So last time I talked about what goes through my mind when creating my non-human characters, and it’s only fair that I share an example of me doing just that. It’ll be a little complicated, obviously, by the fact that I am not yet published, so there’s no way to truly see the finished product. However, I think it’ll still be useful.
When I decided to do this, I spent some time choosing which character/species to use, as the different ones emphasized different points on my list of things that go into creating them. Should I use the species that’s fairly close to humans to highlight the point of making the differences, however minor they might seem, matter? Or should I go with a more alien looking species, to highlight the points of keeping the character relatable? Ultimately I decided on the latter, as it focuses on more points plus the character and species in question is more ‘finished’.
So here we go.
The character in question is one of the primary viewpoint characters in my first completed novel. She is the young commander-in-chief of her people’s military, both ground and space-borne. So, the first step was to make her an interesting character, which I did via several means. I gave her a ‘ghost’ in her past, a perceived failure that cost people their lives and she insists on blaming on herself. Compounding this is the fact that she is next in line for leadership of her kind, which put her more in the spotlight as well as having more pressure looming. From there, she had a goal: Revenge, both on the people immediately responsible for the attack that claimed the lives of many of her people, and on the larger galactic community that aided in this by ostracizing her people and not condemning the attack. So now we have a character that is interesting (at least I think so), identifiable, and has a clear arc set up. But from this description, nothing screams ‘non-human character’ other than the fact that I said so. This is as it should be. At the core, species of a character should not matter–they must be good characters independent of everything else.
Which leads us to the first requirement on my list: What makes this character (and by extension, species) different enough from humans that warrants their not being human? And as I mentioned in my previous post, the differences should be both physical and psychological.
In this case, the physical part was easy. I decided to make the species humanoid cats (as in claws, fur, tail, fully catlike face, and legs that looks like the back legs of real cats). Why? Because I like cats, I think it’s cool, and it kind of fits in with what I want for the species as a whole. First off, deciding on how they look gave me leave to play around with other physical characteristics such as speed and jumping capability among others, which makes the physical appearance more than just a cosmetic choice on my part. From there I could integrate these physical characteristics into the story, have both the character herself and other members of her species make use of their abilities, making them clearly non-human.
The next aspect of this, the psychological differences, was also fairly easy in this case, as I had a fairly good idea early on about the culture I wanted the species to have, and how it would tie in to the character’s role in the story. To that end, I gave the species a religious, community-based culture, where community is extremely important, and both the sense of community and religion hold them strongly together. This I could also work into the plot, as it makes a more sense why the character’s perceived failure of her people would hurt her so much, and it could explain somewhat why other species might dislike them–they will always put their own kind before outsiders. Additionally, I gave the species as a whole a playfully aggressive nature, something that draws on my own experience with and knowledge of cats, and it’s another way to make it clear that these people are not human–by how they talk an interact in normal settings. These attributes are more subtly alien than they could be, which can lead to the ever-problematic ‘why not just make them human?’ question. The answer is first that because humans in real life are so diverse, almost any difference in how a species views the world around them (especially if it’s meant to be a more subtle difference) can be found in one human community or another, and second, as this character and species play a very major role in the book, I needed to be sure they were people the reader can identify and empathize with. Also, I feel that I wrote the character well enough that the less human attributes are noticeable.
After all this, the second criteria is accomplished by virtue of the first being solidly done. Between keeping the species and character just human enough that they are relatable, and by just creating a good character, the character is relatable. As I mentioned in my previous post, the first two criteria are in many ways intertwined.
That leads us to the third criteria, in which we begin to focus more on the species as a whole rather than on just the character. For the species to feel real, there have to be differences between individuals. While they don’t need to be enormous it has to be enough to keep the species from feeling one-note. No matter how unified a people are, there are always individual differences. In this case, where I already had their society and culture more or less thought out, I decided to make use of a supporting cast of several other members of the species, with different personalities as well as different outlooks. One such character is far more level-headed than the primary character, another is concerned about where a pure quest for revenge can lead, etc. All of these characters fit within the framework of the larger culture I created, but they are all unique people in the universe, which allows the species (in my opinion, at least) to feel more real, and to further make my character a more interesting person.
So that’s pretty much it, I think. I hope you found it helpful; as my first real attempt at ‘writing tips’, I’m curious as to how useful people find it. I’m sure there is what I can do to improve my skill at this, though I don’t think I’m going to do too many ‘advice’ posts. There are simply so many great writing advice websites, blogs, and podcasts available that I don’t think there’s too much I personally can add. But for what it’s worth, it does feel good to contribute something to that vast wealth of information, to maybe help someone else.
So in closing, I hope this post was helpful, and I appreciate whatever feedback you may have. Until next time, keep writing!