Saturday, March 20, 2010

Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild

In the novel I'm currently working on, most of the characters aren't human. One of my goals for this book is to remember that as I write. It seems like it ought to be an easy thing. Nonhuman characters show up all the time in speculative fiction: vampires, were-whatevers, the Fey, aliens. But quite often, what shows up on the page isn't a nonhuman creature that is truly Other, but a sparkly sexy human, wearing a vampire costume.

The point of putting a vampire in a story (unless the point is, vampires are dead sexy, in which case, sure, but so are a lot of people) is that the character functions in the story in a way that a human character does not and cannot. You don't write a character as the Faerie Queen because you need a person who is really pretty and who a lot of people are obsessed with - you  can bring a supermodel on stage for that. The point of writing a non-human character is that they are Not Human, and hence governed by a different set of needs, of behaviors, of rules. If a vampire doesn't have a soul, he should act like an amoral sort of guy. If the Faerie Queen doesn't have a heart, she may have lovers, but she won't have loves.

Normally, when writing, the challenge is to put actual people on the page, not just a set of quirks and characteristics. But the narrative interest inherent in nonhuman characters is their inherent nonhumanness. The challenge when writing something nonhuman is to make such characters recognizable, not as people, but as what they actually are.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I think this is the problem with most fiction published today. If you're writing non-human characters, they shouldn't sound/act/move like the protagonist or even the guy you had a crush on in high school. So much of fiction being published is little more than projection. I long for an accurate and 'realistic' spec story that is true to the nature of each character, especially the 'unnatural' ones. :p

  2. I think some writers do this very well - the fey in Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron, or her Whiskey and Water and in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are definitely fey. The vampires in Robin McKinley's Sunshine are not emo kids whining about how sexy and tormented they are.

  3. Tad Williams does a pretty good job of this with some of the non-human characters in the Dragonbone Chair series. I'm thinking here particularly of the Qanuc, and also some of the Zidda'ya, perhaps most notably Aditu. (Jiriki is written with a personality a little closer to human; I suspect this was probably deliberate, given his role in the story.)

    The Qar in his latest series are geared somewhat this way too.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation - I really like the Williams that I've read, so I'll add those to the to be read list.