Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Writing the Other

Rate this book
During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong, horribly, offensively wrong, and so it is better not even to try. This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own. Nisi and Cynthia collaborated to develop a workshop that addresses these problems with the aim of both increasing writers' skill and sensitivity in portraying difference in their fiction as well as allaying their anxieties about ''getting it wrong.'' Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is the manual that grew out of their workshop. It discusses basic aspects of characterization and offers elementary techniques, practical exercises, and examples for helping writers create richer and more accurate characters with ''differences.''

122 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2007

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Nisi Shawl

125 books487 followers
Nisi Shawl is a founder of the diversity-in-speculative-fiction nonprofit the Carl Brandon Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. Their story collection Filter House was a winner of the 2009 Tiptree/Otherwise Award, and their debut novel, Everfair, was a 2016 Nebula finalist. Shawl edited Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars (2013). They coedited Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (2013).

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
342 (42%)
4 stars
295 (37%)
3 stars
128 (16%)
2 stars
26 (3%)
1 star
6 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 154 reviews
Profile Image for Amy Rae.
912 reviews40 followers
April 10, 2022
UPDATE, 04.09.22: I want to come back to this review for a couple of reasons. First, to remove my star rating, for reasons I'll go into below. Second, to note that I just found out that there is now an accompanying Writing the Other website that improves upon most of my complaints regarding the book. The website is a multifaceted learning opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about diversity in literature. The webinars it offers are hosted by people from a variety of backgrounds, talking about a variety of topics. I'd still like to see more energy given towards talking about poverty, caste systems, class structures, and the way they all intersect with other marginalized identities - but they're still producing content. There's time.

If this book didn't do it for you, or if my review meant you didn't even bother reading the book, please check out the website. Support ongoing efforts to help people write better books, and join me in continuing to hope that there'll be an updated edition of the book someday.

Regarding my star rating: Nearly 10 years ago, I originally gave this book two stars, because I personally had a two-star experience. In the time since, a number of people have liked this review, to the extent that it's not only the top review for this book, a snippet of the review actually shows up for me in the website description when I google "writing the other goodreads."

Under other circumstances, maybe I'd be psyched about that. Let's be real: in a vacuum, it's a nice feeling to know other people value your thoughts and opinions. But in the greater web of context, that means that anyone who discovers this book by chance is greeted on Google by me going "this book is pretty elementary." They're greeted on Goodreads by the visual of two stars, which is a pretty powerful impression - I know that lower star ratings will affect my decision to purchase or read a book. This is one of my most liked reviews, and I think the impact of the rating is most of the reason; all my most liked reviews are one- or two-star reviews.

And the thing is, even if I personally had a two-star experience reading the book, that doesn't mean other people will. I still believe just about everything I wrote in my original review, and that includes the fact that this book provides a useful introduction to concepts worth learning. And the fact that Nisi Shawl's included essays were solid, helpful reads with solutions writers can incorporate into their work immediately. If I'd discovered this book in 2009, when Racefail had just happened, my experience probably would have been a four- or five-star one. This book would have been a friendly, conversational touchstone for me as I started to reflect on what it really meant for me to be a white person, both in the world and in my favourite fandoms specifically.

The idea that a review I wrote to process my own thoughts on the book might have chased people away from it - specifically people who might really need this book - troubles me. Moreover, the idea that my review might have provided anti-diversity factions with reasons to dismiss real and legitimate concerns from real and legitimate fans of genre fiction? Whew - the thought of that fucking blows. After all, my reading experience wasn't lousy because I thought the book was wrong; it was lousy because I wanted the book to go further than it did.

I think it'd be deceptive to delete the review in its entirety (though I reserve the right to change my mind on that front), but I'm at least taking away anyone's ability to dismiss this book based on a couple of star-shaped images at the top of a mediocre review I wrote back in 2013. My growing concerns with this book review is one of the primary reasons I stopped starring my reviews this year; it feels wrong to leave it untouched in retrospect. Thanks for listening.

My original review is included below:

Writing the Other serves as a decent first step for the writer who'd like to write about black people but isn't familiar with phrases like "white privilege." It's a fairly gentle introduction to issues at play in writing diverse characters, especially racially diverse ones. The two Nisi Shawl essays included ("Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere" and "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation") were insightful and contained concrete suggestions for approaching diverse writing. I found them much better written and more useful than the main "Writing the Other" content.

