Writing non-human characters

As a science fiction and fantasy writer, the one mistake I always see my fellow writers make is viewing non-human races through the lens of humanity.

One of the things that draw me to science fiction and fantasy are the creative ways that writers work with beings that aren’t human. The detail they put into not only physical appearances but social values, customs, art styles, even things like made up languages and exotic other world cuisines are what fires the imagination.

I’ve always had an aptitude for that sort of world building. I always enjoy learning about other cultures, how their values differ from what I know, what drives their evolution, what governs their people.

All too often, though, writers can fall short of utilizing the gift of fantasy and science fiction. As a Star Trek, Tolkien, and Supernatural lover, I relish in learning about Klingons and Romulans, Dwarves and Elves, Angels and Demons, and how all these races see the world, how they differ from one another, and how their way of life is constructed. In all these shows, I tend to favor the non-human races to the Human ones. I want to understand them, I want to see what differences they have with one another and if there are any similarities.

Some non-human races tend to become hallmark races to the genre. Elves and Dwarves, for instance, tend to be a given for the fantasy genre, and many other writers tend to use Tolkien as the industry standard for these races. For example, in most fantasy novels, dwarves are short, stocky warriors with beards and a love of ale and gold. Authors may have different takes on these characteristics, but this tends to be the template. And elves are tall, majestic, magical beings with pointed ears and a love of nature.

Even in Science Fiction, the template for elves and dwarves have become an archetype. In Star Trek, the Klingons bear a resemblance to dwarves. They are warriors with long hair who thrive on a strict code of honor. And one could claim that Vulcans and their pointed ears and an affinity for logic and are reminiscent of elves.

I have elves and dwarves in my novel, among others, and while I’ve chosen to honor the Tolkeinist template, I’ve made it a point to tweak them and mold them into my own beings. Yes, the dwarves are robust warriors and yes the Elves are magic loving tree huggers, but aside from that, there are plenty of differences that give them the originality needed to make it my own.

World building is an all-consuming thing if you write in this genre. And to me, this is the most exciting aspect of being a fantasy/Sci-Fi writer. When you are world building, you are becoming like a god in every sense of the world. You’re bringing beings to life, and there should never be a limit on the creative potential here. 

The mistake comes when you begin to put boundaries on your world making. When you start to limit yourself by the lens of your own humanity, it’s important to remember that your non-human races are just that- non-human! They should not think like humans. What is right for humanity may not be right for dwarves or elves.

One example of this that I have personally encountered within the world of fan fiction is when I wrote a piece based on the Supernatural fandom. The article centered around two demon characters. In the fandom, one could characterize demons as being chaotic, having an affinity for inflicting pain on one another, and having somewhat dubious morals. This is established and expected, and few demon characters in the show deviate from those characteristics. The problem I encountered was when I chose to pair two main demon characters together. Readers criticized me since these characters had been established enemies, and there had been violence between them. 

This problem with this criticism is that violence, and demons sort of go hand in hand, and their society is marred with violence. I was accused of thinking that violence is acceptable because I paired these two characters. Of course, violence is never acceptable. But when you are dealing with non-human races, you can’t fault them for acting within their nature. In other words, you can’t judge them through the lens of what is unacceptable to humans. Violence is acceptable to demons. That’s just how they operate.

That is what I mean by failing to understand the dynamics of non-human cultures. We are dealing with fiction here. Giving a culture unsavory attributes is acceptable when you are dealing with fiction. It shouldn’t reflect upon the author. It doesn’t mean that an author supports this sort of thing in real life. All it means is that the author has managed to pull themselves out of their Human social upbringing and to look beyond it. That is the true flower of fantasy and science fiction, and if you’ve mastered this ability, you are on your way to becoming a master in the genre.

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Written by My Little Corner of Everything

I am a writer and a graphic designer who has a lot to say about life! I am a woman in her 30's who lives in California with her husband. Most of all, I am an explorer. I express myself through the written word and the visual world. I have Aspergers but I don't see it as a 'disability' but rather, an identity. It is who I am.

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