Writing Non-Human Characters

Unsurprisingly, humans make up the vast majority of characters in works of fiction such as books, movies, video games. After all, we’re all humans (or at least most of us are) and we like reading stories about people they can identify with and put themselves in a position to imagine themselves as the characters they love. However, while in many genres this is unavoidable–stories set in the real world will logically star humans–one might expect that there might be a greater prevalence of nonhuman characters in genres such as science fiction and fantasy.

While such characters exist, however, I have found that there are not a great many non-human characters in starring roles or even with viewpoints, rather being relegated to secondary character status. (I am sure that there are examples; I have by no means done extensive research on this, it’s just observations based on books I’ve read, games I’ve played, and movies I’ve watched.) Even in fiction with great non-human characters, such as the Mass Effect Series, it is humans that take the center stage, a human that is the hero. While stories told this way can be excellent, I find that there is a lost potential in relegating the other intelligent species, be they elves, dwarves, or aliens, to the sidelines. This is one of the reasons why I have decided, in my own work, to make these non-human characters the focus of my story, to see things through their eyes, which is why I will focus on how I approach writing non-human characters.

In some ways, one would approach writing non-human character in the same way they would write a human character. The same things need to be present: The character must have a three-dimensional personality, must have sufficient conflict, backstory, and everything else a character needs. Just because a character is from a fictional society does not mean we can write him or her as a one-dimensional character. A character like that is boring, whether human or alien. So now that we’ve established that both a human and a non-human character share the same requirements of a good character, what goes into creating a non-human character?

In my process, there are three things I think about when creating a non-human character (essentially a character, since all my characters so far have been non-human). First, what makes them different from a human? If someone asked me, “What makes this character non-human?” I should be able to answer it. There are two basic steps I take to accomplish this, both simple enough in theory if more complicated in execution. First, there should be enough of a physical difference from humans that the character is clearly of a different species, and the difference should not be simply a physical one–there needs to be a true physiological difference too. It need not be a major thing, but it should be significant enough that the species isn’t simply humans with pointy ears, for example. If that  difference comes into play in an important moment in the story, say if they have some unique trait or ability that they use to get them out of a tight spot, then it really showcases that their difference is important and not simply cosmetic. Second, there needs to be a psychological difference. If your non-human viewpoint character thinks completely like a human, the reader will begin to see them as human, regardless of physical differences, again leading to the “What’s the point?” question. Again, however, you go about this in varying degrees. The difference can be subtle or blatant, but it must be present and noticeable enough to let the reader know that the character is not human.

The second thing I think about when I create a non-human character or species is in some ways the opposite of the first thing, but the two are really intertwined. The character needs to be relateable. Writing a character that is completely in human in look and thought can be done well and made interesting, but it works better for something like a short story, where we’re only with the character for a short time. For a novel, the reader has to be able to relate to the character, no matter how alien they are, for no matter how cool your alien way of thought is, the reader wants to empathize. I recall hearing in a documentary discussing Star Trek that one of the reasons the aliens (at least those with societies we saw) were mostly humanoid, particularly in the eyes.  (Of course there was the issue of budget with the original series, but it was mentioned that Gene Roddenberry wanted his aliens to have a human element to them, so that the viewer could understand and even sympathize with them.) Additionally, if you really look hard enough at any interesting alien character, such as Garrus or Tali in the Mass Effect series, you’ll find that while their specific personalities could have been put on a human, there are differences in how they think and view things, however subtle  that make them feel booth like genuinely real people while also being unmistakably alien.

And finally, the third criteria, which is in some ways less about the character as an individual: The character as an individual within a species. We’ve all seen or read something where an alien species is presented as completely homogeneous, each member being essentially the same. This is in most cases unbelievable, and especially if you’re dealing with a setting completely devoid of humans, as I am, there need to be differences between people, in appearance, mindset, and beliefs. Just like with any sort of worldbuilding, you have to build the societies in which things take place. Yes, this is more work, but in my opinion the end result is worth it.

So now that I’ve outlined what I take into account when I create non-humans characters (which so far is essentially all I’ve done) I feel I should put my writing where my…writing…is. There needs to be a better way to say that. But essentially, next time (which will hopefully be not too long from now) I will go through the process of creating one (or maybe more than one) of my non-human characters, step by step, which should better explain what I’ve written here.

So until then, go write! (about non-humans)

10 thoughts on “Writing Non-Human Characters

  1. This article is most excellent! You’ve pretty much summed it all. I sometimes think that one does themselves a disservice by making their creation relatable to humans in relation to empathizing with. Where’s the alien in that? On the other side of it though most aliens that lack human like qualities are some to be feared of. I suppose that is where the fear of unknown comes in.

    1. Thanks! I agree that it really is a fine line between a character or species being alien enough to justify it being alien and being relateable to the reader. It also really depends on who or what is the non-human character. It’s a lot easier and more viable to make supporting or otherwise peripheral characters (like villains) really alien. It gets more difficult and complicated with viewpoint characters. Both because of the relateability issue and from e perspective of a writer, they are much harder to give truly alien attributes to (more so with mental than physical). I would imagine, however, that truly inhuman viewpoint characters might be easier to do in short stories.

      And I would also agree that it is unsurprising that villains are more likely to have alien characteristics or lack human ones. Fear of the unknown is a thing after all, as you mentioned, and it is definitely easier to keep our characters human.

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