Friday 31 July 2015

Parallax, Congruence and the Unmarked State – how to write from a perspective other than your own

by Catriona Troth

What a dull place the literary world would be if we could only create characters just like ourselves!

Yet many authors are scared off creating characters with a different ethnicity, say, or a different sexual orientation, than their own, for fear of getting it wrong – offensively wrong.

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward started running their Writing the Other workshops to help writers address those fears and to give them a shot at getting it right. Fortunately for those of us not able to attend one of the workshops, their wisdom has now been distilled into a small ebook.

The book is full of great exercises you can try, pitfalls to avoid and examples of good practice. It also goes into the psychology of our human tendency to simplify and generalise, to make things in our own image. If you are interested, I hope you’ll go ahead and download the book.

What I’ll try and do here is to summarise a few of the key concepts.

(Note that the differences that Shawl and Ward focus on are race, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, age, religion and sex. They discount class as being of lesser importance in most of North America, but British writers, in particular, might want to include that too.)

The Unmarked State:

A figure crossed the park and sat down on the bench.

What is your first mental image of that person? Before you stop and think about it? Before your writer’s brain starts getting creative?

There is a fair bet that, for many readers, that image will begin something like ‘male, white, young, able-bodied...’

It’s when you start to deviate from that unmarked state that things start to get interesting.


Parallax is a way of describing the shift in viewpoint that is needed when you step into someone else’s head.

A couple walk down the street holding hands.

If that couple are a white man and a white woman, then in most places in the Western world, that walk down the street is an unremarkable act. But what if that couple were a white man and a black woman? Or two men? Depending on the location, their experience of walking down that street could be completely different from the first couple’s.

Even if all three couples pass along the street unmolested, the way they perceive their surrounding will not be the same. What does each couple think as they approach a group of teenagers drinking lager outside a pub? A policeman talking on his radio?

Allow your characters their own biases, grounded in their experiences of the world.

(Here's a great real life example of parallax from a recent edition of the Guardian.)


It’s important to take into account those changes of viewpoint when you create a character. But it’s also important to remember that race, sexual orientation etc are not the be-all and end-all of someone’s personality, even if those things are central to your story.

If parallax is about the difference in viewpoint between your character and the reader or writer, congruence is about finding points of similarity or empathy.

In my novella, Gift of the Raven, Terry is mixed race child who has been abused, and those things profoundly affect the way he looks at the world. Yet, like just about any other Canadian boy his age, he is also crazy about ice hockey.

In Tamim Sadikali’s Dear Infidel, the moment when the four cousins wax nostalgic over a Carry On film makes this Asian family celebrating Eid seem suddenly like any other British family.

Going more than skin deep

Those are the principles, but how do you go about making those shifts in perspective?

Here are a few of Shawl and Ward’s tips:

· READ – but make sure you are reading primary sources, not something filtered through someone else’s perspective.

· TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE – go places you wouldn’t normally go; feel what it’s like lose the invisibility of just being one of the crowd

· TALK TO PEOPLE – interview someone from your character’s background (but be open about why you’re doing it)

· RECOGNISE THE LIMITATIONS OF YOUR UNDERSTANDING - Shawl talks about writers who are either invaders, tourists or guests. Invaders barge in unannounced, snatch what they want and destroy what seems valueless to them. Tourists are expected. They may be ignorant, but they listen and are willing to be educated. Guests are invited and the relationships they build are long-term and reciprocal.

Most writers attempting to create characters very different for themselves should probably assume they are tourists. Be respectful, listen carefully, learn as much as you can, but acknowledge that your perspective remains that of an outsider.

In my novel, Ghost Town, for example, Baz grew up with no knowledge of his father’s culture and is only learning about it now, as an adult. That gave me wriggle room to explain the gaps in his knowledge.

So go ahead create diverse characters who are nothing like you. Just follow the advice of Joseph Bruchac in a recent Twitter chat on diversity. Remember four words to live and write by: 
Honesty, Empathy, Knowledge, Respect

1 comment:

  1. I have never thought about that situation before. My book is about dealing with Crohn's Disease, however, my next idea may deal with cultural or other differences. What a great idea for a book. It will be so very helpful to many.