short, she imposes her personal prejudices on the characters and the period, and judges them accordingly.

This can go either way. The Middle Ages is a playground with great outfits, exotic castles, and Noble Knights Of Old (which I call “RenFest Medievalism”), or else it’s a back-alley garbage dump full of smells, diseases, and nasty, brutish, ignorant and benighted (and sometimes beknighted) people. The reality was that it was neither, though it had elements of both. And for the writer who wants to write accurately about it, one very important skill is to get into the mindset of the period, understand how people thought, and realize that for them, that way of thinking was just as natural to them as our own is to us.

This includes ways of thinking that we now regard as harmful or even evil, but in the period were seen quite differently. The writer’s challenge then is to convey these ideas in context, but without condoning or endorsing them–and to do it in such a way that the modern reader is not alienated or repelled. The writer has to balance being true to the period, refraining from imposing modern value judgments, but also remaining both accessible and credible. Each character is a sentient being with a history and a value system of his own; he may be presented as others see him–as a complete monster–but in really effective writing, he’s also presented from his own point of view, as he sees himself. The writer has to step back at this point and be pure observer; but not in the sense of a tourist in a RenFayre. Rather, she is inhabiting his skin, being the Other.

No writer can avoid imposing her own values on what she writes. That’s what writing to a large extent is about. But if she realizes that those values and assumptions are, and how they relate to the world or period she is writing about, her writing will be that much stronger and that much more true to the world or the period. If she does it right, readers of all levels of knowledge and understanding will find the results satisfying–and some may learn to see the world or the period in a new way.


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Being the Other — 18 Comments

  1. I’m partisan because it’s my own field, but this is why I think anthropology is such a great major for fantasy writers. It exposes you to a lot of different cultures (via reading, at least), and trains you to see your own culture with a usefully alienated eye; you try to learn to understand why a given practice makes sense to the people who follow it, even if you don’t agree (or in some cases approve). That training has stood me in pretty good stead so far.

  2. ::Nod, nod, nod::

    The single worst sin a writer of fantastic or historical writer can commit in my own personal view is not creating the mindset of the time/place. Not just saying “oh, it’s the Olden Dayes and women are oppressed and cain’t do nuthin,” because, in fact, many women historically have manned the barricades, run the manors, etc., but saying, “okay, the law of the place is X, the custom of the place is Y, and my character, for reasons specific to her, struggles against those things.” Or doesn’t struggle at all.

    Me, I struggle to get this right; some days I think I’ve got it; others, I despair.

  3. Marie, oh yes. Anthropology has suffered from cultural and gender biases, as have the other social scientists, but it provides invaluable tools for the thinking writer to use. As with history, when it’s taught well, people who study it learn to take on the Other’s skin (and beliefs and assumptions and worldview).

    Brenda, you could ask. She stops in here sometimes, I think.

    Mad, oh yes. Yes and yes. Then there’s the problem of accessibility–if the work is too accurate, many contemporary readers won’t be able to get into it. I’ve fought that battle with many an editor. “But nobody now will believe he would do this!” Which means finding ways to either compromise or explain without being too terribly obvious or inaccurate.

  4. Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendor seems to have managed that empathy at all the levels of the 15th century England of that period. At least she convinced me — even the scenes between the romantic protags commited nudely in the sunny outdoors, by a lake — or was it a river — in the height of summer, at one point, felt right and natural. This in contrast with the so-called documentary of Abigail and John Adams committed by WBGH-PBS in which it is a blizzarding January night in Massachusetts and the two of them have mad naked love on the floor of their upstairs bedroom, and then stay on the floor all naked and talk for hours. That gave me hiccups in the same way as reading novels set in New Orleans with scenes of passionate lovers doing it all night naked outside or on the balcony, with nary a mention of mosquitos.

    Love, C.

  5. I love the horse training analogy!

    And yes, that essay was absolutely dead solid wonderful. Seeing history/past as a theme park is something that has annoyed the crap out of me (these days it’s easy to see what was sparked by the Hey! Cool! Let’s Play! impulse and what wasn’t).

    I think part of the issue is that if the characters haven’t been the main focus but the Hey Cool McGuffin, then that leads to themeparkery. And sometimes that Hey Cool McGuffin leads to overobsession with the smells and grossnesses and overthetop sexual scenarios. There’s times when it works, and then there’s times when it’s gratuitous (I am thinking of one particularly unfortunate reading I attended where the general reaction was errrrk….over the top gross! Didn’t need those details! And it was clear that the author thought he was being courageously Avant Garde for the Portland Hipster Audience).

  6. “History Theme Park’ isn’t a new usage.

    Certain places like Williamsburg did bill themselves as history theme parks for a long time, until members of the public who were left out of this theme park, and others in academic ciricles, got this to change. This goes along with the restoration of slave presence at the great sites from Monticello to the Hermitage.

    The first time we visited the Hermitage in the 80’s there wasn’t a sign of the numerous slave baracoon — and Jackson did quite a bit of slave trading in his earlier days before he built the Hermitage, bringing coffles to and from Natchez and Tennessee. When we asked where the slave cabins had been located we were told in no uncertain terms to stfu because we were maligning the Greatest American and Our President and how dare we! Now the Hermitage has put up replicas of the Hermitage’s extensive baracoon and runs tours devoted to how slavery operated on a plantation like this one.

    Love, C.

  7. Foxessa, the essay was about how writers treat history as a theme park. Not about History Theme Parks. Two different concepts.

    What you cite is an example of how writers can miss the point of historical periods.

    The history of slavery is being given more attention these days. The Lee Memorial at Arlington has a section dedicated to it, and the documents available there include a fair bit about the prominent slaves on the property. They also don’t try to cover up George Custis’ daughter, whom he freed and gave acreage for a farm.