For authors who are already familiar with Racism 101, this book will be less helpful. While I was reading this, my roommate commented that books about diversity probably shouldn't have fewer than 5 authors of different backgrounds, and I can definitely see his point. This book would be far more interesting and helpful with a greater diversity of viewpoints, especially if different authors focused on different types of diversity and the unique challenges presented by different types of oppressions. While there is good general advice here, writers hoping for advice on how to avoid common pitfalls specific to writing characters who are disabled/poor/non-Christian/etc. are going to go home disappointed.

There were two aspects of the book that really grated on me while I was reading:

1. The authors deliberately ignore class and classism, noting that "on this continent it's not a difference majority culture recognizes as significant." First of all, I believe that's categorically untrue--if not, where do the challenges faced by characters in books like Eleanor & Park and TV shows like Shameless come from? Just because the United States doesn't have a rigid caste system doesn't mean class doesn't matter. Second of all, it's notable that a page or two earlier, each auther describes their various "differences from the dominant paradigm" (for the most part, their oppressions), and neither indicates that they're lower- or working-class. What a surprise. Finally, if your book is going to reach a global audience--and if you have it on Amazon for purchase, it's going to--why would you be so ethnocentric? That's really short-sighted.

2. Speaking of "differences from the dominant paradigm," it's annoying and pretentious that both authors include the fact that they enjoy reading. The lack of acknowledgment that they have the educational privilege necessary to write a semi-academic tract on writing diverse characters, combined with the implication of "I'm so special, I READ, not like those slack-jawed yokels with their People Magazines and their category romances!", really put me off. The fact of the matter is that even if you call it "differences from the dominant paradigm" rather than "oppressions I face," including your status as a reading enthusiast next to your status as a racial minority makes you look clueless to the issues faced by people who aren't well-educated or have difficulty reading.

Additionally! It's tough to call a book on writing published in 2005 "dated" when you're reviewing it just seven years later...but reading it post-Racefail, post-Great Recession, post-Occupy Wall Street, it felt to me like an updated edition could definitely be valuable.

I've heard this volume talked up as THE resource for authors approaching writing a diverse cast of characters, but I'm afraid I don't think this is it. It's a good start, but it's just not enough for me to give it more than a middle-of-the-road 2.5 rating.
Profile Image for Paolo Chikiamco.
Author 40 books48 followers
December 22, 2011
I bought a physical copy of “Writing the Other” last year, but now that there’s an ebook edition out, I decided to write a review that will hopefully encourage more people to buy and read this very important writing. book. We Filipino authors especially should never forget that, as the book says, “difference is not monolithic.”

I’m a Filipino, and a geek, but I’m not used to feeling like an Other, like I’m not a part of the mainstream. I live in the Philippines, so I am, in fact, part of the majority, and my geek-ish pursuits tend toward reading books, watching anime, and playing video games, all of which are activities I can indulge in by myself.

But in the world of mass media, particularly genre media, my race ensures that I’m not part of the majority. I know what it feels like to read a story where my country is never mentioned, or watching a movie when the only character that is Filipino is a maid. While I’d wish it were otherwise, I don’t generally view stories created outside of my country to be the venue where I’m going to find plentiful and authentic representations of Filipinos and Philippine culture. As a Filipino writer, I think that’s one of my responsibilities.

But as I mentioned, in the Philippines, I am part of the Dominant Paradigm, the person of Unmarked State (we’ll get to that later). The Philippines is home to many indigenous communities that have often been marginalized by both our local media and popular culture–as a contrast, I live in Metro Manila, “Imperial Manila” as some of our southern brethren call it, who grew up pretending to be part of G.I. Joe or one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, instead of being a Tikbalang or the hero Lam-Ang. And yet, as often as I can, I try to tap into the rich intangible heritage of our indigenous mythologies when I write… and, while I do it out of love and in order to promote those myths, it often scares me out of my mind. When I recently put together “Alternative Alamat“, my greatest fear was that I would be engaging in a form of colonization or appropriation (especially since the anthology is in English). And yet, I know that there are stories that need to be told, even if I’m not a member of the Ifugao, or the Mangyan, or the Tausug.

“Write what you know.” That’s always the exhortation. But especially for someone who wants to write about characters, cultures, and perspectives decidedly beyond my experience, as a writer of fantasy and science fiction… what do I do?

Simple. You write what you don’t know… but you do it right. (Or exert every effort to do so.) That’s where “Writing the Other” comes in. It’s a book that was released in 2005, but wasn’t widely distributed–but now that it’s been released as an ebook I wanted to take the time to extol its virtues as an essential textbook for every writer.

