This post is part of the Fantasy Month blogging event, run by Jenelle L. Schmidt. Throughout this February, participating authors will be posting all kinds of cool stuff like writing advice, reviews, and other articles on the fantasy genre. Check out the official schedule post on Jenelle's website to learn more! And commenting on posts during Fantasy Month will give you a chance to win something very cool…click here to find out more about that.
If you write fantasy, it stands to reason that sooner or later, you may find yourself writing a non-human character or two. In fact, I think this is something that writers of fantasy should be encouraged to do, so long as it fits with the unique world they have created. Adding distinctive types of sentient, non-human creatures to your world and giving members of those species important roles in the story adds a great deal of depth to both your world building and your characterization.
However, given that you are (presumably) human, you might be daunted by the task of writing from the perspective of a very different creature. How do you avoid glaring mistakes in depicting non-humans, and when you’re using them as point-of-view characters, how you write them in such a way that your reader is kept fully aware that they are seeing the world through the perspective of a very different being?
I’ve had quite a bit of experience writing non-humans, both as POV characters and supporting characters. Really, they're my favorite kind of characters to write, as they often present more of an interesting challenge than writing humans. The main character of my Beaumont and Beasley series, Nick Beasley, starts out human but only stays that way for a few chapters before he’s transformed into a fairy-tale beast (similar to the version of the Beast from the 1991 Disney film.) The primary POV character of my Crockett and Crane series, Todd Crane, is a human with the ability to shapeshift into a centaur using a magic ring. There are also plenty of other types of creatures scattered through my books. I’ve learned a lot from writing them, and in this post, I'll share some useful tips and strategies to keep in mind when you're setting out to portray somebody who's either partly or completely inhuman.
Before you do anything else, you’ll need to pin down what kind of creature you’re working with. Your nonhuman character will likely fall into one of three categories, which will determine the kind of research you ought to do. You'll either be writing a creature from established lore (mythology or classic fantasy), a creature of your own invention, or an animal from the real world.
If you're writing a fantasy creature that “exists” in literature, then you'll want to familiarize yourself with the common depictions of it in both historical and modern times. Let's take elves as an example. These beings have deep roots in folklore, so you should do some research on how they were described in ancient texts. What were the most common traits of mythical elves? What was their typical moral alignment? What were their unique abilities (magical or otherwise)? You don't have to be slavishly accurate to the myths about a particular creature, but it’s often a good idea to give some kind of nod to the existing lore. Plus, the lore can often give you interesting ideas for how you might want to adapt the creature. For instance, elves in Anglo-Saxon writings were said to be the cause of illness. So perhaps your elf will have some sort of magic system and/or power set based on disease. (Creepy, but rather unique in today's fantasy landscape.)
You should also investigate the most popular iteration of your creature in modern literature or film. This will help you to avoid copying other people too closely, but will also give you an idea of what your readers' expectations will be about the character. You can then choose to either fall in step with these expectations or subvert them. There's nothing wrong with your elves being very similar to Tolkien’s. For one thing, his portrayal of them was based heavily on Germanic mythology, so it's not exactly copyrighted. For another, when you say the word “elf” these days, Legolas and/or Galadriel are usually the people who spring to mind. Elves as pretty people with long lives and equally long hair, not to mention wicked archery skills, can serve as a good jumping-on point for somebody familiar with Tolkien to engage with your world. Or, maybe you want to go in the opposite direction and give your readers a completely different kind of elf that is the antithesis of what they have read from from authors like Tolkien. This can work well too, since your readers might be intrigued by the idea of familiar fantasy creatures in a completely unfamiliar guise.
The next category is creatures you invent yourself. This will still require some research on your part, even though we’re dealing with something more original, because in the fantasy genre (as opposed to science fiction), the creature you invent is likely to include some elements of either a real animal or a known creature from legends and literature. For example, if you're creating something that's part human, part elephant, you'll probably want to do some research on elephants. Or, if you're developing a being that is similar to vampires but feeds on something other than blood (say, fear, or the years left in a victim’s life), you’ll want to read up on vampire lore so you can springboard off it to develop your own unique creature. Figure out what all of your character’s unique qualities are, determine where they intersect with creatures that are either real or frequently imagined, and use all that information to help inform how you write your character.
