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Writing Excuses 8.33: Making Non-Human Characters Relatable

Writing Excuses 8.33: Making Non-Human Characters Relatable


Key Points: Making nonhuman character relatable is a classic problem in SF&F. We want to explore new beings and viewpoints, but the weirder they are, the harder it is to get readers interested at an emotional level. First, consider common desires or needs, and use those as points of congruity. Go back and think about why you are using a nonhuman character, what do you want to highlight about them? Give them features that allow humans to relate to them. Sometimes nonhuman characters or AIs are more human than the humans. Contrast the relatable part to the nonhuman part. Use a human character as a gateway/interpreter for the nonhuman.

Why include nonhuman characters? Because it's fun! To see ourselves reflected in the alien. To go geewhiz and OH! I see! at the same time.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 33.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, making non-human characters relatable.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're all orcs.
[Howard] I'm a goblin.
[Brandon] That should not have worked, Dan. You should feel ashamed of yourself. But we're all laughing.
[Mary] Pika. Pikachu. Pika.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] If you can't tell by the background noise, we are still in the...
[Brandon] In Chattanooga.
[Howard] Woodthrush Woods' basement, surrounded by attendees here at the first-ever Out Of Excuses seminar and retreat.
[Brandon] Who are actually procrastinating doing their writing that they should be doing by listening to us.
[Brandon] We are giving them an excuse.
[Mary] We are writing excuses.

[Brandon] Yeah. All right. How do we make nonhuman characters relatable? This is a classic problem in science fiction and fantasy in that we want to be able to write interesting new races and interesting new perspectives, but the more weird we go, the less people want to read the stories from an emotional level because they can't relate to the characters.
[Mary] Well, the... I had a story that was all alien all the time. One of the things that I did was look at the way a lot of different human cultures are set up. I started looking for things that people had in common across different cultures. These basically came down to a desire for shelter, a desire for safety, a desire for food, and a desire for sex. It... Procreation in some form. So those are things that a human reader can relate to. Once I know that my character needs shelter, all I then have to do is explain to my reader why the shelter that they are seeking is something desirable.
[Brandon] Right. Why it's appropriate for their race and how that works for them.
[Howard] Iain Banks, who we lost recently, which is very, very saddening... I love his Culture novels. Look to Windward is my least favorite of the openings of those novels because it opens on a battlefield with aliens fighting aliens, and we are empathizing with aliens. I had... As a reader, I had a difficult time coming up to speed. By the end of the book, I was on board and I loved these aliens. But looking at my reaction, a lot of its readerly... From the writer's standpoint, Mary, he was doing exactly what you are describing. People do not want to get shot, they love each other, they don't want either one to die. They're in a situation where somebody is going to have to say goodbye. It was very poignant, but for me as a reader, I...
[Dan] Wasn't ready for it, yet.
[Howard] Wasn't ready for it yet.

[Brandon] Looking at this concept, I'd like to break it down and back up a little bit and say, "Why are you writing the nonhuman character?" That's not a why in the world would you do this. No. We all want to do it. But what are your goals in approaching this? Is it because you've developed a really interesting race and you want to highlight some aspect of that race? In that case, you have the weird that you should then probably blend with the familiar, which are things that Mary's talking about. Or familiar sort of personality tropes. You can take what we know of people and you can... You can impose a culture on it and then add this weirdness, that whole blending. I've shared this story before, but one of my favorite books with a nonhuman species is Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. Fire upon the Deep has these wonderful group mind animals that will together form... They're like basically dogs that will together form a pack that becomes one individual. Then if one of them dies, the pack will scatter, and they form a new individual with other members of five. It's wonderful. I recently reread it and realized these things talk just like people. I had remembered how alien they were, but in actual text, it was amazing to me as a writer to see just how human they were. They used slang, they used... It was their own slang, but they talked like people. Which I was actually very refreshed by, like Vernor Vinge is one of the great science fiction writers of our time, and it was like okay. It was like permission to make your aliens talk like people even though they had this one really bizarre aspect of their culture. Which was fascinating to read about, despite the fact that he didn't take 100 steps and make them have weird names for everything and make them be completely unrelatable. He made them people who have a fragment... Who have a body that's in five different pieces.
[Dan] The reason that that works... The reason he... I assume he did it is because making them so normal in one aspect allows you to sell the incredibly weird other aspect.
[Brandon] It really worked. The weird thing about it though was that I remembered that weirdness and I expected some sort of... I'll say pretentious, but that doesn't mean... But some sort of pretentious, otherworldly culture that everything about it is completely bizarre and literary, which is just fine if you want to do that [throat clearing] But he didn't do that. He did something that was more accessible and relatable with this fascinating aspect to it. I thought it was wonderful.
[Mary] Which actually... I think that that's something that you can get away with... Were there people... Were there humans in the story?
[Brandon] Yes. There were humans in the story. But the humans were not... For the first half of the story, not interacting much with these things. They have their own world, and humans crash land on it basically, and get embroiled in their politics.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that you can do that to a greater extent when there are not humans there. But when there are humans, that having... That the more the character sounds human, the more it's kind of gonna trigger a little bit with the reader.
[Brandon] That is a good thing to point out, because I'm just thinking about this. If you look in the book, there are also other characters that are off on a space station interacting. The nonhumans they interact with act far more alien when they're in conversations. It's only when we're in the viewpoint of the dog species that they feel so human. Which is an interesting way to look at it.
[Mary] In some ways, I think... Maybe because I haven't read this particular book, but it sounds like what he's doing is essentially doing some cultural translation.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's probably what it is, when you're in the head of... But he does that, when you talk to the plant species, people are interpreting with them and they seem really bizarre from the human's perspective. But when you're in the head of the other species, it works real well.