“During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong—horribly, offensively wrong—and so it is better not even to try.

This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own.”

“Writing the Other” is the book that grew out of a workshop that Shawl and Ward put together to help writers portray characters who are outside the Dominant Paradigm. As such, each section of the book (or, rather, the main body) is composed of two parts: the first is an extended essay where the authors discuss a topic, or a set of related topics, explaining terminology and the pitfalls which can ensnare authors attempting to write “marked” characters, providing possible solutions along the way; the second part consists of writing exercises where the reader and prospective writer can attempt to apply the lessons learned from the essay.

The presence of the exercises–a holdover from the workshops–are a good indication that the book stays true to its subtitle (“A Practical Approach”) as most of the advice that is given is simple and concrete. (Note I didn’t say “easy”–invariably, research is involved as pointed out in Shawl’s essay, “Beautiful Strangers.”) This is particularly true in the aptly titles “Don’t Do This!” section, where the authors go through a series of missteps some authors make in their handling of marked characters, giving specific examples and counter-examples to reveal problematic assumptions and omissions. (Think, “the Dark Hordes attacked…”)

Even the more theoretical discussions can have an immediate and practical effect on readers (such as myself at the time) who are unused to the terminology–because certain words, once defined in the reader’s mind, cannot but cause a shift (big or small) in perspective. Terms such the Unmarked State (the default setting of a character not otherwise described – usually white, male, single, young, heterosexual, and without disability), Glory Syndrome (the story is about the problems of those marked by difference, but only insofar as they affect those who are unmarked), parallax (which involves being conscious of what a character with a particular history/context would consider to be “normal”), and resonance (a complex of ideas that reinforce and highlight one another) make visible issues in a text which may bother a reader, but which are very hard to identify if the author is not specifically on the lookout for them.

That need for writers to be aware of marked states and positions of privilege, and to be rigorous in our questioning of our own assumptions and presuppositions, is something that permeates the entire book. But in the main, what you’ll come away with after reading “Writing the Other” not only with the conviction that it is possible to write characters of a different race, or gender, or sexual orientation in a way that is authentic and believable, but you’ll come away with a desire to do just that. While the authors are blunt about what does and doesn’t work, they are also manage to be encouraging to authors who (I’m sure they are aware) may be growing more and more nervous as they realize what a minefield this aspect of fiction can be. It’s always possible–in fact, it’s likely–that we’ll still get something wrong about the Other even after reading the book, but that’s okay, in the same way that we’ll never write the perfect story. The goal is worth striving for anyway.

“Writing the Other” is a slim volume, with the main text only 75 pages long. (The remainder of the book is taken up by two of Nisi Shawl’s essays “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation”, and an excerpt from her novel, “The Blazing World”.) Nevertheless, it provides insight into an often overlooked aspect of the writing process, one of special resonance to those who seek to write science fiction and fantasy, and does so in a clear and concise manner.
Profile Image for Maia.
Author 27 books2,061 followers
February 9, 2023
I've been hearing about this guide to writing characters outside your own lived experience for years, and as someone who wants to include rich diverse casts in my stories, I thought I should check it out! This book was published in 2005, and I think the conversations about own voices and diversity in the publishing world have developed quite a lot since then. I did find the first half of the book a bit dated. However, I loved the last essay in the book, "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation," specifically it's categorization of different writer's approaches to borrowing from other's cultures as Invaders, Tourists, or Guests. I'll be thinking about that metaphor for a long time, and trying my best to be a Guest as often as I can, and at worse a Tourist who pays for the directions and expertise I need to do a good job and not misrepresent cultures I didn't grow up with.
Profile Image for Blake.
72 reviews4 followers
March 12, 2020
The core of how I felt echoes Amy Rae's solid critique.

My personal hypothesis as to what went wrong here is that most of the text presents liberal solutions to colonialist problems, but without ever examining a number of incompatibilities between [neo]liberalism and postcolonial ideals. The authors didn't spend enough time unpacking and considering the issues to really be authoritative in their advice, resulting in a text that is variously naive or incomplete.

A scattering of gripes (in no particular order):

* The two key perspectives under discussion--that of a mainstream hegemon tourist [the writer] and that of a marginalized community outside the mainstream [the Other]--are often treated as one in the same, confusing the advice in places where the interests of the two are diametrically opposed.

