Writing Non-Human Characters Part 2: Pitfalls to Avoid

Now that I’ve hopefully made the case for writing non-human characters in the first place, we can move on to the actual creative process. And I figured best to get the negative parts of it out of the way first, hence pitfalls.

I will preface this by saying that while the pitfalls I will discuss here are worth avoiding in most cases, anything can be done well, in the right story. The number one rule is, if you have a good reason to break a rule, go ahead and break it. Awesome always comes first.

As before, we are primarily looking at non-human viewpoint characters here, because there is a smaller target a writer needs to hit when it comes to writing character through whose eyes we see, as there needs to be a higher level of relateability.

That said, let’s list a few of the most likely pitfalls of writing non-human characters.

  1. They aren’t sufficiently alien. The “why not just have them be human?” question.
  2. They are part of a one note species, and feel one-note themselves.
  3. The character’s species becoming more of a focus than the character themself.

Let’s break these three down. The first pitfall is obvious. Most readers won’t question a non-human character, but, if by the middle of the book they’re wondering what exactly is alien about this character, you have a problem. Referring back to my previous post on this topic, it’s important that any non-human species you use/create should differ from humans in at least one physical way and one psychological way.  This doesn’t need to be particularly complicated to work effectively. See Spock from Star Trek for example. His outward physical differences are extremely minor (though internally there is more of a difference as well.) He’s got pointed ears, and straight eyebrows. As far as the eye can see, that’s more or less the only difference. Then, we have his physiological difference, as he famously see him as openly emotionless, but he in fact odes have emotions–he represses them. Spock is also a more unique case, as he is half human, but as an example he still works. Contrast him with, say, Frodo Baggins. While Hobbits certainly have some physical differences from humans, I don’t recall him mentally seeming different from any of us. This isn’t to knock Tolkien; Hobbits were in part meant to represent the average, good Englishman, and other Hobbits did seem more different from us (to draw on memory & the films, we several times saw other Hobbits talking about food more often than most people would: second breakfast, anyone? But I cannot recall any of that with Frodo.

Of course, there are different degrees these differences to be. Some of the excellent non-human characters in Mass Effect could have been human, but between their physical differences and subtle cultural ones, I never asked why they weren’t. In my own work, I do tend to err on the side of relatability; I’d rather a character seem less alien and be relateable than be too alien and thus not connect with the reader.

Our second major pitfall is more of a macro one, but a very easy one to make both regarding non-human viewpoint characters & non-human characters and species in general. It’s all too easy for an alien species to be created from one idea, and then for them all to be portrayed in a similar, simplistic manner. At times, in Star Trek, this has been an issue, such as with the Klingons (speaking about earlier Trek here.) More on the macro side, even if you do choose to have a viewpoint alien that doesn’t fit the species stereotype, such as, say, a pacifist from a warrior race, that doesn’t change the fact that the species is overly simplistic. While you will certainly see somewhat of a homogenization in a species when you consider their living in a galactic setting with other species, it’s important to portray them as individuals, just as one would a human character, as well as acknowledging the fact that there will likely be at least a few different groups or schools of thought within a species. You don’t need to go full-on Game of Thrones with the number of different groups or factions, but if a species feels too one note, then they immediately become less interesting–especially if you character falls into the single stereotype as well.

Our final major pitfall is related to the second one, but deserves separate attention. Just as it’s possible to put too little work into an alien species, it’s also possible to fall in love with it too much, and forget about your specific character. To be more precise, it’s too easy to try and use a character as a vehicle to show all of the cool things about this really interesting species you’ve created, but neglect to give the character himself enough individual distinctiveness (falling onto trap 2), or to simply tie that character’s entire identity to their species, i.e. making any growth purely an outgrowth of something relating to the species and not the individual.

While those were the major potential pitfalls I could think of regarding the creation of non-human characters, there are a couple others that deserve a quick mention. One such problem, related to some of the others, is going too deep into trying to make the character’s mindset truly alien. Especially in the case of viewpoint characters, relatability has to be paramount. If readers don’t care about your character because they act in a way they cannot relate too, the story suffers. As I said earlier, I will always err on the side of making them feel more human than less, when the line isn’t clear. You can go as crazy as you want with physical attributes, so long as the character is someone with whom the readers can connect. Also, if your alien species has any special abilities, be it simply enhanced strength, or something more far-reaching like telepathy, be sure to have a firm idea of what exactly they are capable of, and be consistent. You can apply Brandon Sanderson’s rules of magic here. Limitations are always more interesting than more powers, and we need to have at least some rules to avoid things being seen as a Deus ex Machina, at least, if you want to use those abilities to solve problems. Alara Kitan from the new, awesome The Orville show is a good example. Her enhanced strength was made not of very early on, and, while we don’t have specific limitations on it so far, I think we can have a general idea of what exactly she is capable of. Superhuman abilities are fun to give to our non-human characters, but we do need to be careful not to overdo it.

That’s all for now. I hope you found this interesting & helpful, and if there is anything you think I missed, or have any additional questions, by all means let me know, either here or on Twitter. We’ll conclude this second lok at creating non-human characters soon, hopefully, and I will go through the process of creating a fun alien species. I did this once before as well, but this is an easier example to go with, and I’ve now had more experience both creating non-human characters and writing for this blog. Also, that post will be, in a sense, a sneak peak at my upcoming release, A Looming Shadow, the sequel to my debut novel, A Greater Dutywhich reader have been quite enjoying. (And ocntains a cast comprised entirely of non-human characters.

Lastly, if you sign up for my mailing list, you will receive not just important announcements, but also a free piece of short fiction (hopefully) on a monthly basis. And immediately upon signing up, you will receive my novelette, On Angels’ Wings. I hope you will join me here, in the Galaxy Ascendant. You’re going to like what you find.

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