[Howard] I've said this before, I'll say it again. Eyebrows. Boom.
[Brandon] Okay. There you are. Let's go back to your hobbyhorse.
[Howard] Well, I just... I need to be able to tell a joke with the characters, whether they're alien or human or whatever. So I have to give them facial features that allow me to tell a joke with them, to emote with them. Most difficult thing I ever undertook was the Yomingan race where they had an arm on top of their head, and their faces were built upside down so that they could literally have hand-to-mouth as an expression because I wanted to tell the hand-to-mouth joke. Then I had to do this whole...
[Brandon] [chuckle] The lengths you go to...
[Howard] I know. It's the horrible things that happen when I commit to a joke.
[Mary] Which is again getting back to the why are you making this alien species?
[Howard] Well, yeah. Once I'd told the joke, I couldn't back away from it. You have to commit to it. But the upside down faces... When we went back to the planet, I realized I needed to draw half a dozen different recognizable characters. They all need to emote, and when the faces are upside down, I can't tell if they're smiling or angry, even though I have a system for making this work. It was very problematic and very difficult, and so we stayed on the planet for not very long when I realized it wasn't working. So now you know.

[Brandon] Well, let's stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, which I just recently read. If you haven't heard me pitch Pratchett before, I came to him late so I'm slowly working my way through them. I've kind of discovered there's a golden age of Pratchett. It starts right around this time of Thief of Time and it has books like Nightwatch, it has books like The Truth, which are my favorites. This is the last of the Death cycle. It was awesome, beautifully, wonderfully written and if you want to read Pratchett but you haven't ever picked him up, the Death cycle is actually one of the shortest but most fun. I think there's only five books in it, and it starts with Mort and it goes through. You can just read the books about Death and his granddaughter in a sequence, and they're very fun. This is the last one. I absolutely loved it. Pratchett is a true genius. If you haven't tried him before, you're really missing out.
[Howard] I've said before that he's the best satirist alive. There's argument to be made that he's one of the very best authors.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. I would say in science fiction and fantasy there is nobody writing better than Terry Pratchett right now.
[Howard] Start a 30 day free trial membership and get yourself a copy of Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett or start the Death Cycle with Mort by Terry Pratchett.

[Brandon] All right. Now, Dan, I'm going to throw something at you because one of the fun things about...
[Dan] A question or a thing?
[Brandon] Well [garbled] Nope, there went a pen. The fun thing about the first Serial Killer novel, the first John Cleaver novel is you have a nonhuman character who is more human than the main character, who is a human.
[Dan] Yes. But I kind of cheated. I wasn't trying to do the same thing that you get in a lot of the science fiction stuff where it's this super alien race. My demons in the Serial Killer series are all very specifically parasitic of human society. They want to be human. Or, in the case of the villain in the second book, Mr. Monster, he's gleefully just devoid of any human qualities whatsoever. That's what his character is based on is the fact that he's different and he doesn't care. The bad guy in the first one, like you say, that was kind of what the whole book was built around is I wanted to have this nonhuman monster who was more human than the human. There's a lot of the word human in one sentence.
[Brandon] Yes, yes. But it works beautifully.
[Dan] It works, and it's because he's trying so hard to be human. He wants to be, he loves it. He loves his wife. He doesn't want to be the monster that he is. Giving him that kind of emotional grounding, it was such a stark contrast to the rest of the characters. So it's a... Like I said, it's a little bit of a cheat. You have to be in a very specific situation to take advantage of it.

[Brandon] Well, I've seen it done other ways. In fact, one of the most common ways that we run into what you're talking about is when we write AIs. In fact, Mary? You've written AIs and you make them relatable despite the fact that they are basically, compared to humans, they have divine powers. You do the same thing, Howard. These godlike individuals that we are fleas compared to, how do you make them relatable?
[Mary] Well, the way I'm doing it is that... I'm... With the AIs, I'm deciding that the people who designed them would have designed them to be relatable. So each AI customizes itself to be attractive to the person it is interfacing with. So I have Metta, who in Kiss Me Twice makes herself look like Mae West.

