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Non-Human Characters

Hello fellow writers! Alright, this is my first try writing something like this, but I’ve personally had a hard time finding any tips on this sort of thing, so I decided I’d try to fix that! This is going to be a really watered down tip sheet on writing and creating non-human characters, and all the fun little extra bits that come with it. I’m going to focus on writing a non-human character in contexts where they will interact with a human, though, because it’s easiest for me to focus there.

Now, the main problem with writing non-human characters, especially if they’re from a race that doesn’t live among humans, is that we, as writers, are typically human. This makes it a bit hard to get into the headset of someone coming from a totally alien point of view! It also can make describing motion awkward if your character doesn’t have a humanoid appearance, Sometimes you want to write that he or she hugged someone, but they’re an octopus, so the motions are totally different! I have no idea why that was what I thought of for an example, but it works.

I suppose that’s a good first point. Decide what your non-human looks like. Draw it if you have to, because if it’s a non-humanoid shape, you’re going to want to remember how they move and look, and having a reference for such on hand is very helpful for that!

Beyond appearance, though, is a whole mess of stuff! Race-building stuff. That’s right, you’ll have to do a little race building, it’s easier to do this first than while writing!

There are some things to keep in mind when race building (how intensive it has to be depends on how much the race will be involved, but still), a few basic ones are: how does the race relate to humans? Have they had no contact at all? Perhaps they are aware of humans but exist apart from them? A negative history between them and humans? A positive one? Maybe they live among humans? Or are artificially created by them? Perhaps it’s a post-human society, or a pre-human one? Apply this to any races your non-human race or character will be dealing with, and remember to keep in mind how the humans will react to this new race as well!

Of course there’s a lot more than that, think also about their beliefs, how does this race function?  What are their values? These are really basic things to think about, and they’ll help with the character’s personality. Remember that just like people, there’s a lot more to a personality than just what they are, but influences and experiences help shape a person.

I’m going to take a moment here to talk about artificial intelligence. This gets its own section, because it’s a bit different than many other types of non-humans, but this stuff can apply to other races, too. Artificial intelligence, if it is purely artificial, will likely not have emotions, and a personality is pre-programmed into it. This means this sort of character will feel very forced, mechanical, and inorganic. That’s perfectly okay! This sort of character typically will be more facts and logic based, they may or may not factor in morals, depending on programming, but that doesn’t mean they get it. Often times, an artificial human will come off as unsympathetic, simply because a computer doesn’t know anything without being told. The way a computer would “think”, then, is it would have to base everything on what it has been told or has learned prior, and sometimes their values may be hard-wired, and even experience won’t change it. These sort of characters feel a bit funny when writing them, because they don’t always flow the way an organic character would, but that’s to be expected, don’t let it discourage you at all!

Now, if your character does experience emotion, you have to consider how these non-human emotions relate to human emotions. Maybe they’re the very same, but maybe not! Maybe it’s a very melancholy race, so all their emotional spectrum is in the human understanding of sorrow? Maybe they can’t experience fear the way humans do? Always remember that comparing and contrasting against something you’re familiar with is a great help, both in getting into this foreign mindset, and in making sure you articulate the beliefs in a way that will make sense to your (presumably human) reader.

So, we’ve talked about races, but like I said, each character is their own person, yes, even AIs will have different mannerisms if they were programmed/taught different. The reason you want to have their race first, is you want to figure out how someone with their personality would fit into their own society, would they be an outcast? Well loved? What would their experience be like at home? And how does it affect them in their interactions now? These are important to keep in mind.

And that’s about it for developing your non human as a base. Now, the hardest part for me when doing this is morality, so I’m going to do a whole section on it, I’ll be using examples from a race I created, because it’s easier to explain with examples here.

I know a non-human character may operate on a human moral scale, being anywhere on it. Maybe they like order a lot, maybe they can be placed as good or evil, or a shade of gray, and that’s wonderful! But sometimes, they don’t, and that can get hard.

The hardest part with non-human morality, or blue and orange morality, is that we have a lens of human morality, and to create something alien from that without it just becoming another form of evil, or another shade of gray can be tricky, so first, when developing a b/o moral scale, just ignore how it relates to human morality for a while. Don’t think about how “evil” it would come across to a human, don’t let yourself get wrapped up in that.

Now, you’ve probably already thought about some core values and beliefs of this race, which is good, now, assuming the race isn’t amoral, think about what would be viewed as “good” at large, and what would be “evil” through this race’s lens. In my unnamed race’s eyes, for instance, dying is viewed as a good thing, a service to the people, no matter how it happens. Doing anything significant alone is considered very, very bad. Now, it doesn’t necessarily matter why they feel that way, because I’m sure they’d have a hard time explaining it, just as we’d have a hard time explaining what we view as good and evil to someone with no context.

You’re probably wondering why do it this way. Well, if you actually have something to go back and reference to see why a character may do a certain thing, it makes it easier. A character of mine, for example, is trying to prevent utopia from being made, because he believes it to be evil, and he goes to extreme lengths, disregarding others’ safety to do it (never disregarding his moral set, though), but then he’ll be very kind, cheerful, and helpful most of the rest of the time. By a human standard, it may look like he’s just materialistic, misanthropic, etc, but from his view, it’s not like that at all, and both POVs need to be considered (unless it’s a first-person narrative, I suppose), because you want to be able to get across that this character who may do something horrible one minute, and saintly the next isn’t acting on a whim, and isn’t morally unstable or chaotic necessarily, but that this is simply what they do. And remember, their values can be as silly or serious as you want/your story calls for. Your race needs to view owls as the epitome of evil? Go for it.

I could write a lot a lot more, and I’m more than willing to write more specific things addressing any questions that arise, but this is a really basic bit on some stuff to help you with your non-human characters. Of course exceptions to rules exist, and that’s fine, too.

Oh geeze, I hope this is at least a little helpful to someone, somehow.

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