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The 'Other' in Story


Disciplines > Storytelling > Characters > The 'Other' in Story

What is the 'other'? | See also


A critical character in stories is what is known as 'the other'. A concept rooted in myth and critical separation, the other can give depth and excitement that 'normal' characters lack.

What is the 'other'?

The other is typically a villain or an anti-hero of some kind, an opposite that throws the hero into a good light. By being the non-hero they provide a contrast that defines the hero. By doing things the hero does not do and not doing what the hero does, the hero's actions are clearly shown as heroic.

The other need not be bad and may appear as someone cowardly or deceptive or anything the hero is not. Sidekicks can provide this contrast, although the power of the other often lies in mystery, and supporters often lack the depth of character to play this role.

The other may well represents the darker flipside of the hero, the repressed inner, the schizophrenic twin. This makes them even more fearful as we wonder if we could be, or maybe are, like that. This dark humanity also makes them attractive as we hold close that which we are.

The other can be mythical or fantastic in some way, such as centaurs, demons or aliens. These creatures are often partially human so we connect to them, and partially something else so we are repulsed. Even if they are animal hybrids, they still often speak. This essence of otherness creates an attraction-avoidance tension as we are simultaneously pulled into and pushed away from the being.

Otherness is a quality that is hard to define yet may be easy to feel. It triggers a sense of unease, a repulsive creepiness. And yet there is also a compulsive fascination, a desire to stay and know what the other will do. We may hope the other will be destroyed, yet the strange attraction makes us want its defeat to be hard-won and maybe even that it secretly escapes.

Creating the other

To create an effective other, start with the hero or even a generic normal person and list what they are, such as thoughtful, human-shaped, married and so on. Then take some of these dimensions and reverse or distort them in the other. In this way make the other different in some ways, but not too different.

Also give the other an attractive quality. Vampires are charming as they seduce their victims. Aliens may be beautiful, with large, soulful eyes. Even raw power has desirability that can make us want to befriend strong others, to stand in their protective shadow.

A common quality of an other is a lack of empathy, an ability to coldly harm people. Others may hence be shown casually killing or just not appreciating human distress or other emotion. A powerful other person may well have psychopathic tendencies as they callously manipulate people to their own ends.

Power is an essential aspect of the other, who may have superior strength, knowledge or other abilities that make them a threat. Mystery also lends power as it invokes the imagination, which can create powers untold.

The other should have vulnerabilities, although these may not at first be apparent. An invulnerable other is initially terrifying but ultimately tedious. Weaknesses make a character more credible, more human. Cracks in their defense and limitations to their power also give focus for their defeat. Vulnerability also make the other more attractive as it invoke sympathy, such as for Frankenstein's lonely monster.

When creating normal, everyday characters, there are many social rules about how they should look and behave. The other is not bound by such constraint and hence gives scope for exploring extra-ordinary qualities. Its lack of rules allows taboos to be made visible, naming the un-nameable that we all know but do not dare admit. Others allow the darker recesses of the human psyche to be explored in their 'not-me yet real-me' potential. In this way others can add depth, fascination and even self-learning to stories that may otherwise be hum-drum.

Otherness is about difference. In this way, anyone can have elements of otherness and in some ways we like such interesting twists, even to heroic characters as this sets them apart. Eccentrics may show notable otherness, though usually with no threat attached. A dash of otherness adds spice to any character and is hence a useful tool for the storyteller.

See also

Psychoanalysis, Critical Theory, Fatal Flaw, Heroic characters, Villainous characters


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