* In a very liberal move, the first essay's "ROAARS" acronym explicitly (and intentionally) leaves out "class", claiming that class is invisible in America which--starting from its own inherent absurdity--becomes ever more ridiculous with each subsequent invocation of "class" as a dimension for consideration, alongside ROAARS throughout the rest of the essay. [Was ORRCAAS a no-go?]

* Several of the exercises seem to invoke prejudicial thinking rather than offer tools for addressing it. (E.g. exercise six, which presumes that a different writing experience of a character will emerge from any given scene with a character with a minority status, inherently.)

* Their trans-cultural politic presumes borders, thereby adopting a colonialist conclusion as a given truth, rather than critiquing borders themselves as architectures and hierarchies in service of exploitation itself.

* The chapter on the parallax seems interesting, but the metaphor is left half-developed.

* In the first essay, they recommend visiting a museum to pick up visuals for vibrancy of description, but by the third essay, Shawl has denounced this practice as stealing cultural "flavor" from its vital, social context.

* "Good" actions are those that increase the Other's status as it is inscribed within the hegemony; "bad" actions are those which detract from it; never questioned is the power imbalance therein and the desire (right?) not to be seen at all.

* "Novelty" (which is looked down on throughout as an immoral end of itself) is supplanted by "authenticity" as the ultimate commodity-value (in no uncertain terms; capitalistically) of transculturalism, without offering a reason why being known accurately is any more moral than being known inaccurately. (This perhaps speaks to a postmodernist ennui, reaching out for the "truth of the old world" to scrape together a life bereft of meaning or significance, and thus it is a party to the exact same supposedly immoral motivation behind the previous term, "novelty".)

* The finale of the third essay completely shifts over to a culturally myopic moral paradigm (in which Shawl's personal religious convictions are used to justify her actions, unilaterally); promotes a neoliberal capitalist "cleansing" of the act of exploitation by tossing a few bucks ROAARS-ward to buy off the author's guilt (in a completely one-directional negotiation, I might add); and then proclaims for Shawl a kind of transcultural identity, claiming ancestry in all lands (a sentiment that seems emblematic of Sprouse's feared "invader" type).

* How can you know what your cultural preconceptions are without/prior to the perspective of the Other? How you can ever presume to know your own culture absolutely, much less anyone else's? How can one accurately transcribe another culture without getting core ideas wrong? How does one distinguish between "core" ideas to a culture and mere ephemera? How can one assume that one's point(s) of contact--the interpreter(s) of a given culture--are fluent in both cultural languages, and should all voices have equal weight? How can anyone be expected to give an unbiased account of their own culture, whether it be of or alien to the hegemony? How do you address a culture that is "different" to the degree that its morals are anathema to your own sense or morals or way of life (up to and including rape, murder, etc.)? How do you counter categorical thinking using a tool set (language) that is made up entirely of categories? Etc...

On its most fundamental level, a title like this is selling some form of moral absolutism (and any moral absolute seems naturally doomed to fail): "Read this essay and you will know how to write about other cultures without doing wrong by them." The essay itself, however, comes across as half-baked: inflexible with its proscriptions, but vague about the politics that led them there.

There are one or two bits of good advice here and there, but a writer would likely find more benefit studying the works of postcolonial and postmodern philosophers and drawing what lessons they can from them than trying to squeeze their story through the [neo]liberal needle's eye of Shawl and Ward.
Profile Image for Ronel Janse van Vuuren.
Author 82 books45 followers
August 10, 2020
*This is the book club book of the month for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group Book Club.

If you’re not as woke as many of those in my writing circles are, this is a must-read for you. But otherwise it is a basic, very condescending (considering it’s 2020) little book about do’s and don’ts when writing about people who aren’t like you.

“We will show you what works (and what doesn’t) when writing about characters of races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, nationalities, and other traits and features different from your own.”

Awesome. Only, it doesn’t really happen. They skim over topics, give generalised advice (you should have beta readers and sensitivity readers – though they use other terms – which is good advice, but doesn’t teach you a thing about writing about “the other”), and basically preach about stuff someone with a bit of common sense and the ability to observe other people should already be doing (like not comparing people’s skin colour with food).

“They discover they’re gay or lesbian.”

As someone who has done a lot of research (and writing) about LGBTQ+ people, this was a jarring, insensitive sentence. Use your brain…

Two essays by Nisi Shawl included in this book was rather good: “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation”.

