By Lisabet Sarai
When I heard Kathleen's proposed topic for this week, “Writing the 'Other'”, I experienced an eerie sense of familiarity. Surely I'd composed an article on this very topic, sometime in the past... Combing through my files, I discovered that indeed, I'd discussed my struggles to create characters distinctly different from my self right here at the Grip, almost three years ago. Of course, that was before Kathleen's tenure here (or any of the other current Oh Get a Grip contributors). How time flies!
Given the volatility of the web, I thought it was likely that none of my esteemed colleagues had read that post, and was tempted simply to recycle it. After all, did I have anything new to say on the subject? I couldn't bring myself to that point, though. I want to keep our readers coming back, and nothing discourages a visitor (at least based on my personal experience) like rehashed content.
So here I am, starting at the same realization as three years ago. Pretty much every one of my characters is similar to me in some ways.
It's not as transparent as it was when I began publishing. Kate O'Neill is my fantasy self – younger, sexier, with the green eyes and red hair I've always wanted. Like me, she's a dancer, software engineer, and born submissive. Raw Silk isn't autobiographical but it borrows a great deal from my own experiences. Anyone who knew the real me would find Kate distinctly familiar.
My more recent heroines are less similar to my real world self. Ruby Jones in Wild About That Thing is a black single mother from Chicago. Not a lot of factual connections there! Nevertheless, I share her determination to be independent of the men who want to take care of her, and her openness to sexual experience. Perhaps the most notable similarity is the way she has internalized the voice of her bossy, critical mother. It has taken me decades to mute the mental harangues of my own mom.
What about male characters, though? Kyle McLaughlin in Necessary Madness is an orphan and outcast, driven to the brink of madness by his devastating visions of the future. Given that I had a fairly happy childhood with two loving parents, and only very occasional brushes with the paranormal, you might consider Kyle a prime example of the “other”. Yet Kyle is my psychic twin. Like him, I know what how it feels to be temporarily insane – the terror, the darkness, the sense that the world is crumbling to dust. I've spent time in the same state psychiatric facility where he is a patient in the novel.
Actually, Kyle's lover Rob Murphy is more of a stretch – a thirty-something, divorced city cop who enjoys sports, pizza and beer. What do Rob and I have in common? Stubbornness and a possibly over-blown sense of morality, to start with. Rob tries to push Kyle away even though he's attracted to the tortured younger man, because of Kyle's fragile emotional state as well the age discrepancy between them. I can imagine myself doing just that – being tempted, but sticking to a determination to do “what's right”.
Possibly the most “other” character to spring from my pen is Rafe Cowell, one of the heroes of my forthcoming scifi novel Quarantine. Unlike me, and most of my characters, Rafe has very little formal education. He's a twenty eight year old black man from the notorious ghettos of Ellay, a gang member and convicted murderer (though in fact he's innocent of that particular crime). He's also a foul-mouthed, homophobic, jingoistic bigot, at least at the start of book. Not much resemblance to his white, middle-class, Jewish, bisexual, bleeding-heart liberal creator!
Look deeper, though, and you'll see the strands of commonality. Despite his rough history, Rafe loves to read – quite a distinction in a society where the majority of the population are functionally illiterate. He's a fundamentally decent guy who's confused by the way reality conflicts with his prejudices. He's also something of a slave to his passions. He strives to be rational but his sympathy and desire for the plague rat Dylan overcome his common sense. His decisions are driven more by emotion than reason.
I can identify. I like to think of myself as a deliberate, careful person who weighs all the factors before making a choice. Sometimes I do in fact behave this way. On the other hand, I set off on with my husband on a three week coast-to-coast voyage across the U.S. when I barely knew him. I quit my job and moved to Thailand for two years with barely any reflection on the possible consequences. I sent off a manuscript to a publisher even though I knew the odds were heavily against it being accepted. Not exactly the behaviors of a rational woman.
I sometimes wish I did a better job creating truly original people in my fiction, but I have to face the fact that when I look into the hearts and minds of any of my characters, I see myself. Perhaps that's inevitable. Certainly, it appears I haven't progressed much in three years. Peer carefully enough at the people in my tales and like me, you'll get a sense of deja vu.