Can We Become Foreigners in the Stories We Create?

When writers write, we invariably include our perspective into what we create. This can be a good thing when done in service of the story, but, when overdone, it becomes preaching.

Or, if only just overdone, undermines the integrity of the world and characters we create.

During my gap year, I read Talyn by Holly Lisle. The world she creates is fascinating, absorbing, and yet there was something jarring about it.

Not because of the world itself.

But because all her characters, with the possible exception of the villain, were American.

On one hand, this makes sense, as she’s talked about the underlying message she was trying to communicate in Talyn, which was about the need for the right and left of the U.S. to stop fighting each other before being destroyed by outside enemies. So, on one hand, it makes sense that her characters would come off fairly American. On the other hand, we have a world where people have access to powerful magic, and these people follow vastly different belief systems formed from a vastly different history, in a vastly different geography than our own.

It doesn’t make sense for characters to have all the trappings of a different world, while still remaining, at their core, American. Because, yes, their context and beliefs are different than mine, seeing as I’m Canadian, but that difference didn’t have the name the book gave it.

There wasn’t anything specific I could point to, but rather a general essence I recognized, especially from having lived in Alabama in my preteen years. These characters, with their motivations and values, wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary novel, and I hypothesized that an American reading the book might not even notice. If the characters had been essentially Canadian, I doubt I would have noticed. We seldom notice what we consider normal.

It got me thinking–what would a story look like if it was written in its entirety from the perspective of the characters in it?

I don’t just mean when writing their point of view. I mean the story is so permeated with their worldview, not the writer’s, that it could have been written by someone in their world.

This would require, of course, that the worldview be something that, while distinct from the writer’s own, would be something close enough to the writer’s worldview that they can bring their perspective to the piece, but far enough that they have to stretch to do it. And, wow, would they have to stretch.

It would mean having a structure that fits the culture’s conceptions of narrative. The theme would have to resonate with the people who would live in this world, and the characters’ struggles and motivations would have to be ones that they recognize, playing out in patterns that fit their conceptions as much as they stretch them.

Essentially, in writing a story like this, what the writer would be doing is creating an audience and context for the book while also creating the book.

This can’t happen at a surface level, or even at a few levels below, where the writer creates a world and culture that comes across to the reader as different. It has to recreate the experience of reading a book written with an audience in mind that isn’t anyone in this world.

Like watching a foreign movie for the first time from a country whose films you’ve never seen before. Part of the strangeness of that experience is often less the subject matter and more how the subject matter is pieced together and presented.

On one hand, humans everywhere around the world share certain things, but on the other hand, different cultures conceive of them in widely ranged patterns of thinking. Part of the enjoyment of anime for someone in the West comes from the growing understanding of Japanese culture, which gives a greater appreciation for the stories told from its perspective. That’s why we find so many Western anime fans learning Japanese, reading about Japan, visiting the country if possible.

So what if there was a book that was not only the foreign movie made with a foreign audience in mind, but also one that was our journey into that country?

One where, in reading it, we become the foreigner?

This already happens when we read outside of our own culture and perspective, and I would say that it is this experience of being the foreigner as we read or otherwise take in a story that makes being in that story so uncomfortable. So weird.

My question is: is is possible for a writer to create a story where even they would be a foreigner?

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