The Voices of Others: Genders, Sexualities and Beyond

by | April 13, 2012 | General | 12 comments

Nikos Kessanlis, The Crowd, 1965

There are some very divergent schools of thought when it comes to the subject of writing in a gender or a sexual orientation other than your own.  Let me paint out the arguments:

1) Don’t do it. Follow the old advice: “write what you know”.

2) Heck, you’re a writer. You can write whatever you feel like.

3) Don’t appropriate the voices of others.  Let them speak for themselves.

4) If you are going to do this, do it with respect and a lot of research.

I’m going to discount the first one. If we only ever ‘wrote what we knew’, there’d never be any sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, horror, etc. I don’t know about you, but my life is pretty staid and it that’s all I wrote about, it would bore people to death.

The second argument has value from an anti-censorship perspective, but doesn’t address issues of quality in writing or social justice. Of course you can write whatever you want: it just may not be any good.

The third argument is a complicated one and deserves some explanation.  With the rise of critical theory in the late 70s, smart people started asking whether it wasn’t just another form of oppression to appropriate the voices of social and cultural minorities for intellectual gratification. 

Feminists argued that men had put words into women’s mouths for far to long already, and should stop it. They pointed to canonical texts: Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. in which women and their motivations were represented in very flawed manners because these people weren’t women – they had no real understanding of what it meant to be a woman or experience the world through a woman’s eyes.

Similarly, the Post-Colonialists pointed to writers like Kipling – white Englishmen – who put words into the mouths of other members of cultures and races while having little or no understanding of what it means to live under colonial rule. Intellectuals like Edward Said argued that the West had sexualized and fetishized ‘The Orient’, using non-European characters as stereotyped puppets with which to play out their own unrealistic fantasies of a life unfettered by Christian guilt.

Many Queer scholars felt similarly: for far too long, straight writers had stereotyped, misrepresented and even defamed gay, lesbian or bisexual characters to perpetuate mainstream prejudices against homosexuality. Or simply used them as a vehicle with which to dishonestly explore their own repressed same-sex leanings.

This third argument has some real meat. Women, gays and lesbians, and people of other races and religions HAVE been horribly misrepresented in a lot of fiction in the past. I would argue that it’s still happening, especially in film and television.

But at the core of this argument against ‘appropriating’ voices is the belief that we, as humans, do not have the flexibility of mind to adequately imagine what it must be like to be the opposite sex, the other sexual orientation, or wear another’s skin. It says: we cannot walk in each other’s shoes enough to write the voices of ‘others’ convincingly and fairly.

This is why, ultimately, I come down on the side of argument number four.  As a writer, I have to believe that, with enough intimate knowledge, research and respect, I CAN know what it is like to see through the eyes of another, to feel through their skin.. because, if I can’t, then all the fiction I write that is not autobiographical is illegitimate.

I cannot write with the voice of, say, an African American gay man without considerable effort. I can’t rely on gut instincts or assumptions about what it might be like to grow up as black and gay. I have to enter this territory with an initial acknowledgement that I lack  fundamental experience of what that life is like. But I can find out. I can ask. I can research and explore and learn and use that learning to write something approaching legitimacy.

My argument stems from the fact that it is not safe to assume I know what any other straight, white female’s life is like, either.  Some of our experiences might have commonalities, but there will be a tremendous amount of divergence between the lives of ANY two people.

And so, my advice is really very simple: never write ‘types’.  Never start your story with, for instance, a character that is ‘a lesbian woman in her early 30s’. Base your characters on individuals you have known and known well. Look at their personalities as a whole – not just their ‘Queerness’, their ‘Islamicness’ or their ‘Maleness’. People are more than just their gender or race or sexuality. In fact, it may be that the part of them that makes them different from you plays a surprisingly small part in the way they define themselves. 

This is the basic advice that is given for character development for any kind of fiction, but when it comes to writing the other, we often forget it. We rely on generalizations, classifications, and information chunking when we venture into the unfamiliar. It’s a basic human instinct to do it and, on a daily basis, it makes life navigable.

But when you write in the voice of the ‘other’, more is expected of you. The ‘other’ should never really be the ‘other’; they should be an individual first, with a name, a body and a fully fleshed identity, before their ‘otherness’ even begins to play a part in your understanding of the character.

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Louise Sorensen

    Great post. I agree. Have been pondering these questions for awhile. You put the issues very clearly.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    I adopt the voices of "others" in my fiction partially as a way of exploring what these lives might be like. It's a kind of self-education.

    For me, almost every story begins with a "what-if". What if I were a midwestern male with a fire fetish? What if I were a twelfth century nun? What if I were a Thai soldier from the poverty stricken northeast – a Thai hillbilly,in effect – assigned to a refugee camp? What if I were a nineteen year old gay man on the streets, suffering from delusions?

    There are many characters I haven't the courage (or energy) to try and inhabit, though. Ultimately, I'm drawn to write a certain gender, ethnicity or background BECAUSE I can identify, across the lines of difference.

    Fabulous post, RG!

  3. Ashley R Lister


    As the others have said – fabulous post.

    And the summary of going with the fourth option – a thorough and compassionately researched interpretation of the individual rather than the type – is probably one of the reasons why your fiction is always so rich.