The only “practical approach” I found in this book was the use of exercises in each section (though even those felt forced and a bit bigoted as the expectation was for the person doing the exercise to be racist/sexist/whatever while using their reptile brain when writing and then fix it when editing. Which assumes that all people are at their core racist/sexist/etc.).

Also, if you’re going to write a book about various races, cultures, sexual orientations, gender identities, nationalities, abilities, religions, etc. you should probably have people contributing to the book that are from the various “other” you want to cover. As one Filipino reviewer remarked: in the Philippines, he is from the majority and not the minority (the other). Which brings us back to the primary assumption in this book that everyone reading it is from the US… and male, heterosexual and white – “the unmarked”.

Not recommended for anyone – unless you really don’t get what “white privilege”, “straight privilege” and “monochromatic” means (in life and in fiction).
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews196 followers
November 26, 2018
I found this extremely underwhelming. If you're the sort of person who would seek out a book like this, you're probably already familiar with pretty much every point they make, and they don't even make them in any particular detail or with any especially enlightening examples. The main thesis is that it's better for dominant/majority group writers to try and fail than it is for them to actively avoid diversity in their books at all, which I guess is just a matter of giving writers who want to do this permission to do it. Of course, the rest of the book is about the important caveat that writers should try to do a good job writing about people with identities they don't share. I'm just not sure how much help it actually is in achieving that. A lot of the examples they use of people who tried and failed are pretty obvious? Again, if you're coming into this book relatively unwoke, maybe this would all be new to you, but most potential writers are probably, like me, hoping for something a bit more nuanced and meaty. Their only real new idea is "parallax", a concept I like as a relativist but not something they develop enough to be really helpful. Maybe I'd have gotten more out of it if I'd done the exercises, but that's always true.

I also wasn't too impressed with the writing in general. It's nothing particularly bad, but the way that they write about themselves in the third person is kind of corny, and there is a strange unwillingness to engage with the difference between "Otherness" that arises through ignorance and distance and "Otherness" produced by political structures to oppress. The advice they give - do your research, get good beta readers, be thoughtful – applies to everything, I suppose, so what difference does it make?
Profile Image for Sunil.
919 reviews116 followers
May 10, 2014
Although much of what is discussed in this book seems fairly obvious, especially given the prevalence of discussions of racism and portrayal of non-white characters on the Internet these days, so many of those Internet posts specifically cite this book, which is why it all sounds so familiar. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward do a good job of explaining how to write character who are different from yourself in specific categories—though the fact that they blatantly ignore class as "not significant" is ridiculous—and detail how and why authors can get it wrong, as well as right. I particularly appreciated the concept of the marked and unmarked states in terms of how to think of differences from the majority, and how your discriminatory factors can change over the course of your lifetime. In the end, the book was not as revelatory and transformative as I had been led to believe, but, as I said, I think that's largely because this book started the conversations we've been having for the last seven years. It's a short read, however, and it does offer a useful perspective, as well as some exercises.
Profile Image for Jessaca Willis.
Author 27 books155 followers
January 7, 2019
First off, to my pleasant surprise, the Kindle version of Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward also includes two other essays: Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, as well as an excerpt from Shawl's novel, The Blazing World.

I studied social work as an undergraduate and then again in grad school. For those who didn't know, social work focuses a lot on systems of oppression and the impact on people and communities. So when I began writing my own novels, I knew I wanted to include characters who were people of color, who were from multiple countries, who had varying sexual orientations, and who belonged to a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. And when I began writing, I was absolutely TERRIFIED. I wanted to write characters that were relatable and realistic, but I also didn't want to play into the stereotypes that dominate the narrative regarding said identities, but then i worried if I didn't, there would be backlash because the characters didn't seem real. It was a viscious cycle of constant doubting, but eventually (after fifteen or so rewrites), I completed the first novel.

Not that I think that entire first novel needs to be scrapped, but after reading Writing the Other and the other essays, I wish I had known of this resource a lot sooner!

The guide itself felt fairly rudimentary, which is great if this is the first time you're exploring these topics, but again, as someone who studied them in college for 6 years, Writing the Other didn't bring me the depth I was hoping for. It was, however, a useful "checklist" to use against my written novel, but a lot of the suggestions and exercises were things I'd already done. That's not to say though that it wouldn't be useful whenever I embark on a new project.

