The Other is a literary and sociological concept, used to understand the construction of identity. There is an ‘Us’ and there is ‘The Other’; the outsider, the foreigner, the nonconformist, the maverick, and the rebel are usually identified as ‘The Other’. It isn’t a cut-and-dried concept, because Otherness changes with location, time period, and circumstances. My own personal definition of Otherness relates to the underlying Patriarchy of my Australian ‘Western’ culture – the Other is someone who is not white, male, heterosexual, rich/middle class, or human – someone who isn’t ‘normal’.
In the early decades of the Twentieth century, in the Modern era, someone like Ming the Merciless was ‘The Other’. His East Asian appearance, his name, referencing the Ming dynasty of China, and the name of his planet Mongo, “a contraction of Mongol” (Brian Locke, Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen: The Orientalist Buddy Film) all delineate to his foreignness and otherness. This made him a cookie cut-out classic villain of the era; no real motivation was given to his character because being Other was apparently motivation enough.
Tilda Swinton as the White Witch.
My personal favourite example of the female Other is Jadis, the White Witch from Narnia. She is a powerful female and refuses to submit to any authority other than her own. Of course, this makes her completely evil …
In this Postmodern era, society has become more accepting and tolerant of the Other. In the 1960s and 1970s, Doctor Who’s the Master was made to resemble Ming somewhat. Lately, the Master has been quite human looking, John Sim’s Master was given a more in depth backstory. It might be argued that the Doctor has always been a representation of the Other. They are both 3D characterizations, and more understandable and likeable for their rounded personalities.
In the Steampunk genre, Otherness may equate to
• Femininity, and in particular nonconforming women.
• Being ‘Foreign’
• Non-heteronormative sexuality
• Living to the precepts of an Alternative Philosophy to Capitalism
• Not being a human (like a Timelord or Frankenstein’s monster)
• Being poor (or, rarely, extremely rich)
• Being a criminal
• Being under or over educated.
Now, we can all think of villains that are examples of these sorts of Otherness. In fact, using Otherness to create a villain is overdone. Otherness can also be used as a virtue when creating characterization. Terry Pratchett was the supreme master of this: Captain Carrot, Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully.
Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson is a six-foot-tall dwarf (by adoption), and could pretty much be the poster boy for Otherness. He is in a serious relationship with a vegetarian werewolf. He is a policeman who is the opposite of street smart, being kind to a fault, trusting, and believes everyone is good at heart. He is a simple man, but never confuse simple with stupid, because he is also one of the most intelligent characters in the Discworld universe. He is clever enough to hide this, though his close companions have a fair idea of his genius. More criminals have been caught due to Carrot’s apparent naivety than ever by cunning. And before you point out that he is a tall, white man in a position of power … remember that context is everything for defining Otherness.
Yep. Carrot is a redhead, but that isn’t how he earned the name.
So, if you are contemplating making your villain one of the Others, recall that this is using a stereotype and lazy writing. Think about how scary a villain might be if he appears completely bland and normal, a razorblade hidden in a slice of bread. How much deeper will be your characterization, and you will give your audience much more to think about.
There you go, Erin! A deeper discussion of Otherness.