by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Some of the most impactful themes in film and television revolve around an encounter with “The Other.” Often representing something else than what is obvious on screen, “Others” are what we fear, what we are curious about, and what we long to understand. When “The Other” is the protagonist, our story often falls in the “fish out of water” genre. However, “Others” can be used in storytelling in a wide variety of ways.
The X-Files made a weekly habit of searching for “Others.” Orange Is the New Black explores the idea in subtle ways. Suicide Squad places “The Others” as the heroes of the tale. The X-Men franchise is completely built around the concept. “The Other” can come in many forms. Giants, aliens, monsters, and strangers have all suddenly appeared on our cinematic horizon, bearing lessons for us as “The Other.” Here are three ways to use and explore the concept in your own story.
1. “THE OTHER” AS FRIEND
Many stories begin with “The Other” frightening us, only later to become a friend. When audiences first encountered E.T., he seemed far from cute and cuddly. It’s only through the journey of the film that we begin to care about him and his mission. Eventually, the alien becomes our protagonist’s best friend. He is loyal and kind, but still unlike us. He reminds us that we often fear things that later become familiar and helpful to us. The same lessons and themes are apparent in Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, The BFG.
Tarzan begins as “The Other,” then becomes “one of us,” only to be forced to return to his role as “The Other.” His connection to nature and the wild reminds us that “Other” can come in forms not completely foreign, but still unfamiliar. Tarzan is unconventional, alien to us in many ways, yet still connected to us in deep and perhaps even unconscious ways. The title of the film alone assures us that Doctor Strange will be “The Other,” yet we will still root for him. In Me Before You, Will Traynor is “The Other” in Lou Clark’s world. He eventually becomes her friend and then love.
2. “THE OTHER” AS FOE
There are stories that begin with “The Other” frightening us but never transition into anything friendlier. The Shallows, The Conjuring, and The Walking Dead all act as shining examples. Ghostbusters uses unfriendly “Others” to comic effect. The aliens in Independence Day are very different than aliens like E.T. They also begin with a frightening presence but never stop embodying such through the remainder of the film.
Presenting “The Other” as foe can be a slippery slope thematically. It’s easy to reinforce our human tendencies that cause us to be afraid of those different from us. It also can be subtlety communicated that those who are different are evil and should be destroyed. It becomes important to try to stress the idea that it’s not what makes us different that should be eliminated, but rather our fear, prejudice, and hesitancy that might cause us not to confront evil head on. This can be done in a variety of ways. One of the most common is to demonstrate that “The Other” strikes first – that they have malicious intent toward us and plan to eradicate us if we don’t stop them first. Our willingness to fight should come as a last resort and should only be in response to evil deeds, in order for our story to resonate with the better judgement of civil society.
Fables are an old form of storytelling that were used to present “The Other” as foe. Most people are familiar with fables such as The Tortoise and The Hare. What few in our culture recognize is that these tales were never meant to characterize one person as being like a tortoise and another like a hare. Instead, they communicated that inside of all of us is both a tortoise and a hare. We should try to emulate within ourselves the tortoise and avoid the temptations of the hare. In other words, fables taught us to confront “The Other” inside ourselves — to battle against our inner “Others” that weren’t helpful in our journey. For it is these “Others” that we all face as foes.
3. “THE OTHER” AS THE UNSEEN SPIRIT
Sometimes, “The Other” isn’t embodied at all in a story. Sometimes, it represents an unseen force that might take positive or negative forms. In the case of the Star Wars saga, the unseen spirit is literally called the force. No one ever sees it. Obi Wan Kenobi tells us that it surrounds us and even flows through us. It represents the transcendent, the divine, that which we cannot control. In these sorts of stories, “The Other” is not something we try to make friend or foe, but instead something we align with or try to join in some form of understanding.
Indiana Jones often must meet an unseen spirit. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we see angels and demons unleashed when the Ark of the Covenant is opened. They are “The Other.” The spirit is briefly seen, but those keep their eyes open to see are quickly destroyed. “The Other” as the unseen spirit can also been seen inside of us. Some films that take on a deep inner journey tackle this idea.
Whatever “The Other” is in our story, we should treat it as an opportunity to present the audience with a challenge. “Others” may be within us or very much a part of our actual existence. Regardless, the truths and metaphors remain the same. Facing “The Others” in our own paths and either learning to befriend them, fight them, destroy them, or make peace with them is a worthy goal for any story.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.