However, it was the second and third essay that I found more useful, as the content became more focused. If Writing the Other was the foundation, Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation were the walls and electrical circuits. Okay, I clearly have no idea how to build a house, but hopefully you get what I'm saying: if you get this book, READ ALL OF THE ESSAYS. They continue to build on one another.

If you are looking for fast tips on how to write about characters that have different ROAARS (an acronym created by Nisi and Cynthia to shorthand race/orientation/ability/age/religion/sex) traits than you, Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere gives you just that. In this essay, Shawl outlines some suggestions on how to start creating authentic and un-appalling ROAARS characters. I'll admit though, the suggestions offered also seemed basic for any writer who is used to researching prior to writing.

The real gold, in my opinion, is Appropriate Cultural Appropriation. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, cultural appropriation is when one culture (usually the dominant one) takes aspects from another culture (usually a minority one) and turns them into fads, or gives them a twist and calls them their own. Oftentimes, the very aspects that are taken are the exact things that people in that culture were discriminated against for. Some examples are non-Black people with dreadlocks, Forever 21's flair for "tribal" designs in their clothing, tourists purchasing conical paddy hats as souvenir gifts, etc. In the essay Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, Shawl talks specifically about the folly of fantasy writers who use cultural appropriation to create "exotic" worlds. She talks about the difference between "invaders", "tourists", and "guests", concepts I think are quite helpful when crafting new worlds. In this way, she helps writers to understand the appropriate way to pay homage to another culture, as opposed to destroying it and sculpting some of the fragments into something new.

All-in-all, I’m glad I know of this resource now, although most of the exercises and recommendations are things I’ve already done and would continue to do, so there’s not much re-use value for me personally. For people thinking about “writing the other” for the first time though, this book could be very useful! I would recommend any SFF writer (or all, for that matter) hesitant to write about people of certain ROAARS categories, to check this guide out.
Profile Image for London Mabel.
Author 1 book8 followers
July 4, 2011
I would recommend this book to every writer. A little bit more to writers of sci fi/fantasy, but really everyone. Though it specifically focuses on people of color, it's a primer on how to make sure you're appropriately incorporating "the other" into the world of your fiction--that is to say, people who aren't like you. Even if you're a white person living in Sweden, writing about white Swedes, there are presumably still people who are different enough from you (gay, disabled, poor) who ought to exist in your novel, and be represented as full characters. Shawl and Ward's book tells you how to make a start.

The reason they wrote this book is because many writers are so afraid of making a mistake when writing about racially different characters, that they decide it's safer to "write about what you know" and not do it at all. As a result literature is far too monochromatic and SF is full of worlds where a "never discussed plague has mysteriously killed off everyone with more than a hint of melatonin in their skin."

The message throughout the book is that it's okay to attempt at writing race (women, gay characters, so forth) and make mistakes: "Do your best, and you'll avoid the biggest mistake of all: exclusion."