Finally, we have characters that are animals, either part of the time or all of the time. Maybe your world has talking animals, maybe your character is a shapeshifter, or maybe he or she is a human under a spell. Which of these options you choose will determine how comfortable your character is in his or her own skin (or hide, or scales, as the case may be). Talking animals will, of course, have been born in their current form. As such, it will be natural for them to think and act in ways that differ from human customs. You'll want to research the behavior, the abilities, and in some cases, the social structure of these animals (if you're dealing with a social animal) so that you can blend human-like thoughts and intelligence believably with the animal form in question. Try not to give an animal some personality quirk that simply doesn't fit its nature. For example, let's look at the Hank the Cowdog series, written by one of my favorite young adult authors, John R. Erickson. The books are more or less fantasy, at least in the sense of them featuring talking, intelligent animals as the main characters, though these creatures never speak with humans outside of one child character in the earlier books. However, Erickson is careful to keep the animal characters true to their natural traits. Hank, the dog main character, acts like a dog, not a human in a dog's body. If you're familiar with dogs, then every decision he makes will be perfectly understandable to you. Erickson doesn't even project his own personality onto Hank in any fashion. While Erickson in real life is a cowboy who loves horses, Hank, like most dogs, isn't fond of them. Little touches like this will help to make your work feel more authentic–and yes, authenticity is important even in fantasy.
Gathering such information will also come in handy if you're writing characters that shapeshift into animals, especially if your character fully adopts the instincts and mannerisms of the animal in question when in his or her alternate form. The ease with which your character adapts to the animal form will depend on how long he or she has been a shapeshifter. Was your character born with this power, or did they gain it later in life? Did they receive any kind of training in how to cope with their transformations? Do any of their more animalistic abilities or behaviors bleed into their human lives in some way? If your character is new to shapeshifting, then you'll want to highlight the difficulties they face as they try to cope with animal instincts in their other form, or the dichotomy of a human brain in an animal body. This issue also applies if your character has been more permanently transformed into an animal (or other nonhuman form). A character in this situation will have to re-learn certain aspects of daily life, given that they can't change back into human form. As always when you're writing fiction, the more details you add, the better the immersion will be for your readers, so devote plenty of time to thinking through questions like this as you craft your story.
Regardless of what kind of nonhuman you're writing, you should be drawing on both the research you've gathered and your own imagination constantly as you write from that character's point of view. It's helpful to have a “cheat sheet” of things you need to keep in mind about your creature as you write. If it's been established at some point in the story that your character has enhanced senses, then you'll need to keep that consistent. It won't make any sense if at some point in the story, your characters are ambushed by enemies that your nonhuman could have smelled or heard from a long way off. That doesn't mean that you'll have to change that plot point entirely. I'm not saying you should constantly hand-wave problems away using magic, but if an ambush genuinely improves that particular scene, then give the bad guys an amulet or something that suppresses their scent and the noise they make. So long as your readers aren't left wondering why your non-human's special abilities suddenly vanished, you're doing just fine.
The cheat sheet will also come in handy for other things, like body language, characterization, and world building. If your character is either an animal or part animal, that will certainly affect their body language. If they have a tail, they'll be using it to express their emotions in some way. They may have mannerisms like growling or purring, as well. The species of your character can also affect their psychology. If the non-human is an immortal elf or dragon shifter, that person will have a lot of experience on their side, as well as a very different perspective on life from that of your shorter-lived characters. Don't casually mention that your character has lived for five thousand years and then write them just like another character who's twenty-five, even if both characters look like they're twenty-five.
In the same vein, it won't always make sense for the nonhumans in your world to have cultures and social norms very similar to those of humans. Centaurs have very unusual physiologies, so a centaur city is going to be very different from a human city. Doorways will probably be taller, as will tables. There almost certainly won't be any chairs, unless enough humans are around on a regular basis to justify the presence of such furniture. If your centaurs have the same basic digestive systems as horses, they won't be able to eat meat. There probably won't be anybody hunting game in your centaur city or raising livestock for meat (again, unless there's a high human population), and the society and commerce of the city will likely revolve around agriculture.
Bottom line—don't have “token” nonhumans in your stories. It's not enough to make your character some other species just because it seems cool, and then write them like funny looking humans. It's harder to get nonhumans right, but it also leads to far richer storytelling. The more distinctive you can make your fantasy, the better, and nonhuman characters are an excellent way to achieve that. Plus, while it may seem daunting at first, writing these characters can actually be a lot of fun.
Especially if they're dragons, of course.