Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Since the start of fiction, we’ve seen ourselves in animals, Gods and monsters and used them to populate fantastical worlds in which we’re happy to get lost. Sometimes, the best way to explore an idea is to do so using non-human characters, and sometimes it’s just enjoyable to invent and enjoy beings that never were.
Often, non-humans are used to make us really think about what it is to be human, but not every non-human character relates to us in the same way. Let’s take a look at the different types of non-human characters and how you can write them.
Writing the altered human
Sometimes stories suit non-human protagonists with a recognizably human outlook. This amounts to a more or less cosmetic change for both characters and locations. Children’s stories tend to employ this type of non-human character, as it combines a familiar outlook with a degree of whimsy.Are you writing a genuine non-human, or just a human character with a few cosmetic changes?Click To Tweet
This type of non-human protagonist can be best understood as a result of current, real-world humanity. If humans woke up tomorrow as cats and just accepted the situation, this is how they would act.
Michael Hoeye’s Time Stops for No Mouse stars mouse characters who dress like humans, think like humans and attempt to hold down jobs. When writing this kind of non-human, most of the enjoyment comes from little changes. A mouse Statue Of Liberty is amusing but appropriate, and the characters are unlikely to use the term ‘raining cats and dogs’ in the same context.
Likewise, writing alien civilizations often requires a non-human character who is basically an altered human. The advantage of this type of non-human is that there are few extra worries about believability compared to human characters. It’s relatively simple to plug new referents into a human outlook and present the reader with a familiar mind-set.
The problem with the altered human is that despite their familiarity, they are the least realistic type of non-human. Our own culture is the result of billions of species-specific events and individuals; think how many of our idioms come from Shakespeare, and so any particularly thoughtful reader will begin to wonder how the recognizable non-human society you describe came to exist.
Writing the extreme human
The extreme human is usually an attempt to write a more authentic non-human while still writing a character with which readers can sympathize. The extreme human involves taking a single aspect of human culture and making it the focus of a non-human culture, or taking an extreme emotion and making it the norm.
This is often the case in narratives where the Earth comes under attack from an alien race who are, whatever their reasons for invading, inherently more aggressive than us. J.R.R Tolkien populates the world of Lord of the Rings with extreme human races such as the stoic, traditional dwarves and the effeminate, frequently cold elves.
The advantage of this method is that it can be used to create characters and races with a believable history while still working from a familiar human blueprint. How would our society be different if we were more aggressive or less affectionate? It also establishes natural rivalries and grudges when two understandable sets of ideals clash.
While the extreme human is a good base from which to try and write an authentically non-human character, it comes with its own problems. Cultural bias means we tend to see ourselves as ‘normal’ and understand different cultures and worldviews as variations on our own. In the same way that other cultures aren’t just ours with weird bits added, extreme human characters can ring untrue if the ‘normal’ human worldview shines through.
Writing the authentically non-human
While the altered human and extreme human characters are useful for writers and ideal for many stories, writing a truly non-human character is more of a challenge. This is because a truly non-human character wouldn’t just react to the world differently, they would operate according to a whole other set of perceptions.
If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
By this, Wittgenstein means that even if the lion spoke to us in English, we would still not share sufficient referents, ideas or experiences to communicate. It is not just that we have a different understanding of the world, but that the same experiences would have fundamentally different relevance to us.Think about how a non-humans character’s life will change how they see a situation. Click To Tweet
How differently do humans and lions understand scent? What would a ‘bad’ smell mean to each? Lions are liable to seek out and cover themselves in smells humans consider rotten. Even if the talking lion and a human meet and agree there is a ‘bad smell’ one means ‘we’re undergoing an unpleasant sensory experience’ and the other means ‘we’ve found a useful hunting tool’.
Consider this dichotomy as something that pertains to every single word and you can see how different humans are to even the most recognizable non-humans. The challenge for a truly gifted author is to communicate this profound sense of difference in a way with which the reader can engage.
Blue and Orange Morality
Blue and orange morality is a term which references the idea of black and white morality: that good and evil exist and form opposite points on a spectrum. The idea is that rather than being ‘evil’, non-human characters actually judge their own morality on completely different criteria. Their own moral poles, just as directly opposed as our own concepts of good and evil, are consistent but not familiar.
In China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, a race known as the Weavers don’t understand good and evil as we would. Instead, their morality is based on aesthetic pleasure: their blue and orange morality poles are beauty and ugliness. A Weaver might consider a murder morally right because they find it to have a pleasing visual aesthetic. In this example, the Weaver idea of ugliness is just as complex and individual as our definition of evil.Blue and orange morality makes non-human characters feel consistent and real. Click To Tweet
So how can authors communicate an entirely different set of values? In relation to this challenge, there are two sub-groups of truly non-human characters.
1. The truly alien
This is where the reader experiences a genuinely alien perception. There will inevitably come a time when the truly alien needs to be understood on its own terms, even if it’s only for a moment. In Neil Gaiman’s Eternals, the God and creator of countless worlds communicates with humans through a mixture of speech and telepathy:
Tell them that I am (awake/alive/monitoring). That I will (watch/listen), and that once I have seen enough, I shall judge.
Gaiman presents the complexity of the God’s communication which is so alien that single concepts to the God can only be understood by humans as combinations of familiar ideas.
The creation of such false synonyms is one of the best tools for communicating a truly alien viewpoint. When a fairy addresses an eighty-year-old man as ‘child’, the jarring difference between their perception and ours offers a form of context.
It can take a lot of work to find the right vocabulary for a non-human’s orange and blue morality but keeping in mind the core values and experiences that define them will help. Write down why humans are the way they are, our physical and emotional needs and where they came from, to get an idea of how base needs lead to complex behaviors.
2. The integrated alien
This is the opposite of the extreme human, beginning with the truly alien and then adding a few recognizable human traits.
Giving your truly alien character some recognizable values and referents can be used to highlight the areas in which they differ and can be easily explained as a result of their integration with human characters. The talking lion might have learned the art of conversation but might still approach social interactions as a dominant, predatory animal.
Of course the type of non-human character you write depends on the story you want to tell and their role in it. Happily, different types can borrow from each other, so even if you’re writing an altered human mouse, take a moment to really think how an animal that is constantly hunted might act.
Any type of non-human character is more easily explored when accompanied by humans, who can act as ciphers for the reader by exploring and questioning non-human behavior. The less recognizable your non-human’s worldview, the more useful you’ll find an inquisitive human.
Don’t worry too much, though: readers have an incredibly active approach to understanding characters and (as long as there’s a sense of a consistent worldview) they’ll find a way to engage with even the truly alien non-humans. Above all make sure to write characters you enjoy, understand and believe in.
For more advice on your use of characters, try How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? and Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story. Or for the moment when two non-human worldviews clash check out Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene and Are Your Characters Talking At Cross-Purposes? Why Not? Finally, if you’re committed to inventing a non-human world from the ground up, You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It is for you.