But given that premise, there are still plenty of mistakes to make. Their book is a good place to start, and then there are other essays and websites online to deepen one's knowledge. I expect it's a lifelong journey type of thing. As Shawl says, you won't ever get The Certificate of Authenticity. ;-)
Profile Image for James Hold.
Author 152 books40 followers
December 5, 2017
Interesting advice directed toward writing "about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences." However it seems to put across an argument suggesting you must paint all people of a specific racial group as being the same so as not to offend any of them.
IMO. you'd do better to treat them as individuals with individual thoughts and opinions. Not all blacks live in the getto and dig hip-hop, just as not all Asians eat rice and noodles. Figure out WHO you want your character to be first, then worry about the WHAT and WHERE. Better yet, unless it figures predominantly into the story, don't mention it at all.
For instance, there's a movement now where people want Snagglepuss, the cartoon character, to be gay. Fine, only who cares? His sexuality never figured into any of the cartoon stories so what does it matter one way or the other? The same happens in TV shows where eventually they run out of stories to tell so they give us "insights" into the characters personal lives. Again, why? I frankly don't care if the detective is white/black/gay/straight as long as he brings the bad guy to justice.
So essentially if these things play no part in the story, then why bring them up? Just write your characters well and let the reader decide what else they want them to be.
Profile Image for Anna Stephens.
Author 32 books621 followers
January 1, 2019
A good introduction to writing diverse and believable characters. Some good pointers towards what to include and, more importantly, what to avoid. It also has a series of exercises to help writers practice and define their skills in this area.
Profile Image for Joshua Rigsby.
193 reviews54 followers
April 7, 2018
This is a difficult and complicated subject to be sure. This book offers a first step toward creating a common language around writing “others” as well as offering some helpful advice.
Profile Image for Elliott.
324 reviews59 followers
May 21, 2020
Don’t read this book fast.
It’s not meant to be read fast.
Read this book slow. Do what I did and forget it at work on a Friday; then, pick up something else. Read, and take note of the suggestions Shawl and Ward have offered in this book with the other book you started. Come Monday, get back to this book, finish it, and read it again.
Even if you’re not an author, or a would-be author like me- this is a really good book just to have around in order to consider other books you read.
Quite honestly, this is a marvelous little book that’s far from little on the interior. My one complaint is that the authors consider class to be largely unimportant- which is something I’d disagree on. But, who am I to critique the sun, the moon, the stars, or this book for that matter?
Profile Image for Libby.
Author 1 book199 followers
April 9, 2009
A fellow writer lent me this book because I'm writing a book with African American characters (I'm Euro-American). The two authors refer to differences in ROAARS (Race, Orientation, Ability, Age, Religion, Sex). It includes writing exercises but I skipped them to read right through. I got a lot of help from it -- like don't use food to describe skin color. Oops, I need to go back through and take out my references to caramel. They urge writers to not avoid writing about others for fear of misappropriating their experiences.
Profile Image for Joy Pixley.
228 reviews
January 18, 2022
This book is a good introduction to this important, useful topic. The authors are generous, patient, and willing to admit to their failures and biases in order to enable to readers to engage with their own and try to improve. I wish the book were longer and went into more detail; I imagine the topics worked better as a workshop, generating additional interactions and discussion.

Since this book was written in 2005, much has been discussed at writing conferences and posted online about how to approach writing characters whose cultures and life experiences do not reflect your own. Probably many (if not all) of the folks interested in this book in 2022 will already be familiar with the issues raised here. However, I find that to be true of pretty much any writing craft book—there’s not much actually new under the sun. But even when they don’t include brand-new concepts, I can still be inspired by how those concepts are explained and presented in a different way.

I'm glad I read this book, and recommend it.
88 reviews5 followers
May 15, 2020
What a fantastic, challenging book. It has you looking at all of your bias, prejuide and privilege. This helps writers to develop characters that are more complex and true to life.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Kamile.
165 reviews1 follower
November 21, 2020
Really helpful little guide, mostly written for science fiction writers but applicable to all. I wish they’d spent more time on specific things to do/not do and less on why this is important.
Profile Image for Josh.
387 reviews17 followers
July 30, 2018
A look at how to better incorporate different voices (of different races, orientations, ages, abilities, religions, or sexes, using the not-that-easier to remember ROAARS mnemonic--and there are literally infinite other dimensions that matter, too), into your writing. Steadily chipped away at this one over several months as I read pieces of it and worked through the exercises.

Good: Practical, concise, and readable, uses lots of good examples of what not to do, with suggested exercises and bibliography. The co-authors play well off each other, offering different perspectives when it's useful.

However: Generally I found the exercises useful, but they aren't perfectly designed. In one example they have you do a fairly ambitious re-write of an entire scene from a different character's perspective, but impose an impractically strict time limit. Isn't blundering through this quickly, without thinking through what these characters will want, exactly not what we are trying to do here?

Anyway from a practical standpoint I would still recommend this book for wannabe writers. Even assuming that you are a functioning adult and therefore appreciate and respect human diversity, turning that into practical writing is a skill to develop, and this will help.
458 reviews2 followers
December 31, 2019
This was written in 2005 and it shows. This was/is an important primer for a lot of white folks, but it's got some notable flaws.

Notably, the ROARRS designation puts Race/Sexual Orientation/Age/Ability/Religion/Sex on the same playing field, and ignores other critical qualities like class. And while some of these are core to our lifelong identity, others change (most notably age). And nothing acknowledges the particular importance race plays in our culture, as though it doesn't want to be offputting.

Also, any book written about "the other" not written BY them will have troubles, like on p. 32 when "get[ting] a sex change operation" is on a list of ways a person might change categories, alongside "dye his hair" and "move to a different country." Womp womp. Would that happen in 2019? Who knows, but it sure as cis cluelessness.

On p. 46, they suggest that you need to have others read your work, but not necessarily people who match your characters' ROAARS traits. "What you need is a pol of reasonably intelligent, well-informed, and articulate readers." That's what white, cis, able-bodied editorial rooms tell themselves all the time, and it's how we get books with crappy rep. Again, this book is dated.

