Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Writing non-human characters - by Cavan Scott

Last month, I attended the world's friendliest convention, AKA Bristolcon. It's one of my favourite events of the year, full of good-natured, liked-minded people all coming together because they like stories. What could be better?

This year, I took part in a fascinating panel entitled 'Writing Non-Human Characters', which is always an interesting subject and linked to most things I write. 

To prepare, I jotted down my top five hints and tips, which I thought I'd share with you in case you ever have the need to write a believable, and hopefully, relatable monster / alien / cybernetic dolphin. 

1. Think about their values.
The first point is a simple one - get world-building.

Think about your non-humans' life and existence. What are their intrinsic values? How do they view the big things in life? And yes, I am talking stuff as basic as sex and death. 

For example, if you have a mayfly-like alien race made up of beings who only live for one day. How will that affect their relationships or the way their society works? How would they approach tasks? In fact, how developed would they even be as a race? Could a race of mayfly aliens develop space-flight for instance? How would they do it? Would they be more concerned with reproducing than developing a faster-than-light drive? Or have they developed a science that handles reproduction for them so they can focus on other things for the good of their race? And what about knowledge? How would it be passed from one 'generation' to another?

Other values would surely be different as well. If an individual lives only for one day, then funerals would probably not be a big thing. And how would the mayfly characters relate to those whose lifespan stretches into years rather than hours?

A little world-building will bring all manner of story ideas, as well as giving you interesting non-human characters.  

2. Make them individuals.
I've just written for the Daleks. This makes me happy. But, of course, you know what you're going to get with Daleks. Most of the time they are completely identical to each other; each infernal pepper pot a scheming ball of hate. There are, of course, exceptions, but usually its because they've been affected by some exterior influence - see the recent Inside the Dalek for a good example. That's nothing against the Daleks. Being nasty is literally in their DNA. And that's why we love them. Well, it's why I love them anyway. 

However, it's not the norm. Let's face it, not all humans are the same. There are kind humans, there are cruel humans; there are funny humans, there are humourless humans. There are humans who mention cybernetic dolphins far too much. 

Non-human characters should be the same (except for maybe the dolphin thing). A race of non-humans should never have the same characteristics, unless perhaps if they are a true hive mind. Similar traits maybe, but there should be individuality there. Look at the Klingons, to mix my science fiction franchises. They became far more interesting when we started to see bump-heads of all moral types and motivations. 

3. Give the reader a Han Solo.
Good old Chewbacca. He's a giant walking rug who makes great noises. And most Star Wars fans love him. Why? Largely because Han loves him. Han is our window to Chewie. The old rogue understands everyone's favourite wookie and literally translates him for us. Without Han is it doubtful that Chewie, wonderful though he is, would have been such a sympathetic character.

And the same can go the other way. Want to make your non-human characters completely and utterly uncanny? Then, give us a viewpoint character who can vocalise the differences and react to their absolute alienness. 

4. Remember human doesn't always mean better.
Poor old Spock. He spends most of the time being berated by Bones for being a green-blooded, cold hearted son of a... 

Well, you get the idea. 

However, it's all to easy to play all non-human characters as inferior in some or all ways to humans. They are somehow limited or stilted and don't quite understand the way the universe, just because they're not human, the poor things. 

What about a non-human character who is a more rounded-person than your humans, who is wiser or shows more compassion? 

Basically, don't be a Bones. Human doesn't always mean better.

5. Cheat.
No-one wants to read a truly non-human character. That's a bold statement, but it's true. Why would you? A reader needs something to relate to, so they can invest in the character. So make sure, no-matter how alien your non-human there are some recognisable traits in there, something that chimes with us all, whether they're fae, extra-terrestrial or cybernetic dolphin.

Have any tips of your own? Then share them below, especially if you are a cybernetic dolphin. 

(Can you tell I've been writing about cybernetic dolphins recently?)


Cavan Scott is the author of over 70 books and audio dramas including the Sunday Times Bestseller, Who-ology: The Official Doctor Who Miscellany, co-written with Mark Wright.

He's written for Doctor WhoSkylandersJudge Dredd, Angry Birds, Adventure Time and Warhammer 40,000 among others. He also writes Roger the Dodger and Bananaman for The Beano as well as books for reluctant readers of all ages.

Cavan's website
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Susan Price said...

Lovely post - I enjoyed it a lot. But, but, but... Surely, from the POV of a mayfly, their life is as long as our three-score-and-ten? And they've already had quite a long life as a ferocious underwater mini-beast. Their life on the wing is just rutting-season, so they could devote all that sub-aqua time to other things...
Sorry. I'll get me coat.

Cavan Scott said...


Yes, I didn't mean an actual mayfly rather a being who lived for just a day. Sorry, didn't make myself too clear there. Must have been all the talk of dolphins that distracted me!

Nick Green said...

I see what Sue means. From your own point of view, your lifespan is your lifespan. A mayfly-like alien is not aware of living only for one day, any more than we are aware of living 'only' for 90-odd years. We adjust our internal clocks accordingly (to The Doctor, we are like mayflies, yet he respects us just as much).

A mayfly-alien would therefore be hardly any different from us, in terms of how they pass on knowledge and develop technology etc. They'd just think faster.

There is actually a SF story about just such a race - can't recall the author. Mankind lands on a primitive world with neolithic, short-lived aliens. While the humans are setting up their colony/empire, the short-lived aliens develop an advanced society, overtake the humans and enslave them, before they've even fully unpacked. :-)

Cavan Scott said...

That's a really interesting point. I guess it comes down to the viewpoint characters as well, how they define the speedy aliens.

Love the sound of that story too.

It's got me thinking though. If they think faster, could they actually act faster?

See, this is why I love this stuff!

Sue Purkiss said...

Really enjoyed this...

Cavan Scott said...

Glad you enjoyed it Sue!

C.J.Busby said...

For a truly alien and fantastically written SF creature that we really get to know, I'd recommend Neil Asher's Prador - crab-like aliens with a really bizarre age-based hierarchy. Most SF aliens are humans with funny attributes - these are simply from another world entirely...

Jo Hall said...

Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a race of people on an extremely hostile planet who only lived a week. Can't remember the name of it now...