Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 16: Non-Human Races

The Writing Excuses crew returns to world-building, this time to discuss the creation of non-human races. Why do genre-fiction writers use aliens and monsters, short folk, tusked folk, or any other variation on “people” who aren’t human? Can new writers successfully recycle the classic Tolkien races and use dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins, and trolls? If not, how can new races best be created?

How can races be made “three-dimensional?” What are the common pitfalls? How much religion, culture, and physiology do you have time to create? Why are the rabidly violent fans of the Klingon race going to come after Howard with a cheap, plastic bat’leth? (Answer: Because they have no honor.)

Writing Prompt: Create a believable Alien and write something from his/her perspective.


21 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 16: Non-Human Races”

  1. Turn your phone off! :)

    I don’t write nonhuman characters at all. I had a bad experience with some aliens in a space opera I tried to write that led to me swearing not to do them again, at least for a time.

  2. No true fan of Klingons would ever come after Howard with anything less than a hand forged bat’leth.
    And no! You can’t borrow mine.

  3. When I was younger, almost all of my stories had the Tolkien races. As I grew older and wiser (?), I realized that elves, dwarfs, and ogres were all too cliche. I decided if I ever found time to write again that I would NEVER use those over-used races. So, what does my novel have in it? Elves, dwarfs and ogres. Go figure.

    What I did was find ways to make fun of the cliches. For instance, my three-foot tall elves have Tolkien-elf envy. Something else that I have been doing to make my races different is to pull ideas from mythology and fairy tales, not from the typical fantasy genre.

  4. Berin, that’s a wonderful way to use cliches.

    An alien race, if done right, can be a huge draw to a story. For example, Brandon’s Kandra point of view in HERO OF AGES is one of the most enjoyable parts of that book.

    However, I want to suggest that aliens (in fantasy or sf) create that draw only IF they’re kept sufficiently strange or mysterious. The minute they become common or too human, they lose their power to enchant.

    That’s one thing I like about how Tolkien did the elves and orcs–we never got the National Geographic on them. They never became common. And so I always wanted to know more. Easterlings, ents, balrogs, the orders of wizards, dragons, etc. were the same. There were tons of tales Tolkien hinted at, curioisties raised, but those desires were never sated. This is part of what drove me to other fantasy books.

    It’s the same thing that made me love mammoths and dinosaurs, bats and giant squid, and far-off places. However, once these things became common and explained, their magic departed. The curiosity generated by the wonder of things new is one of the key things science fiction and fantasy offer its readers. But I think authors can only keep it alive if they approach it in the same way a fan dancer approaches her work.

    This leads me to another point. It’s true that focusing our world building on the conflicts and story touch points can keep us on track. And we do need to produce. However, I think if we strictly limit our alien development to the central story conflicts, we might miss many opportunities for that wonder. Some of what we develop might end up complicating the plot while other parts might only enrich the experience.

    For example, one of the most poignant parts of the LOTR, of which there were many, was the tale of the ents and the entwives and Treebeard’s poem. Tolkien could have eliminated that and the story never would have been affected. But, O, how much richer the story was for that little side trail that still beckons. Or you might think of the ring Bilbo found. When Tolkien first wrote it, it wasn’t THE ring of power. It was merely a ring that Gollum used. Only later, when he began to work on LOTR and was trying to figure out the main problem of the story did he work that detail into it becoming THE ring of power.

  5. One of the things I really like about non-human races is that they let the writer explore racial issues without getting bogged down in real-world racial issues. Readers have so many different perspectives about real-world perspectives that it seems to me it is almost always a lose-lose situation for the writer. Non-human races kind of get rid of some of that bias.

  6. I wanted to riff off of a series of Peter Sellers movie for Howard’s benefit: “Howard! The phone is ringing!” ( “Kato! The phone is ringing!”).

    There you are, Howard. Snarkiness from Boise, ID.

  7. Hmm non-human characters are something I’ve experimented with in a short story I did for myself a few years ago. A planet was being invaded…by humans (who had already ruined the Earth) and told from the POV of one of said Aliens. It sucked. I haven’t tried writing non-human characters since, after hearing this cast I think I may give it another shot soon.

  8. Jake, that sounds like my problem. My “aliens” were humans with different biology, they didn’t at all feel alien enough for me to convince myself to write them as such and after I finished writing what was supposed to be book one of six, I never pick up the story again.

