Working With Non-Human Characters – Guest Post…

Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror writers have a few things in common, but I want to address just one: Non-human characters. Whether your character is an elf, an alien or the creature from the black lagoon, we, as humans, have a tendency to anthropomorphise these non-humans and that can rob them of their unique attributes that make them interesting characters for your story.

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To make an interesting non-human, the writer has to break away from assumptions and values that would be applied to human characters. Aspects of a non-human character’s behaviour would be determined by environment, back story and level of development.

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For example, in the movie Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, Jr., the alien creature has distinctive eating habits and survival mechanisms that differ from the human character, including reproducing asexually. Another, more diverse example is the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien. The cultures of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits, not to mention orcs and wizards, have certain similarities in their social interactions, but each has their own language and nuances of culture that make them different. Elves live in trees and walk lightly on the surface of snow. Dwarves mine metals and forge weapons. Hobbits mind their own business, love lots of food and don’t go adventuring… generally.

When it comes to trolls and Ents, however, things become more significantly different. The further from a human environment a creature is to be found, the more diversity will become apparent in its behaviours.

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One well-known science fiction novel, Decision at Doona by Anne McCaffrey, gained popularity because of a race of cat people who inhabit the planet that is the main setting for the story. Much of the story focuses on learning the cultural differences between them and the human visitors who land on their planet. This is typical of a lot of science fiction. A very different kind of cat people are portrayed in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. These are more warlike beings, in contrast to the peaceful Chieri who also inhabit the planet and have psychic abilities.

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The Catmen and Chieri of Darkover both come from a wild environment, one that is perpetually cold, and each have developed their own ways of dealing with their surroundings. When humans land on the planet, they bring their own cultural biases with them and build an airbase with all the sterility and controlled atmosphere of a typical military installation from Earth. The local humans, accustomed to open spaces, carrying swords and wearing furs, find the Terran base disturbing and can’t understand why anyone would want to live in those conditions.

When I created my goblin world, a lot of thought went into their environment and how they would deal with basic necessities. The result was a very tribal community who cooperate for mutual survival, yet individually have complete autonomy in their lives. They practice ecstatic dancing and their young are considered old enough to make life decisions by the time they are the equivalent of a human 10-year-old. That is, if they survive. Life is rough underground and only those intelligent enough to quickly learn to avoid the traps set for intruders are likely to see adulthood.

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Naturally, their mating habits reflect necessity. They have a shortage of females, so new young are revered. The female chooses her mates and decides at birth whether an infant is viable. They are no more monogamous than cats and some carry a venom that temporarily paralyses the male during mating, creating a sort of bondage situation. This quality is only found in a particular psychic species, so there is no question of consent. Goblins do not force themselves on the unwilling, though the venom also doubles as a weapon.

Killing humans has long been a kill or be killed situation so survival of their species depends on their ability to make that choice and to call on their trained warriors in the event of invasion of their caverns by a predatory and unfriendly species. Naturally this has created certain prejudices among some of the older goblins who have been forced to fight humans for survival in the past.

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A completely different goblin series written by author Jim Hines (Goblin Quest, Goblin Hero, Goblin War) takes a more comedic view, but again, the goblins are depicted in a unique culture that differs significantly from that of humans. The bad temperament of the goblins high up in the pecking order fits many of the impressions of goblins in stories that don’t go extensively into their culture and provides for some of the comedy value.

Whatever creatures you might deal with in your stories, think about their living environment, their feeding habits, their interactions with their own and other species and what sort of customs accompany reproduction. Every species in nature has its dance or battle to precede this basic element of species survival. The preening birds, the fighting horned animals, the system of establishing alphas in many mammals all provide examples for how a non-human might go about attracting a mate. Diet and natural resources in the environment will shape feeding habits.

A story that pops a pair of wings onto a young girl and calls her a fae tends to be one-dimensional. Add some cultural anomalies as Tolkien did for his elves and they become significantly more interesting. Look at how Anne Rice created behaviours for a vampire who had to adapt to new conditions after he was turned in Interview With the Vampire or how Graeme Reynolds depicts a werewolf community in his High Moor series for good examples of once human creatures who have adapted to changed circumstances.

If you write mer-creatures, how do they interact with their environment and other water-based creatures? Take all of the basic factors of life into consideration and you can create believable creatures in any speculative genre and achieve the suspension of disbelief required to formulate well-rounded and more interesting characters.

Jaq D Hawkins

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15 thoughts on “Working With Non-Human Characters – Guest Post…

  1. This is very informative. I’ve not thought much about depicting non-human species in my writing, but it’s interesting to think of them in terms of culture and being able to adapt to new situations. From observing and knowing animals I think this is true. It’s another example of writers leading the way in thinking about our world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to be helpful. Depicting non-humans or animals are similar, having to project to their point of view and think in terms other than how we interpret the world as humans. I had the benefit of a friend asking me a lot of questions when my goblin world was forming, which made me really think about details of social rules and survival methods among other things.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I purposely adapted the culture of the fungus-growing, castle-building African termite to what I thought would happen if termites became intelligent. They have a Caste system that can’t be completely overridden, and they have some habits that might turn off humans, like practicing necrophagy and cleaning by licking. But I also gave them human characteristics – an understanding of friendship and love, a sense of right and wrong,courage and loyalty and caring and even a sense of humor. My point is that the evolution of intelligence implies the evolution of a moral foundation, no matter the species.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Very much so, though what is considered moral behaviour will vary in different species. To some species of spider, it’s perfectly ok to eat your partner after mating. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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