Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Engaging with Non-Human Characters, and Why It's Not as Hard as Everyone Thinks

Unless you're writing the spawn of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin, odds are you're going to want your readers to engage with your characters. They may not like them, they may not agree with them, and if they're anything like me they might want to strangle them on occasion, but a reader who is interested in and engages with a character is a much happier reader than one who's counting the number of pages until they can put the book down and never look at it again.

But what makes a character engaging? There's no set formula for that, mainly due to the wide variety of readers in the world, and what each of them likes best.

However, if you want a reader to engage with your character, they're going to have to be one thing: human.

Right? Not neccessarily.

To be fair, the majority of main characters (who, in turn, make up the bulk of narrators, thus doubling their importance) are human, or humanoid at least. Even in the wildest of science-fiction novels, odds are you won't be following the story of the tribe of forest-dwelling orange platypi, you'll be following the rather confused cosmonaut whose ship seems to be forming the bulk of their mid-day snack.

And why is this? Because being human makes a character that bit more approachable in the early stages of a story. You might swap to the perspective of the half-platypi outsider a bit later on, but if you started off a chapter listing her concerns over the size of her beak, her lack of flippers and inability to make a graceful entrance to the best mud spots, the reader might feel the distance between them is too much, and will flip over to reading something else.

However, I disagree with this. Why? Because I think it's not the external humanity that counts, but the internal.

There are innumerable situations that can arise out of the tiniest action, and accordint to emotivists, we react in certain ways because of primordial emotional responses. Why should it make a difference if our emotive response is towards someone helping an old woman across the street, or from a tiny platypus-beast doing just the same thing.

With narrators, I'd say we have room to be far more flexible; whether third person or first, we are going to spend the story following their thoughts and actions, and we are going to see their personality through that. The situations might be strange, extraordinary or bizarre, and the lingo might take a chapter or two to get around, but in the end it, engaging with a character all comes down to us, and them. They might be brave, timid, cautious, inventive, proud, a great leader, a canny traitor - and in the end, whether they have two legs or twelve isn't going to make much of a difference to our view of them.

To me, as long as a reader can engage with the thoughts and personality of the main character, their species shouldn't matter.

And hey, being non-human can even be attractive in a character. Let's face it, we all know how boring it is to be limited to our ground-bound, squishy-bodied existence, and I've always found something incredibly fascinating in narratives where the we can see the subtle differences in how a non-human character conducts themself in a given environment, either through the customs of their species, or through automatic responses to circumstancial change.

We know we're not supposed to judge books by their covers. Let's not judge characters that way either.

~ Charley R


  1. It's ridiculous how right you are. It really doesn't matter a toss whether the character is classified "human" or not. Being human is entirely different - in the writing world, anyway - to being SCIENTIFICALLY human.

    Although, having made that comment, I do prefer reading books narrated by or about human beings. Or, at least, people. But that is a different debate altogether.

    1. Hmmm, and why is that, just out of interest? Is it the relatability issue or what?

  2. You're right. As long as there is enough 'humanity' in the main character, it doens't really matter what they look like. People can get so caught up on reading stories abut 'beautiful' poepl, they forget there are some not so great beauties, that might actually be more interesting.

    Which is why I try to make may character's ordinary in appearance, if I mention much about that at all, and let their personality tell the story.

    I must say I haven't dived as much into the realm of wierd as you have. But I think my lovely Space Tabby can be engauging, just because he seems to have mastered the art of human sarcasm and enjoys using it to it's fullest, allowing the reader to chuckle to themselves at his observations.

    1. Stowie would make an awesome narrator - Vidal backs me up on that one, in all his long-legged motley-furred glory!

    2. It could be interesting telling that whole tale from Stowie's perspective... *grins* And I did have him narrating at certain points. After all he's the only one who can communicate with Michael in Uerie form, until Inez comes on scene. *giggles*

      That was fun mayhem to deal with... he he he

  3. Hey, this was awesome!! I really liked how you put that, and it is so true. Are you still wanting to do a guest post? I gave this one to Jack from However Improbable, but feel welcome to email me about the next one! :D

    1. Oh yes, so sorry, I forgot to email you, heh heh! Will email you soon, promise :)

  4. Well said! I like your platypus examples. ;)

  5. I think you made a good point around the middle of this post, that humanoid characters are "more approachable in the early stages of a story." You're perfectly correct in that nonhuman characters shouldn't be shunned because they seem unrelatable, but I do think that in the beginning, human characters are more relatable.

    I'm working on a post right now about animal fiction and why it exists. I realize that this post is correct, and I'm trying to see if that affects my theory...

    1. Fair enough - it's certainly easier to think through multiple reasons why a human character might do things, as we're familiar with our species' foibles, which we may not be with others neccessarily. That said, I'll sit on my point about the internal humanity until I see a good reason to fall off. Readers ain't daft, they can get their head around new cultures and features pretty quickly - especially those like us who tend to haunt books of that ilk.

      I shall give your post a good prodding when I next have a spare moment, methinks!

  6. Now I want to try a book about someone who isn't human. (I think you are right though. The character doesn't have to be human, just someone we relate to. Someone we can understand, even if their skin is green)

    1. Zigactly! And do give it a go - different creatures and critters are GREAT fun to write!

  7. That's why Daughter of Smoke and Bone is interesting... well, more Days of Blood and Starlight, really, where we get to empathise with people who have deer's legs or antlers or whatever. Even though they still walk upright, there's this constant reminder that they're not human and their limitations are different to ours, therefore their struggles and successes will be too.

    I just think it's really HARD to write non-humans realistically because it's not something you can experience, and that scares a lot of people off.

    1. Very true! That's one thing I really love about those books, the fact that the characters are so engaging despite many of them being anything but human.

      Yes, that is true, but with a little deep thought and a bit of practice it's actually an awful lot of fun!

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