    Naked Sex in January is a classic example of Failing To Think Things Through.

    Joyce, indeed. Lack of empathy plus a certain arrogance–Idon’t believe these authors realize they’re missing fire; in fact the one I spoke to (I was very young) about why their character was totally not of the alleged period, and why they didn’t just make the character contemporary (it wouldn’t have changed anything really) got very huffy and stated that “I did YEARS of research and read HUNDREDS of books and all my legions of readers think this character is PERFECTLY ACCURATE.”

    In order to examine one’s assumptions, one has to realize one has them.

    it doesn’t help that the majority of readers, in my observation, do not want their assumptions examined or their worldview challenged. They will flock to works that validate their beliefs and views. The more accurate a work is, the less likely it is to be a bestseller. It’s a rare author who can balance accuracy and commercial accessibility.

  8. One of the most pernicious examples of theme parkery (for me) is when the bad guys all represent a single period viewpoint, and all the good guys have postmodern attitudes.

  9. Bwahaha, on the sex in winter. In a Colonial house in Massachusetts! You know how cold that floor would be? Probably you could break the ice on the water in the washbasin. They were not wearing flannel nighties over long underwear with knitted nightcaps for the fashion statement, you know.

  10. One of the most effective lessons in empathy was the following: a human feels that a small space with thick walls and a single entrance is safe – you can defend it against intruders. A horse feels that the top of a hill with little vegetation is safe – you can see predators approaching from all sides and run away. And we can both learn to accept the other’s view and learn to relax in those situations, but once instinct kicks in, it will be diametrically opposite, so in order to make a horse feel safe, you need to accept his needs.

    So many human habits also make sense in their cultural contexts. It’s easy to laugh at them from our modern viewpoint… until you realise that *we* do a lot of things that make absolutely utterly no sense at all. Stretch limos, corn syrup drinks and vote-in reality shows are not exactly hallmarks of rationality, are they?

  11. Sherwood, oh yeah. “Let’s show how nassssty everybody was!”

    Brenda: Ha!

    GreenKnight: Welllll… Stretch limos are about conspicuous consumption, which shows status, which attracts mates and followers. Corn syrup is sweet, which we are wired to prefer, because fruit is sweet and it’s good for us. And vote-in reality shows are Democracy On The Hoof.

    All perfectly rational if you have a twisty enough mind. ;>

    (But then I once explained how a romance novel could, indeed, have a Viking heroine named Tiffany. Daddy was in the Varangian Guard, see, and…)

    (Being a hardliner about period sense doesn’t mean you have to give up your sense of humor.)

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  13. yes yes yes and yes and dammit YES.

    Nothing annoys me more than some snotty character who goes all modern-attitude on me while stuck firmly in his or her own time and place and context. As in, I’ve read books set in periods which were characterised by the ownership of slaves – and while modern sensibilities haven’t condoned the ownership of one human being by another for a VERY LONG TIME NOW this was not the morality that was prevalent in the time period of which the author is writing about. So, in order to make their protagonist sympathetic to the modern reader, that protagonist goes all gung-ho anti-slavery on that reader – but an attitude like that would not have lasted long IN THE PERIOD OF WHICH THE AUTHOR IS WRITING. If you find you have to rely on providing your protagonist with modern sensibilities because YOU are too squeamish to get into their (admittedly alien to you) brain and mindset and way of thinking and make it understandable and acceptable to the reader FOR THE DURATION OF THE NARRATIVE (nobody is suggesting you go all Bachman on on us and suggest that the slaves were actually happier when they were being owned by somebody…) you’re probably writing the wrong book.

    Fantasy is not all sweetness and light. And it shouldn’t be. If you want it to ring true to a reader you have to realise, accept, and write convincingly about, the warts on the thing as well as the pretty-pretty-look-at-me-I-am-wearing-a-dress-with-a-train kind of vision.

    Research – copious quantities of it – is essential. No story is based in a vacuum, it all has roots somewhere, and you’d better know what they are and how deep they go before you start loading them with your own baggage. You, the author, have to know. It is amazingly easy to tell when an author is just fudging things and hoping for the best, really it is, particularly if you choose to write about living-memory events which might very well still have a tenuous presence in the current everyday lives of the people who lived through those events or their immediate descendants. And if you as the author haven’t both done your research AND don’t have the empathy to produce the kind of story that those who remember the reality are going to believe and accept… maybe it’s time to pick a different period in time, no matter how SHiny! WOnderful! Awesome! you find something to be. It’s very easy to wreck the shiny/wonderful/awesome by treating it the wrong way. Don’t be that author.

  14. Brenda, I haven’t read Revise the World: thank you for the reference, I’ll check it out.
    I share Marie’s partisanship for anthropology. Like history, it’s a wonderful way to learn that people are not identikit, to find one’s own assumptions and to begin to try and get it right.
    Sherwood, I’m another one who can’t bear the post-modern hero illuminating the Old Bad World approach.

  15. It also annoys me when the Past is just one amorphous mass of pastness, the way Mongo has uniform weather in Buck Rogers. People who lived in 1831 thought of themselves as modern — as indeed they were.

  16. Judy,
    I would say those things have perfectly good explanations… just not rational ones 😉

    I think that’s something so many writers get wrong: everybody bemoans the decline of manners in young people, and almost everybody feels they’re living in times where there are lots of exciting inventions being made: look how much better we have it than our grandparents. And everybody’s grandparents felt exactly the same…

  17. For history as theme park, read Connie Willis, “Blackout” and “All Clear.” The opening scenes are very much theme park – and the time traveling ‘historians’ are actually voyeurs of other time periods – with some interesting twists and questions.