Imagination Connoisseur, Stubble McShave, who often writes about writing, writes in to discuss how “The Other” is often presented in today’s media.

Hello Rob (aka ”The Master of Fun & Wonder”),

I wanted to talk about something that is sort of “the cousin” to verisimilitude. Writing or (in the case of movies and television) presenting “the other”.

The other is when you’re creating characters that are different from you in one or several aspects. It can be characters with another ethnicity, culture, gender, religious background or a group of people who has a special type of interest that differs from your own. A group with a special type of interest could be gun enthusiasts or toy collectors.

If you don’t present those people right, it can lessen the verisimilitude for the group of people that you didn’t represent correctly. Once you become aware of these things they tend to stick out. The movie or book can be great, anyway, but the believability in what’s presented to you lessens, especially for the group of consumers that’s misrepresented.

I will mainly focus on gender and ethnicity here, but it more or less relates in similar ways to the other groups of characters that are different from you, aka “the other.” The worst cases of bad presentations of “the other” are glaring to most people. However, there are more common examples of bad writing of “the other” that pass most people by without anyone noticing. I will give a few examples later on to illustrate my points.

Competent writers for movies and television usually have learned to be better at presenting other people than themselves. When people just start out in developing and writing characters for a book or a movie there are many that have problems with this. Generally speaking, men are poor at writing women and women are poor at writing men, although it’s usually more obvious with men writing female characters.

There are different levels of bad writing of “the other.” The worst one is, for example, when male writers or filmmakers represent women as a sexual object and not much more. This is something anyone would notice and most people would object to. Examples would be how some women were represented in the early Bond films.

There are of course other examples of this for other groups. Who doesn’t remember how nerds were depicted in movies during the 70s and 80s. They were presented badly in a similar way, by people who didn’t have a passionate interest in the nerdier things in life. Fortunately, we usually don’t see this anymore and if it would be featured in today’s movies most would react against it and call it out for not being believable.

There’s also something called paragon sexism/racism (or whatever ism you prefer). It’s when the creators of the book or movie say to themselves “Whatever I do I can’t be racist.” And to ensure this they have one character of “the other” that’s awesome at everything but don’t really have a developed personality. They usually don’t have much dialogue. This isn’t either that common any longer. You see it in inexperienced writers and it’s more frequent in video games than in narrative storytelling nowadays.

There’s another version of paragon sexism/racism which is when “the other” is the authority figure. He or she is the “straight man” to our hero. They usually don’t have an arc and they’re not fully developed as a character. There’s also usually just one there as well. I’m sure you can list the black police chiefs and female bosses in movies that otherwise just feature white male characters.

One thing that’s quite common is when you have a fully developed character of “the other” but there’s only one. You see this in several movies and books that’s been done for the last half century. It’s Leia in the original STAR WARS – EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE, it’s Rey in STAR WARS – EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS, it’s Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings movies, it’s Trinity in The Matrix series of films, it’s Marion Ravenwood in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it’s Padme in the Star Wars prequels.

They are fully realized characters but there’s usually only one woman in a world full of men. In the Star Wars prequels there were other female characters in the background but they were never in any scenes with speaking parts. One of the very few things I appreciated in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI was the intention to have more female characters. Although I didn’t think those characters were that well developed which is sad because I think the right intention were there.

Although I love several of the movies I’ve listed above they do have some problems with this. As a creator one should strive to have fully realized characters that are heroes of their own story and are allowed to have flaws and motivations of their own. One should try to avoid tokenism in that all African American characters act in a certain way or that all geeks have glasses and don’t like sports. We’re all complex unique individuals and the characters in a story should reflect that.

So what would I say have a good presentation of “the other”. I think the best we’ve seen in recent years is “Game of Thrones”, or at least the first three quarters of it. The notion of character arcs disappeared at the three quarter mark. In that show there were characters from different genders, ethnicities and beliefs that were presented as fully realized characters who were allowed to have flaws and character arcs. Everyone was human with warts and all. Many people would say that it was a sexist show and that I am wrong because of that. But I would say that they were fully realized characters who lived in a world that was dominated by men, at least in the beginning (later on the women were the rulers).

So what do you think Rob? How important are fully realized characters for Verisimilitude?

I will end this with a quote from Terry Pratchett:

“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”


Stubble McShave

P.s. Concerning pizza topping. Author Jim Butcher was once asked about what he preferred on his pizza. He answered “anything that was once cute”. I don’t think he’s a fan of the one with pineapple, but you never know.

(Editor’s Note: I found this interesting piece on things to keep in mind if you’re writing about people who do not look like you and the importance of empathy – if the subject Stubble has presented interests you, you might want to check this out.)