In Luke 10, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The man had just been told to love his neighbor as he loved himself, and he was trying to narrow down his obligations. Certainly he wasn’t supposed to love everyone as he loved himself. Just his nebulous “neighbor,” which he took to mean people like him. Everyone else, he probably assumed, was in another category. The other.
Writing about “the other” is a touchy subject. Some people insist that writers should avoid it at all costs for fear of misrepresenting someone. Others assert that representing people and cultures that aren’t the writer’s own is a necessary part of exercising human empathy. The reality is that writers, especially those who dabble in fiction, can’t avoid representing “the other” in some way. So how do we, as Christian writers, do it well?
First we have to understand who we are trying to represent and their role in our work. Do your characters represent other human races? Historical peoples? Research those cultures or cultures like them. Do your characters have difficult backgrounds or are they struggling with trauma that you haven’t experienced? Read about and talk with people who have gone through those things.
Perhaps you only write about sentient alien or fantasy creatures and think you don’t have to worry about research. Don’t toss that history book yet. You create fantasy creatures from the elements of things and people you know, and without research, you might fall even more easily into harmful or tired stereotypes. Regardless of race or species, for your characters to resonate with real people, they must reflect the lives of real people.
Most characters in novels fall into an archetypal category that changes with their character arc. Archetypes are basic patterns of character behavior and motivation that help the author guide their actions in the story. Most of us write archetypes without realizing it, and while the archetypes are helpful tools, inexperienced or uninformed writers risk painting their characters with broad, stereotypical strokes. This is where we can run into danger and undermine our efforts to tell a relatable story. Identifying our archetypes is the first step to ensuring we are writing people, not simply caricatures. Your archetypal characters should have a few defining characteristics: what they desire, how they react to external events, and the methods they use to get what they want.
One caveat: the following descriptions and advice applies to main protagonists and antagonists, but isn’t always ideal for flat (that is, undynamic) secondary characters that have only one role to fulfill in the story. If you want your readers to connect emotionally to the character and his or her journey, however, examining archetypes is a great place to start.
Here are a few of the most commonly abused archetypes for people writing “the other” that you can use as a litmus test. While using these stereotypes isn’t inherently bad writing, it could be a sign that you have used a shortcut to fill in gaps in your own knowledge, which can result in a bypass of much-needed character development.
Commonly Misused Archetypes of “the Other” and How to Fix Them
Is your character incredibly dastardly? Does he or she have one-dimensional reasoning or a singular motivation for every evil thing they do? This is the literary equivalent of a straw man, a person who loves to hate or destroy simply because the plot calls for it. Do they also represent a group of people that you personally dislike or don’t know well? Be careful.
Unless you’re writing middle grade, this misused archetype can (at best) make readers shrug and (at worst) alienate any readers who consider themselves part of that group. It is often used to villainize religious, political, or cultural beliefs.
Take a look at the villain’s goals and do some research. What makes them tick? The most realistic and terrifying villains have neutral or even good intentions that are warped until they are willing to do objectively awful things to obtain this perceived “good.” Capitalize on that and give your villain some depth. Everyone is the hero in their own story, and if the character believes that, the reader is more likely to.
In The Man in the High Castle, an original Amazon series based on the book of the same name by Philip K. Dick, the Axis powers won World War II. The villain is a high-ranking officer in the American Reich, a man who fought for the United States in the war but compromised everything to save his family when the war was lost. Throughout the series, he commits horrible atrocities because preserving his own family, he believes, is the ultimate good. Instead of painting this Nazi (from an enlightened historical perspective) as a one-dimensional beast or criminal, The Man in the High Castle instilled in him a basic, good human desire and corrupted it, making him a frightening and realistic villain.
Is your character paralyzed by trauma or fear? Do they fail in everything they do? Are they simply there to contrast how powerful and awesome the protagonist is? Watch out.
Especially when this character is set in a subservient position, it could be obvious that they aren’t their own person. This may not be an issue if they are a very minor character, but if they are a supporting character, they will fall flat. This archetype can be used in a negative (“don’t do what he’s doing, kids!”) or positive (“look what a funny fellow!”) light, but neither are very effective. A cautionary or token example is not a person, and highlighting a person’s actions or failures and removing the humanity could drive away rather than engage readers.
Give this character a strength or two. What makes them indispensable to the main character? Depending on the character’s role, all you may need to add is one small interaction with the main character to show the reader that their archetype isn’t their essence. Highlight the qualities or goals that make them human, and they’re less likely to fall into a stereotype.
In Redeeming Love, a historical romance novel by Francine Rivers, the main character is a broken, abused, and embittered prostitute. Her life had given her no kindness, but instead of allowing tragedy to define her, she builds a wall of apathy and resilience that is both her greatest strength and her greatest obstacle to overcome. Despite her heartrending backstory, this woman is not a victim, and her potential shines through.
Is your character handsome, eloquent, and otherwise perfect? Is everything going for him, even when it seems like it shouldn’t? Does your writing paint them as the ideal person? Yikes.
This is the opposite of the inhuman villain archetype and is just as insulting. Frequently misused to paint “the other” as godlike in appearance, behavior, or intellect, this archetype caters to our unconscious biases. A gross overcompensation, idolizing “the other” can dehumanize members of your audience and make them roll their eyes or disengage.
Examine this character’s backstory and life experiences to find a true, relatable flaw and avoid clichés. Don’t paste in a flaw after the fact that doesn’t affect the character (or the characters around them). Their flaw or flaws should affect their decisions and the plot. Bilbo Baggins would have never embarked on his long journey if he hadn’t, somewhere deep in his heart, longed for adventure. Without that Took “flaw,” which had overcome the sternly ingrained thought in Bilbo that adventure was improper, The Hobbit wouldn’t have a plot.
Writing Real People
A friend recently referred me to the YouTube channel BibleProject. In their video on “How to Read the Bible: Character,” they describe how biblical narrative uses characters to engage readers. Biblical characters are dynamic, make mistakes, and struggle just like us. Although the Bible’s literary priorities are very different than the focal point of modern-day literature, this aspect, at least, has remained the same: People connect with stories about real people, or at least characters who feel real. Archetypes are only one tool to building characters that look, sound, and feel like real people. Your own life experiences, personality tests, conversations, and research can help you discover the life in your story’s “other” characters. When creating your characters and representing the other, keep your eyes open. Humans are complex, so to feel real, your characters must have more than a single facet. If you start with an archetype, build on it. Above all, use this opportunity to learn.
Once we understand the character we want to portray and our own archetype abuses, we can find the real person—our neighbor—beneath. Here are some other resources I found to help you write the other:
What other misused archetypes have you encountered in your own writing and other books?