How does our concept of Other affect how we read a work or write it?
This is an important question for writers of any genre that depends on aspects that are fantastic or horrific.
Consider this: the idea of the Other is a long-standing tradition in Western literature. We see it in everything from Jane Eyre to Dracula. Even Shakespeare played with the idea, sometimes drawing suspicion to it, sometimes celebrating it.
In the Horror genre, Other is used to strike fear. Other is the unknown or unknowable. It might be something as brutally alien as a Lovecraftian monster or a creature of Stephen King’s imagining that is drawn from that every mysterious Spider. Horror takes that unknowable and makes it terrifying. It does sometimes draw upon racial stereotypes and cultural folk-tales to do it. We see this happen in mixtures with Lovecraft, whose racism was probably born more of xenophobia than racial superiority – he didn’t seem to have a high opinion of white folks either. We see it happen with Stephen King in Pet Cemetery, where the old idea of the Native American Savage is drawn upon for the ancient burial ground.
Other can be used in different ways. From a critical standpoint, Other is usually used to uncover something about the author, the society of the author, or the historical period. For example, in Jane Eyre, Bertha is a representation of the effects of Colonialism. Langston Hughes’ use of Other in The Ways of White Folk to show the effect that racial prejudice (“good” and “bad” prejudices) can have both on the dominant ethnic group and on the one that is being prejudged.
From a writer’s viewpoint, Other can be a powerful tool, if you are aware of two things.
1. What makes someone perceive something as Other?
2. What truly makes something Other?
There are no right and wrong answers to those questions, and they will change. In our society, the color of skin is quickly becoming less of an indicator of division. Religion is still one, but not to all religions. Sexual preference is also becoming less of a division factor as our society progresses. It will still exist in some form, however. We are social creatures, yes, but we are wired to accept first those within our social circles. Those without it must be treated with care before being allowed in, and anything that makes them different from what we already know is cause for suspicion.
For the Paranormal writer, treatment of Other is vital. Paranormal fiction runs a wide gamut of themes. The Other is usually the supernatural quantity in the Paranormal work. It may be an Angel, a Werewolf, a Vampire, a Faerie, or any number of other creatures. It may simply be a human with psychic powers or able to cast true spells. Depending on the themes within the work, the writer may need for that other to be feared, cherished, loved, ostracized, hated, or heralded. Sometimes, the writer may need those things to happen simultaneously, depending on the point of view or situation.
Is the Vampire the hero of the story? What point of view character, then, will normalize the Otherness that exists between the Vampire and your very living, non-vampiric readers? Is your Vampire ostracized from others of his kind? What led to it? What traits are presented in the other Vampires that is lacking in your main Vampire and what characteristics does your main Vampire have that others do not? If your Vampire should remain mysterious by sympathetic, what characteristics normalize him, and what ones keep that Other quality without making him too distant?
Playing with this concept of Other can be a powerful way to spin a tale of the unknown, as you can take things very familiar to your reader and make them mysterious. If done well, you can spin an enchanting Paranormal Romance, an engaging Paranormal Mystery, or a climactic Paranormal Thriller. Carrying back to what inspired this discussion, Toi Thomas plays very well with the idea of Other in her story, using it from both PoV characters views to create vivid romantic tension. She also turns the idea of romanticizing the Other around to mirror the moment in love when you realize that the other person is not that ideal Adonis you put up on a pedestal.
Other can be a powerful tool not just for interpretation, but for writing as well. It can enrich the story and the different conflicts that occur within it.
Well, that’s all for now. I have my own story to get back to. Good writing, everyone!
ps: Check out Toi Thomas’ website.