[Howard] To the main character?
[Mary] To the main character. To someone else, she looks like a truck. So it's picking the thing that you find appealing and making yourself look like that, which is something we all do. To some extent.
[Brandon] But see, here's the thing, that makes it work although... Because you hint at, both of you do, how alien they really are. In certain moments, there's like this almost horrifying factor where the reader or the main character realizes, "This thing is acting relatable, but if I truly had to try to understand it, there's no way I could." That frightens people.
[Mary] Yeah. Actually, one of the things that happens in the novel, novella is there's a point where something goes wrong and all of the interfaces suddenly look all the same. Because we have established by that point the alienness that she looks different to everybody, the fact that suddenly she looks the same to everybody is the freakish thing.

[Brandon] Right. Right. Howard, your AIs. How do you make them relatable?
[Howard] Again, with the eyebrows. They...
[Brandon] You do more than that.
[Howard] I know I do, but...
[Brandon] You give them passions.
[Howard] Yeah, I give them passions, and I give them avatars. Unlike Mary with Kiss Me Twice, my AI avatars are how they appear to everybody. Because I don't want to have to draw 50 different characters for the same character, because I'm lazy that way. But the avatar itself develops a personality for the reader. We look at that avatar and it's a cute teddy bear or it's a maraca or whatever. Then when we step into... When we step past the human facing side of the avatar and look at what's going on on the other side, I will often use the avatar and have it communicating a little differently. Recently I took Tagii and drove her irrevocably insane. The avatar in her own head changed appearance.
[Brandon] Very horrifyingly.
[Howard] And has continued to change appearance in its new location.
[Dan] I like the new kind of [Chibee?] version.
[Howard] The new [Chibee?] version of Tagii. The readers online are speculating about what that means. Which has me clapping my hands with glee because it means it's working.

[Mary] I thought of one other thing we're all kind of skirting around, which is that... Having a human gateway character. The thing that I'm actually really doing that makes my character relatable is that I have a human gateway character who cares about them and who understands them. A really good example of how this works, where you can take somebody who is totally alien, is Chewbacca.
[Brandon] Right! Right.
[Mary] The Chewbacca-Han Solo relationship works. The reason we care about Chewbacca and we relate to him is because of the relationship he has with Han. Han Solo gives him context so that we can understand what is happening with him.
[Brandon] Oh, that's brilliant. Yes.
[Howard] That's why the Star Wars Christmas special didn't work. Actually, no...
[Mary] No, there's [garbled]. That's not the only reason.
[Howard] No, but that does explain it.
[Brandon] If only Lucas had had you.
[Howard] You put a bunch of Wookies in a room, there's nobody for us to relate to, and they're all just grunting at each other.
[Brandon] Anyway. Let's not analyze the Star Wars Christmas special too far. That rabbit hole...
[Howard] The Boba Fett cartoon was cool.

[Brandon] I'll wrap this podcast up by kind of going back to the why. For me, the why of including nonhuman characters is because it allows me to write the aspect of science fiction and fantasy that I love, which is why I'm writing science fiction and fantasy. I can therefore write a race that highlights some aspect of the weirdness of my fiction that is the inherent draw. It's why I'm going to... It's the world building. I'm... The second Way of Kings book, the Parshendi, I'm writing viewpoints from them. The purpose for that is for me to explore this. For me to say, "This is fantasy, this is a race that couldn't exist on our planet. This is not something you can find in a remote part of Earth. This is completely different." Yes, I'm going to make them relatable. I'm going to make them have these passions and emotions and things like that, but there's going to be something weird because it's fun. Because it's why I do what I do.
[Howard] At risk of looking at the other side of the same coin, I think that we write the aliens because they allow us to more clearly define aspects of humanity. Because just as you define a superhero by contrasting it with a villain, humanity in science fiction and fantasy is defined in large measure by the traits that we identify with in the alien, and the things that we pull out and treat as alien.
[Mary] Yeah. I'm in the Howard camp. I mean, I also have written things where I'm like, "This is really cool. If there was an alien that was like that." I've done the geewhiz factor, but the stories that I tend to be attracted to as a reader, and this is personal reading preference, are the ones that... Where the something about that alien race allows me to understand and aspect of real life and humanity in a way that I wouldn't be able to.
[Brandon] Right. That is the other big core of science fiction and fantasy, is the ability to explore our world through extremes or through contrasts.
[Howard] Oh, yeah. Pretentious literary moment. Bam!
[Brandon] Okay. There we are. Dan?

[Dan] I have an example that I'm going to extend into a writing prompt for you guys. In the Partials books that I've written, the Partials themselves are essentially human, but they have a pheromonal communication system that completely changes the way they interact with each other and with the humans. So that's your writing prompt. Come up with an alien species, some kind of nonhuman species, that has a distinctly different form of communication and then have them have a conversation with a human.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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