Writing Excuses 8.33: Making Non-Human Characters Relatable

How do you help your readers relate to the non-human characters in your fiction?

The first question to answer is why you’re putting non-human characters in the piece to begin with. What are your goals for that race, culture, or whatever? Once you know that, you can begin addressing the challenge of helping the reader relate.

We talk about our strategies, and we cover examples from Iain Banks’ Look to Windward, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and of course from our own work, including Kiss Me Twice, I Am Not a Serial Killer, and The Body Politic.

Immediately Discarded Negative Example, Because the Rathole is Just Too Deep: The 1977 Star Wars Christmas Special


Depict a conversation between members of a non-human species who do something besides talk.

Thief of Time: Discworld, Book 26, by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs

13 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.33: Making Non-Human Characters Relatable”

  1. Cat Rambo’s “Amid the Words of War” came immediately to mind. A genderless insectoid that operates in a six-individual unit in a caste society? Doesn’t get much more alien than that, yet the result is surprisingly moving, and… human. I was impressed, anyway.

    Lightspeed has the short story for free here: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/amid-the-words-of-war/

    And Drabblecast put up a great audio production as well: http://www.drabblecast.org/2013/03/08/drabblecast-274-amid-the-words-of-war/

  2. I love writing and reading non-human characters. I think that is some of the best ways to show humanity in all it’s glory and flaws.

    On of my favorite examples of this sort of story is the Avenger cartoons, earth’s mightiest heroes where aliens are attacking a basically modern earth, not because humans are weak, but because they have so much potential. As The Vission tells the Avengers “being perfect is being MORE human’

    I think one of the examples I like for writing non-human characters is ‘The Borrowers’ compared to ‘The Little’. The authors do different things to make the characters both human and weird. The borrowers look like tiny humans, but they act different, even to the point where their intelligence is lower, or at least more focused on survival then humans are. This makes them strange. The Littles however behave just like humans, so to make them strange the author gave them tails. It’s the same story, but the concepts and strangeness of the characters are shown differently, one through behavior and one through appearance.

  3. Kind of neat to have seen this today, this week I wrote a short story about ducks conducting scientific experiments about, and on, humans. Getting in some of that relatability was something I had to kind of intuit through the process, but it was a really rewarding one, and the story turned out surprisingly compelling as a result.

  4. A classic problem, with illustrations from John Cleaver, Mr. Monster, Chewbacca, and the Yomingans? But no one is talking, because we don’t know how to annotate the tides of pheromonal exchange going on, the feedback loops of digital delight, the…

    Here’s a transcript. Just words. No smells.


  5. Very cool episode. Whether it’s an alien, dog, or tree or an alien dog-tree, a character needs something that is human to be relateable I imagine. I mean, it’s all we know.

    I’m definitely going to check out Vernor Vinge. Does anyone else recommend anything really unique and great with nonhuman characters? Thanks for another great episode. love listening to them each week.

  6. @Michael: If I can make a recommendation, I think that Watership Down does great things with non-human characters (rabbits). The author gives them very human emotions and desires, while at the same time keeping their worldview “rabbity”. Basic elements like love, survival, family, fear, are the most deeply rooted within any living being and are associated with the strongest emotions: thus they can make any character relatable.

  7. How can you have this podcast without mentioning TenSoon (from Mistborn trilogy). He’s my favorite character in the books, yet completely foreign. I would have loved a side-series of Vin/TenSoon detective novels.

  8. While you touch on it a bit in this and the other non-human characters ep, I’d enjoy one that discusses some tips for going from “I want to include a cool alien race” to “distributed AI partner of a police precinct” or “Carbosillicate Amorph.”

    I mean, I know that they need to be relateable and everything, but can you give us any tips on making them alien in a cool way? Are there any big pitfalls we should avoid when creating non-human races?

  9. …Thinking about it a bit more, I guess I’d just like some advice on how to make a non-human “cool” as well as some tips on things people do wrong when designing non-human races, especially the sci-fi ones. I mean, you’ve mentioned that Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves are a little played out, but are there any common alien races that we should either avoid or twist harder?

  10. This podcast is probably one of the most directly relevant to my own writing. There are no human characters in the first book I’ve completed, and I’ve consciously removed humans from my universe, replacing them with a human-like species. There, however, I still have at least one much more alien character.

    Lots of good points raised here, all things I’ve come to realize/had to deal with in creating my own species.

  11. And to Michael, regarding pitfalls to avoid, from my own limited experience (I’m a not-yet-published writer who’s completed one book and is almost done with another).

    The ones I’ve found is that the aliens, whatever, have to be different from us so that people can’t go, ‘why not just make them human?’. I’ve done that by making sure there’s always at least 1 physical and 1 psychological difference.

    Another one to avoid is making an entire species one-note, i.e. making the species have 1 ‘thing’ about them and that’s it, and making sure that the species doesn’t feel completely homogeneous (unless they’re a hive mind or something. The species will feel more ‘real’ if there are distinct individuals within it that have different views and ideas, much like we do. This is especially key if you;re writing a non-human viewpoint character.

    Here’s a link to a post in my fledgling website where I discuss it a bit. http://yakovmerkin.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/creating-a-non-human-character-and-species/

    Hope that helps a bit, though the podcast really did cover most areas relating to this.

  12. Something I always struggle with, when it comes to nonhuman characters, is… humanity is really weird, and often people don’t realise exactly how weird it is. I happen to be on the weird fringes in several ways, and there is very little as depressing as seeing one of your traits attached to a nonhuman species as a way to make them seem alien. The classic example here is asexuality; I thought of this when Mary mentioned how human cultures have a desire for sex in common, and how giving nonhuman characters a desire like that can make them more relatable. I’ve seen the flipside a lot – making nonhuman characters disinterested in sex as a way to make them “weirder” – and it’s always distinctly unpleasant to read as an asexual human being (plus, has given rise to all sorts of inhuman emotionless robot stereotypes about asexuality I think we could really do without.)

    Or, example: “Demon’s Lexicon” (spoilers follow), by Sarah Rees Brennan, is a fantastically written book. It’s from the perspective of a character, Nick, who (no really SPOILERS for the biggest plot twist in that) turns out to be a demon who’d been trapped in a human body at birth. In order to underline Nick’s inhumanity, SRB did a lot to make his thought patterns really alien and different. The problem? In doing so, she made them actually resemble the way some autistic people think. She apparently intentionally tried to steer clear of resemblances to other neurotypes, but I’m autistic and I do not think I have ever identified with a character as much as with Nick. Or maybe I should say, I identify with Nick on levels I have never identified with a character before, because he thinks like me in ways basically no character I have ever come across in fiction does. The reveal that all this was evidence of his inhumanity, well… I’d been expecting it so it came across as more of a sinking feeling than a slap in the face, but I know other non-NT people who were Not Amused.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I really, really agree with the thing that Howard said about how nonhuman races often say things about humanity via what traits you assign to them, and want to point out that as a result it can be really easy to accidentally imply certain minority human traits… aren’t.

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