  4. Donna

    A very thought-provoking post! It strikes me that arguments three and four could be seen as more sophisticated versions of one and two. The whole point of fiction is to push boundaries and explore possibilities, so I couldn't in good conscience preach "write what you know." And yet, I tend to do that myself because I find enough mystery in the life I know that I want to explore more deeply. And I still feel there's a deficit in our culture of honest discussion of female sexuality from the woman's point of view. I'm personally ready to redress that problem!

    As a reader, I'm much more interested in giving my time to "knowing" a character who is rooted in experience and deeper understanding. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of Japanese characters who are written as stereotypes across culture and gender that appear in bestsellers. It truly pains me to hear people say, "I learned so much about geisha when I read X," and I KNOW they've been misled and fed a bunch of lazy, prurient cliches. The only way I can bear to deal with these things is to focus on studying the fantasies and stereotypes in a distanced way–which doesn't lend itself to immersion in the story.

    On the other hand, the few times I have written from a male POV or even about a sexual desire that doesn't match my own, I've enjoyed the challenge of stepping outside myself. It's fun and educational to be someone else for a while and it creates empathy, which is why we read and maybe write as well.

    However, I can't help but believe that, talent being equal, the insights of a black gay man into what that life experience is about will be richer and more worth reading than something a white straight woman imagines he experiences.

  5. aureliatevans

    This is something that I battle with constantly. I can write from all different kinds of sexual orientation and kinks and fetishes, but I feel distinctly uncomfortable writing characters who are a different race or a lower income level. Part of the worry is that I'll appropriate them or do it wrong, and I don't want to hurt anyone with my ineptitude.

    At the same time, my avoidance of the issue can do just as much harm, in that it makes the Other invisible, as though they don't exist in my worlds. And that can be just as offensive as including the Other and doing it wrong.

    It's a conflict. Sometimes when I'm writing it doesn't make much of a difference. But I'm encountering it in my most recent novel, that I'll eventually have to address it and address it as respectfully as possible. I'm terrified. But the story wants what the story wants, and I am helpless.

  6. Word Actress

    I miss you Remittance Girl. Your posts are always
    informative and thoughtful. Like Lisabet, I like to
    inhabit other's lives through my writing. In my novella
    now, The Girl With Sand in Her Hair, my character
    Pippa Arabella Swann is a pro surfer. I would love to
    live that life, so I'm jumping right in with gusto and
    without getting wet! Our stories lead us and teach us
    and it is wonderful…

  7. Remittance Girl

    I'm really so glad to read that all of you are brave explorers of the voices of others. I really do think it's what writing is about – that ability to step into the minds and bodies and world-views of another person.

    I admit to having been too chicken to write certain characters. I spent quite a while researching, meeting, and talking with transgenedered individuals. But I have yet to get up the courage to write a transgendered character. As much as I learn about being transgendered, I still have a very hard time feeling like I have any real idea of what it must be like.

  8. Lisabet Sarai

    I've wanted for a while to write a story from the perspective of a Thai transgendered person. I've known enough of them, and I'm familiar enough with their environment, that I think I could approach the truth of that kind of experience.

    A transgender individual in our own culture, though – I have absolutely no idea.

  9. Craig Sorensen

    Great post, RG.

    When we write fiction, we step outside ourselves to some degree, and it's really a matter of how far we want to go. I totally agree that, be it gender or social status or cultural background, if we want to step very far, we need to be well informed.

    I've tackled writing from a feminine POV, homosexual, and different cultural backgrounds at various times, but these are few and far between, because of the investment to try to do the story justice.

    To Donna's point about the perspectives of an author with the life experience potenially giving the subject greater depth, that is true. But also that I feel that a skilled author, coming from the outside and looking in, might offer some unique perspectives as well. While the depth of experience of a person who has lived that life will doubtlessly be stronger, sometimes the observations of an outsider might bring a new dimension to the subject.

  10. Lady Grinning Soul

    Excellent article. A lot of food for thought.

    I wonder too, in view of the fact that when you write in a voice very different from your own it you have to heighten your awareness, if maybe writing in other voices is a good exercise. Perhaps you don't plan to show it to other people… but do you think we, as writers, ought to experiment with adopting other voices?

  11. Lee Rowan

    Anyone who can't find a beta reader representative of the "other," to check for plausibility and balance, isn't trying very hard. Beyond that –there's good writing, and there's bad writing. And no amount of discussion is going to fix bad writing.

  12. Remittance Girl

    Lisabet: I think you'd do a brilliant job of it!

    Craig: I agree. Yes, being 'in' a world gives you great proximity and authenticity. But you put your finger on it – seeing from the outside also gives a different set of insights. Sometimes you can be too close to a subject, also.

    LGS: I think it IS a very good exercise. And I think it takes a lot of revisiting. My first foray into writing a really alien character for me was writing through the perspective of a male dominant. That was a fuck of a lot harder than, for instance, writing a character from a foreign culture. I got very torn by who I wanted the character to be instead of writing a believable, fully rounded character. It took me a lot of tries before I got even close to something I felt was really 3 dimensional.

    Lee: Very good point. And yes, I do very often ask representative readers to tear something apart for me.

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