Writing Non-Human Characters Part 1: Why Do It?

More than four years ago, I wrote a fairly popular post on writing non-human characters, which I think shows that I am far from the only writer interested in writing such characters. I think now is as good a time as any to revisit the topic and expand on it.

Also, to be clear, for at least the majority of this series, I am primarily going to focus on writing non-human viewpoint characters, as there are at least some different considerations that need to be taken into account when your non-human character is someone whose eyes we will be seeing through.

I tend to think linearly, so we’ll begin with the most obvious question. Why write non-human (viewpoint) characters at all? It’s not for no reason that even in science fiction and fantasy, humans make up the vast majority of main characters; you can do a lot with humans, and we, as humans, know a great deal about them. Writing a non-human character requires, for one, much more work, after all, and I will go into what exactly goes into this in an upcoming post. But in addition of having to spend the time creating the species, writing them is a bit more challenging as well.

Different people may have different reasons for why they might write non-human characters, but here are my primary ones.

  1. It allows me to be more creative.
  2. It makes my world, or universe, truly my own, especially when the non-human species is my original creation (as opposed to something previously established, such as dragons.)
  3. It allows me to take inspiration from real life cultures and ideologies without having to worry about keeping it “accurate” to how it is in the real world.

Let’s go a bit more in depth into each of these.

It should be obvious that creating a brand new species, or even using an established non-human species, in, at least in a sense, more creative than using humans. Not that there’s anything wrong with using humans, but, frankly, they’re everywhere–not just in real life, but in the fiction I love. In my favorite science fiction and fantasy works, the vast majority of the main characters are human, but I almost always find the non-human characters much more interesting. This was extremely apparent to me in the Mass Effect franchise. The characters I was drawn to were the aliens; the human characters felt bland, and it wasn’t purely a matter of writing. So, given that the non-human characters were always my favorites, it only made sense to have the characters in my stories be non-human. For my first book, I had three viewpoint characters, each of a very different species, and this in addition to a dozen alien spices populating the interplanetary civilization in which the story takes place. In my fantasy books as well, my characters are non-human, and humans themselves are completely removed from my universe, at least for now. I did create a species that is fairly close to humans in appearance and general mindset, but even there I got to do something cool and different, which will be more apparent once I release The Dragon Hand, which will be my first fantasy release. Also, with non-human characters, we can easily give them familiar characteristics and motivations, but there will always be a slight twist to them that, I think, makes them more interesting than a human with the same characteristics. Finally, I feel that if I’m creating my own worlds, it makes sense to create all new species. But that get into point two.

If you read my lengthy post (and/or watched the video of the talk I gave back in June), the act of writing, of creating, is in part a spiritual thing for me, as my way to better understand and to try and emulate the True Creator. That being the case, it only felt right for me to truly create my own peoples, “in my own image,” as it were, or at least according to my desire as a creator. While I obviously am not creating a new universe of whole cloth, with its own laws of physics, etc, one area in which I can truly make my worlds, my universe, uniquely mine, without sacrificing anything–though as mentioned above, this does require more work.

The final point is not unique to me, and is probably a more common reason people create and write non-human species and characters. Non-human species have long been a means by which creators addressed relevant issues of the time without hitting the audience over the head with it. Going back to Star Trek: The Original Series, the Klingons were, in many ways, Roddenberry’s stand-ins for the Soviet Union, and the largely cold war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, an allegory for that. Later on in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Cardassian species was heavily inspired by Germany around the time of the Second World War. And in Mass Effect, the Quarian species has much in common with both Jews and Gypsies. You can take inspiration from real-world events and real-world cultures for these species, without having to worry about getting it exactly right. For example, an alien species like Avatar’s Na’Vi, were heavily inspired by Native American culture, but because they their own species, there was no pressure to portray the culture exactly as it is in the real world.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a way to avoid getting falsely accused of racism, or “cultural appropriation” by the usual eternally offended SJWs online. It may take longer, and there may not be as much of it, but it will happen, so it is not truly worth it to have you characters be aliens just to try and avoid angry people seeking a reason to get upset. This does, however, allow you to explore interesting cultures and provide your own unique twists on them in your science fiction or fantasy setting, and can truly make it your own, again, without worrying about “accuracy.” We’re blessed with so much variety on this world, both historically an present day, that the possibilities are endless. And as far as main characters go, we will have the opportunity to truly learn about their unique culture in more depth, as we see things through their eyes. This also allows us to avoid the classic pitfall of alien cultures ending up becoming homogeneous., when, as we know from real life, is rarely the case within any ethnic, religious, or national group. But I’ll cover that more in detail in a post to come about pitfalls to avoid when writing non-human characters.

That’s all for now, I think; don’t want this to go on too long. I hope you found this useful, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. This is only the first in a series of posts on the topic of writing non-human characters, so keep watching this space.

And, if you enjoy interesting non-human characters and exciting space opera, be sure to check out my debut novel, A Greater Duty, whose sequel is due out this fall.


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