I do appreciate the example of the Main fisherman with a gay best friend from elsewhere. That is, of *course* that can happen. What would be weird, though, is if *no one* remarked on it.

I also like p. 57, "there's a difference between recounting the facts and telling the truth." Just because it happened that way once doesn't mean you should use it in a story.

The best bits, though, come from others. Hiromi Goto's poem on p. 85 was lovely, and I really like Diantha Day Sprouse's categories on p. 87 of people writing from the outside as Invader/Tourist/Guest. And I would like to think that as we move into 2020, we're moving on to co-conspirators.

Profile Image for Jacey.
Author 26 books97 followers
February 8, 2016
An interesting overview of writing diverse characters. As a writer you always worry that you're not doing it right. There are many traps for the unwary from racial stereotyping to cultural appropriation. I got to the end of this book with a sigh of relief. I don't seem to have fallen into those traps yet.

The book began as an idea formed at a Clarion workshop. It's American, and to a certain extent reflects the experience of being black in America, but does expand to a much wider overview. Otherness can be defined in myriad ways. It covers race religion, gender, sexual orientation etc., but Shawl and Ward don't really cover class, which is important in a lot of cultures across the globe, if not (arguably) in America.

There were writing exercises which I skimmed past, being part way through the first draft of another novel. Did I learn anything? There was certainly food for thought, but mostly I learned that characters are individual and that there's a certain amount of 'otherness' in most people, you just have to look for it. It's not always the obvious thing.
Profile Image for Lesley Arrowsmith.
160 reviews13 followers
October 12, 2017
I'd almost forgotten about this, and didn't connect it with Everfair, which I've just finished reading, until I saw the list of Nisi Shawl's work just now. I bought it several years ago as an ebook, and because it's an ebook, I can't see it on my shelves, so I just forget I've got it. But it was an excellent book on how to write about a diverse range of people, and it was something I needed to learn for my own writing (and I'm still learning, and trying to do better all the time).
Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Ginny Kaczmarek.
284 reviews3 followers
June 13, 2018
I highly recommend this for writers interested in conveying people unlike themselves in a respectful way (which should be all of us!). Through a series of informative, thoughtful chapters with lots of (sometimes funny) examples, as well as a couple of thought-provoking essays, writers are encouraged to write beyond "what you know" in a way that opens minds rather than shutting them down.

The authors' website offers even more information, videos, links, and encouragement, as well as a series of classes and community that sound absolutely inspiring. A real treasure trove for all writers, no matter your preferred genre!
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
714 reviews135 followers
February 16, 2021
Unless we are only going to write about ourselves, and only ourselves all alone in the world, we need to understand and present authentic people. In response to "Write what you know" the authors suggest: know more.

This slim books offers specific recommendations about how to do that, as well as useful exercises designed to develop awareness as well as skill in representing the other..

This book is well worth your time, and I only wish there were more.
Profile Image for Cintain 昆遊龍.
62 reviews11 followers
August 27, 2021
The authors’ musings and class notes on how to work with transcultural, transracial, and other diversity issues in writing. A few interesting pointers, a very measured and less strident approach than is usually found in treatments of such topics, but can’t entirely escape their legacy.
Page 97 is beautiful, and single-handedly saved my copy of this book from the recycling bin. However I don’t imagine the author expected anyone to notice her most acute and insightful observation in the entire book. At any rate, thank you for that bit.
Profile Image for Rachel Pollock.
Author 13 books64 followers
December 29, 2018
Advanced required reading for a class. Great collection of essays on writing outside your lived experience without appropriation/offense.
Profile Image for Anna Stephens.
Author 32 books621 followers
January 1, 2019
Good overview

Covers the basics and gives some decent examples to follow and to avoid to make your writing more diverse and characters more believable.
Profile Image for Rhi.
358 reviews138 followers
October 31, 2020
Simplistic language to explore issues of othering and tokenism in one’s writing. It didn’t set my world on fire, but it’s not a bad starter text for this issue.
Profile Image for Valentina.
45 reviews6 followers
February 22, 2021
Spunti interessanti, ma rivolti soprattutto a chi è proprio 'a digiuno' quando si parla di rappresentazione nei media. Molte cose sarebbe stato interessante vederle più approfondite, mentre per altre inizia a essere già un po' datato...
Displaying 1 - 30 of 154 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.