For SF&F Writers: Writing Non-Human Characters

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I’d like to open this post by apologizing to loyal readers (if any) for my long absence. I’ve had a death in the family, and it robbed me of my motivation to do much of anything these past few months. But I’ve bounced back, and I’m happy to say that I’ll be posting more regularly now, and adding some new content to the rest of the blog as well. So let’s get to it.

One of the things I love about speculative fiction is the freedom it gives the writer to play around. We can create new worlds, and populate them with new species of intelligent beings. We can give these beings their own language, society, customs, and history. We can give them fantastic abilities, and have them embody traits and values alien to us.The only limits are the writers imagination, and how much they want to say.

Which is the reason I felt compelled to write this particular entry. These past reading periods, the  sci-fi slush pile at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores has been a veritable parade of robots, aliens, and robotic aliens. Not so much pushing the envelope as nudging it forward a smidge at a time. I know, being original is hard, but it’s worth the effort. A robot with a heart of gold who befriends and protects the people around it can be compelling, but not when I encounter a half-dozen of them in rapid succession.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that any character, human or otherwise, has to be relatable. They need some traits and quirks of personality that the reader can identify with. Let’s just try to move a little beyond the obvious. Or, barring that, approach the obvious in a new way.

One story that stuck in my mind from my very first Fantasy reading period was set from the point of view of a Goblin protagonist. Without breaking confidentiality, I’ll just say that this Goblin went about doing Goblin things for Goblin reasons. Namely, his desire for treasure. Greed is a motivation most of us can relate to in some way. We may not be ruled by it, but I certainly feel like I could use a bit more treasure in my life. How about you? I rejected the story for other reasons, but the protagonist was unique enough to have stuck in mind a year later. With the volume of stories I read, trust me, that’s saying something.

So what’s the speculative fiction writer to do? Bring depth, and, dare I say it, warmth to your non-human. But for crying out loud, keep it weird and keep it unique. If there’s no point to making your character something other than human, then there’s probably not much point to having a speculative fiction story in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “For SF&F Writers: Writing Non-Human Characters

  1. This is a difficult subject, and I am drawn to difficult subjects like moth to flame. Trying to present the non-human in a way that human’s will appreciate is very tricky, especially if the focus is on the non-humanity. I tried to do exactly this in my latest novel, Ghostkiller, which features an antagonist and a villain, both of which are non-human, and for the most part non-sentient. In both cases I had to focus on what part of their actions I could describe in terms a human would know, in what was of necessity a third-person omniscient POV that shifted back to a more limited third when the focal character became someone with a mind.
    The difficulty was presenting that omniscient POV as if it was a limited POV, as if the focal character had a mind itself. “The demon needed to feed” is a statement that the demon needed to feed, but could be taken, in the context, as a claim that the demon wanted to feed, implying that it had a mind it did not in fact have. The book is driven in great part by the development of the demon’s mind from a non-sentient spirit into a demonically evil personality.
    In the beginning I just used nouns, ‘lure’, ‘food’, ‘nodes’, ‘mesh’, etc., with relatively few verbs, such as ‘pulled’ and ‘followed’. These are terms we know, so the question was how did the entity in question know them. The story tried to show that, hopefully I succeeded well enough that anyone willing to read it can follow along through those parts. As the story progresses the entity in question learns about those things, expands its vocabulary beyond those simple terms, and that learning process is how i make it possible for us human readers to understand their non-human selves.
    In my latest MS I also have goblins. They aren’t greedy, but think in collective terms, are cruelly vicious, and basically servile. The ultimate evil minion.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss, and I am quite excited for you to be back. I’ve been waiting for another post and I really enjoy your insight. Also, I just started as a slush reader for PodCastle. Would you be interested in doing a slush focused podcast every now and then?

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