Let’s talk some more about writing good characters. Last week I talked about stripping a character down to a core, free of any trappings of race, gender, and upbringing, and then building them back up. I think that’s one useful exercise, but here’s another thought to ponder.

You can’t write a good character if that character remains fundamentally Other to you.

Some of you might recall a best-selling book that was published several years back by a man named John Gray: Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I have not read it, so I probably shouldn’t talk too much trash regarding its contents or its value as a guide to relationships, but its basic premise is certainly that men are men and women are women and never the twain shall meet. We will never understand each other, and can at best just try to get along by respecting our differences and, I suppose, agreeing to disagree.

Gray’s view is hardly an outlying one, which is why comedians and sitcoms get such mileage to this day from playing on gender stereotypes. Hell, I have a lot of women co-workers at my day job who often throw up their hands and declare in exasperation that they’ll never understand men, or that men are this way or that way in their behavior because, well… men, amirite? Toy aisles are divided into boys’ and girls’ sections, because why would a boy ever want to play with Barbie or a girl want to play with Batman? Any deviance from these “givens” is ignored or rationalized away, which might be why there’s still a real struggle for the LGBT crowd to be acknowledged as existing, much less accepted. Certainly John Gray didn’t bring them up. It would have complicated things. Better to just keep it all nice and simple and compartmentalized. Plenty of people live and die happily on just those terms.

Well, if you want to write interesting characters who aren’t self-inserts, I believe you don’t have that luxury. You’ve got to climb out of your own skin and do your best to relate to a person outside your own experience, and the only way you’re going to do that successfully is by determining what you share with that person that’s similar, not by getting hung up on what’s different. You might find out that you’re not so different after all.

Crazy? Well, I suppose writers are crazy sorts, but… here, why I don’t I let Olivia Wilde tell a little story:

Now if you didn’t watch that whole thing, the most interesting part for me is where she talks about a reading she did with fellow actors where they took the script of American Pie and gender swapped all the characters, and it wasn’t nearly as weird to do that as might be expected. Well, at least from the womens’ perspectives; the men having to read the female roles got bored after awhile with how bland their parts were. That surprises me because I can recall thinking American Pie was a lot better than most raunchy sex comedies in terms of the presentation of the women (I remember laughing out loud in particular at Natasha Lyonne’s line of “It’s not a space shuttle launch, it’s SEX!”… and of course there was Alyson Hannigan’s pervy stories of band camp), but still I suppose the lion’s share of the story arcs and good lines did, as usual, go to the gents. You’d expect that as only natural from a coming of age story written by a man, but swap it around and it was apparently just as effective as a coming of age story for women… and yet still written by a man.

Olivia Wilde also brings up that the part of Ripley in Alien was originally written for a man, but that’s not precisely true. The story goes that Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett did write the characters from a generic male standpoint, but (and this part is definitely documented) a note in the script reads, “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” Because of that I contend that the notion they wrote from a “generic male standpoint” just means they wrote without any sort of agenda beyond their “truckers in space” concept. They didn’t start from any idea of this character needing to be a man and this one a woman, that came later, after all the core elements were in place. And boom, Sigourney Weaver is cast, Ripley’s first name becomes Ellen, and the world is gifted with one of its most iconic science fiction heroes. Who just happened to also have boobs. And that didn’t seem strange at all.

So yeah, if you’re a man trying to write women or a woman trying to write men, or if you’re getting even more complicated than that with your depictions of the Other, the first, hardest, and most important hurdle is to stop thinking of them as Other. Ripley doesn’t resonate as a human being just because she’s tough, she resonates because she’s a working woman who, like most working women, would like to do her job and get paid. A motivation that most working men also understand, but all too often society seems to want to go out of its way to insist that we’re irreconcilably different. So if you’re a writer who is having trouble representing women/minorities/etc. as more than flat stereotypes, whether idolized or vilified or just plain bland, there’s my thought: find the common ground. It’s there. Stop thinking in that mode of “men do this, women do this” and think instead, “this particular character does this”. The former might be okay for stand-up comedy, but if you want to go beyond the surfaces as a writer, it behooves you to treat Mars and Venus as the dead planets they are, and concentrate on everyone just being from Earth.