  9. **off topic (sorry)**
    A few episodes back (“Violence”) the discussion turned to how often the consequences of violence are not well shown, particularly the consequences of being violent yourself. I just watched Unforgiven last night (Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman, etc.). It had incredibly good character work on this topic. I really think everyone who wants to get better at portraying the consequences of violence should watch it (I’m sure everyone here has, and I’m just super late to the party, but you never know…)

  10. Great podcast, there. Nothing new for me, though.
    The german fantasy market is /overflowing/ with “Tolkien fanfiction” these years… and I hate it! That’s not to say there wouldn’t be able to write something good with Tolkien’s races. I loved Bruenor Battlehammer & his clan. Salvatore really improved the dwarfs, I might even say.

    But for the most part: no more Tolkien, please. I just got started on a novel with a half-human main character. First person should help to really bind the reader to that rather unique viewpoint, I hope.

  11. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies, in no small part because it takes its time and really deals with the impact of violence and violent lifestyles. I second Eliyanna’s recommendation.

  12. Back on-topic: A great science fiction book (it’s actually three novelettes in one book) for non-human viewpoints in Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler. I think this is the second time I’ve recommended it here (the last time I believe was in regards to gender character work). It starts off with a human view point, but then ***SPOILER*** as humans are bred with aliens, the resulting viewpoints become more and more alien, and yet very relatable. The really fun thing is watching how the point of view changes as the book progresses. She really plays well with showing you how the physiology changes the way the characters think and respond to things.

  13. Karen was just telling me about how she listened to this podcast and heard Brandon’s comment “My books are marked pervasively by a lack of non-human races,” going on about it for like a minute and a half, and she said to me, “I haven’t read most of Brandon’s unpublished books, but all his published books have non-human races in them!” Several of them as viewpoint characters!

    Maybe Brandon just thinks of even his non-human characters as human? ;)

  14. One of the (many – yes, I adore it, so my opinion is highly subjective!) things I love about Babylon 5 is the aliens. They have general characteristics as Narn, Centauri or Mimbari but are individuals with their own thoughts, goals, agendas… (also they’re not dressed all alike in various pyjamas! :) )

  15. It’s sort of funny to hear elves and dwarves described as “tolkein races” when they were basicly ripped out of norse mythology. And I tend to think there’s move influence from D&D than tolkein these days, for all that D&D was originally essentially an off-market tolkein game.

    Actually, my biggest complaint regarding non-human races is that, almost without exception, they aren’t. Non-human that is. All humans belong to one species, and cultural differances along often make it so that we don’t understand what another person is thinking when they do something. However, under the cultural (software) differances, we’ve mostly got the same drives and motivations, thanks to millions of years of evolution and or the divine beings of choice (hardware). Non-humans aren’t just running differant software – they are also operating on differant hardware.

    You talked a lot about startrek aliens, but sort of missed the fact that virtually all star trek aliens are essentially indistinguishable from humans if you close your eyes. They are each just humans with one personality trait at a stronger than normal level – for a fairly typcial middle class american.

    CJCherryh’s Atevi are a good example of this handled right. The Atevi are very similar to humans psychologically… close enough to make them mostly understandable, to make them characters you can care about. But there’s that one giant, glaring differance that resulted in a war, and a complete legal embargo on any sort of inter-racial contact except through the office of a single very highly trained human interpreter. And it’s not something like religious beliefs… it’s fundamental emotional drives of the two races.

  16. I agree with John Brown’s post all the way at the top although sometimes they need to be more human. You need to keep a mystic about your non human races and you need to also keep something human there. You also want to try and keep parts realistic I would say. Like with the Elves in Lord of the Rings, they are like the perfect race but they are too perfect. They are in a way perfect humans.

    In the book I am working on I have this race I made up that is very much like humans but only what humans know about them is revealed. They are not at all what they seem or what the human characters think of them but you only hear about them and see them from a human perspective. Then there is another race which has only one character of and you learn next to nothing about this race.

  17. I like what Isaac Asimov did with NightFall.

    He could have written things like, “Sjovu got into his ghunap and fergryted eighteen plajiks to the nearest gyjurk”. But no one would have known what he was talking about. I believe that unless you’re writing as series of books using the same alien races, one can’t diverge from our own cliches and idiosyncrasys too much, lest we lose the reader. Asimov used english terms the whole way. (He explaines why in his forward).

    One way of teaching the reader about the cliches and idiosyncrasys of an alien race, is to have a human character who’s new to the planet. Then we learn things as he learns them. Only thats a bit too cliched for me. Maybe you guys can come up with a better way.

  18. Elves are my guilty pleasure. However, for all that people say the genre is supersaturated with them, I’ve found surprisingly few books with elves in them. Those that I *have* read, I’ve found to fall rather short of my expectations. Maybe the reason people ask us to “kill the elves” is because nobody’s done them well enough.

    For that matter.. it occurred to me recently that Stephenie Meyer’s vampires have almost as many similarities to traditional elves as they do to traditional vampires. I can’t say I feel good about them, but hey – she got them published..

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