Thursday, November 08, 2012

Why a Non-Human?

That’s the title of one of the panels I’ll be on at this year’s Darkover con. The discussion topic inquires about the advantages and problems of writing from a nonhuman viewpoint. How would you answer this question?

In creating nonhuman characters, I find it useful to draw analogies with animals. The range of senses, abilities, and behavior found right here in Earth’s ecosystem is amazingly varied. A werewolf, naturally, can take on nonhuman traits by acting and thinking like a mundane wolf—for example, living in a pack structure and having a heightened sense of smell. The werewolf pack in one of Tanya Huff’s vampire novels follows the real-world wolf pattern by allowing only the alpha male and female to breed. The Shadowspawn, the vampire-shapeshifter-sorcerers in S. M. Stirling’s A TAINT IN THE BLOOD and COUNCIL OF SHADOWS, are described as hominids that evolved to become more like cats. They have the solitary tendencies of most felines and enjoy playing with their prey like cats. The naturally evolved vampires of Melanie Tem’s DESMODUS are basically giant, intelligent bats in everything except their quasi-humanoid body shape. Merfolk might have the biology and social structure of seals or dolphins. For instance, think of Madison in the movie SPLASH, shattering a store display full of TV screens with her near-ultrasonic voice.

Members of one of the quirkiest “alien” races in fantasy literature, the Nac Mac Feegle of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (based loosely on the pixies of folklore), live in mounds that function something like beehives, termite colonies, or mole rat dens. Only one female, the queen, breeds. She’s married to the chief of the clan and gives birth to hundreds of children, all sons except for one daughter. So all but one of her subjects are either her sons or her brothers-in-law. The daughter, upon maturity, leaves home to become queen mother of a different mound.

TVTropes.org has a page titled “Planet of Hats,” describing worlds inhabited by aliens who each have one defining characteristic that applies to all people of that species. For instance, in the Star Trek universe the Ferengi became defined by greed for profit and the Klingons as a Proud Warrior Race. An alien species and culture can be constructed by expanding upon traits of a real nation or ethnic group on Earth. A good writer, naturally, will create individualized, three-dimensional characters and avoid making every member of the fictional culture identical to the prevailing stereotype.

The main challenge of writing from an alien POV, of course, is to make the character feel alien while also retaining enough familiar traits to make him, her, or it comprehensible and sympathetic to a human reader. Drawing upon oddities of mundane animals’ biology and behavior is one way to make this balance work; using patterns from lesser-known Earth cultures, with variations, is another.

These are a few of my random thoughts about the panel topic. Does anybody have other suggestions?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt