Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nonhuman Characters

At Darkover this Thanksgiving weekend, I'll be on a panel trying to answer the question, "How do you make something(-one) that is not human seem human?" Examples in the panel title include not only vampires and cats but disembodied brains. Should be quite a provocative discussion!

I've just finished writing a paranormal romance novella starring a grimly focused vampire hunter and a female vampire for whom he develops an inconvenient attraction. One critter who read part of the story said he found the characters not very likable. Another, more encouragingly, said that even if they weren't exactly likable, they were understandable, a trait that allowed him to sympathize with them.

So how DOES a writer make nonhuman characters understandable and appealing while maintaining the alien qualities that make them fascinating in the first place? My vampires, being another species, have never been human, so their view of the world SHOULD seem a bit skewed to us. A nonhuman character (and vampires, of course, are far from the least human characters we can encounter in fiction; I recently read a story about a wizard who has a sentient chair tagging along with him) has to feel enough like a "person" that we can sympathize with him, her, or it, yet the entity shouldn't come across as just a human being in a funny costume.

How do you all handle this dilemma? Do you have any specific techniques to suggest?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Some readers just aren't going to like reading nonhuman viewpoints. There are certain HUMAN ones I don't like.

    I don't think an author should try to make nonhuman characters more 'human', but rather more understandable. Sometimes this can be done by contrasting the nonhuman character's outlook with a human character's outlook. MZB did a great job with the Darkovan vs. non-Darkovan culture clash.

    Wish I could go to D-con, but the grandsons expect us to see them for their birthdays (24th and 27th). :)

  2. Notice how many children's books have talking animals and other non-human characters.

    I write Young Adult fiction and I live in Alaska, surrounded by animals and mythologies full of talking animals. My readership (young people) and I embrace nonhuman characters easily. In fact, I didn't realize how involved my animal characters were until someone pointed the fact out to me.

    Unfortunately, I think too many adults get too smart and sensible for their own good. If only they could hang on to the imagination of childhood, the stresses of their grown-up lives would not effect them so much.

    And they could enjoy a broader range of stories too.

    What's baffling to me is when a Fantasy or Science Fiction reader doesn't 'get' a nonhuman character. The genres are rampant with nonhuman characters! What are they doing here if they don't like them?

    Maybe they're searching. Maybe there's still a small part of their childhood left and they want to recapture that, but don't know how. So, it's up to us, as authors, I think, to help them do that.

  3. Margaret:

    It's really very simple the way MZB taught it to me.


    Of course she didn't do it consciously. She was a born genius who just DID it. Walter Breen was the analyst who figured out what she did. I figured out HOW I could do the same, but I'm sure it's not how she did it. I bewildered her mightily. She said she admired my ability to PLOT.

    Here's how she did it.

    She'd start the story with all the elements in place, then investigate each element, following the trail of breadcrumbs I am discussing in Information Feed.

    If the plot stalled, she'd just put the characters in a scene and let them fight it out, then delete most of the middle of that scene, glue the edges together, cut-cut-cut, and tighten it up, moving the plot onwards now that she understood where the characters were coming from.

    She taught me how to do that by letting me see her "dailies" (the 20-30 pages of typing we exchanged each day by snailmail was kind of like the nanowrimo thing they do online now -- I had to keep up production to keep pace with her).

    I'd send her my product of the day and get hers out of the mailbox, read, comment back to her on it, etc.

    So I got to participate in finding what to delete, how to glue the remains together.

    And though she didn't do it consciously, she just "went there" with the characters to "see what happens" -- I figured out how I could sort-of-duplicate the effect.

    But I still say "If MZB was a writer, then I'm not." -- She was just a different order of being.

    THEME - as I said is the secret. I "have ideas" that are thematic statements. So I test each character, scene, situation against the theme and THROW OUT what doesn't explicate the theme.

    That's WHAT she did, what I saw her doing, without actually articulating it to herself or anyone. She'd reread a book 25 years after writing it, and "discover" the theme sparkling forth that she never knew was there.

    And lo! If you look at why Spock became popular, you will see that when they NAILED HIS THEME (Nimoy's famous crying over mother scene), humans got turned on to him.

    Whether you do it consciously or not, what turns humans on to alien characters is that despite their biology, they have the same SOUL LEVEL THEME that our lives explicate.

    Take a human soul, dress it in alien biology, and teach that soul our lessons with a twist. Show how our biology limits our possibilities.

    Say hello to everyone at Darkover for me. My only consolation about not being there is that I don't have to drive through possible snow, icy cold, or that Sunday NY bound traffic. I'll sit on my back porch and bask in the warm sun and watch my roses bloom.

    Oh, and do please announce at Darkover that the Sime~Gen novels will be available in ALL FORMATS from Borgo Press an imprint of WILDSIDE (John Betancourt's publishing house - he loves Sime~Gen) -- and the new ones are on the way, too.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. KimberAn:

    The problem you see with readers "not getting it" could be two-fold.

    The reader isn't ready for that soul-lesson yet. (many folks come back to Sime~Gen later in life and fall in love with it; others the opposite.)

    Or the writer didn't nail the theme clearly enough, let extraneous material seep in, or wrote in the way MZB called "self-indulgent" (boy did I get my knuckles wrapped a few times for that.)

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. "I don't think an author should try to make nonhuman characters more 'human', but rather more understandable."

    Very well put!

    Jacqueline, I'm so thrilled with the news about the Sime-Gen series. We have been waiting a long time!

    "Self-indulgent" -- yes, I have caught myself writing that way on many occasions, putting in a cameo character or a bit of dialogue just because it's fun, regardless of whether it fits into the scene or story. A bigger type of self-indulgence that's a regular pitfall for me is over-exposition, because I love reading extended, detailed exposition in other books (if well done). The parts of some favorite books I read over and over are not the dramatic scenes, but the explanations of biology and culture -- I have reread the appendices of my favorite S. M. Stirling alternate histories much more often than the fiction itself. I enjoy Robert Heinlein's characters' in-story lectures, too.

  6. Just thinking -- does it really matter that the character is non-human? After all, you have to work to make a character understandable, appealing, and so forth even if they are human. Being non-human may add a certain extra dimension to the problem, but I think some of the same methods should work.

    Show me parts of their life that I can identify with, let me in on their motivations, their struggles, their failures and successes... I mean, if we can all get excited about the little engine that could, well, are other non-humans that hard to handle?