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. 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


  1. Wow, how timely. ;-) Great question, Margaret. I've just sent out the synopsis and partial on my MOON UNDER GLASS which has a non-human (okay, felinoid) hero. Slightly less than traditional in SFR but...

    I love Cherryh's felinoid Hani (my Rathari are not quite as felinoid as that). I also love her atevi, especially their cultural concept of the assassin's guild. (Not sure what that says about me. Okay, yes, I know.)

    On a less serious side but definitely intriguing are the aliens--some humanoid and some not--in Tanya Huff's CONFEDERATION series (Torin Kerr). I'm not going to detail them but they're vast and varied and imaginative.

    One of my very favorite aliens is Julie Czerneda's Huido, owner of the Claws & Jaws, in her Trade Pact books. She explains the thought process behind making a lobster "with an attitude" into an alien character. here: (click on the treasure chest for the "PDF treat.")

    If we accept the premise that fiction is entertainment ::nods to milady JL:: and that fiction is larger than life, exploring that life through non-human eyes definitely expands possibilities.

    Absolutely, Margaret, as you point out, you can draw on the wide range of species on our own planet and morph them into something of your own creation. We have lots of templates that can create aliens both plausible and yet entertaining. (For hard SF readers, plausibility is the key. For soft SF and SFR and such, not so much. Know thy readership.)

    For me, though, the experience is the "someone else's skin." Other eyes. That addresses why read read fiction in the first place: to be me and yet not me. When you move out of the fully human range, that opens up all sorts of new and interesting possibilities.

    IMHO and IMHE. ~Linnea

  2. Yes, Linnea -- absolutely, right on my wavelength and I want to read your new book MOON UNDER GLASS. I'll take a draft typos and all!!!

    Tanya Huff is also a great favorite of mine, and Julie Czerneda.

    There's a distinctive portrayal of what "reality" really is that is common among these writers(and other writers I point out on this blog). We do indeed form a group of some sort - a group that hasn't been clearly defined or labeled yet.

    I'm seeing many new writers coming along who have that "take" on reality but still haven't got the knack of casting it into a story.

    My Tuesday posts here are my attempt to show-don't-tell how to go about thinking your way through the blinding VISION that pops into your head all the way to words that convey that vision into the heads of your readers.

    Some writers just pick that process up subconsciously in their YA reading, and do it nicely in their adulthood, and others need to learn it consciously in adulthood. Some have it all except one point - others need several points. But everyone needs practice, exercise, and grist for the mill. That's what I'm focusing on - the material to mull over to strengthen the mental ability to organize full-3D imagination into linear words.

    However you go about it, the end result is what's important.

    And thanks for the nod -- ::nods back:: -- did you hear Sime~Gen is becoming a VIDEOGAME exploring the Space Age with lots of aliens and grand love affairs? We have a nifty war, too! Humans bring LOVE to space and confront covetousness among aliens who are very much like Ancient humans. to sign up for the free NL. Seeing these experienced gamer artists conceptualize my universe is -- freaky! They're inventing a symbol for dynopter right now.


  3. "For me, though, the experience is the "someone else's skin." Other eyes. That addresses why read read fiction in the first place: to be me and yet not me. When you move out of the fully human range, that opens up all sorts of new and interesting possibilities."

    I agree, Linnea. C. S. Lewis says something like that in one of his essays -- the purpose of fiction is to see the world through other eyes.