Friday, December 5, 2008

If You Spackle Us, Are We Not Aroused? - Nonhuman Characters

Ok... that's probably the single most obscure post title yet. Well, I mean, I've had some pretty strange and obscure titles here on the Burning Zeppelin Experience, but that one really takes the cake. I'm not sure even I understand it.

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When I was a kid, I used to love Star Trek. When I was but a little lad, I used to watch the old William Shatner Star Trek with my dad. He had the entire series on videocassette, which was, at the time, proof that he was the most awesome human being on the planet. When I got a little older, we'd watch Star Trek: the Next Generation together, and that was even better. We never really got into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, though we watched more than a little of it. Ironically, of all the recent iterations of the franchise, it was Star Trek: Voyager that we watched the most of... the one neither of us liked very much. We even gave Star Trek: Enterprise a chance. I had seen all the movies that existed at that point several times each by the time I was ten years old, and I have seen every movie since then, in the theatre. Aw, who the hell am I kidding? I still love Star Trek, there just isn't any on TV anymore.

Anyway, one of the things I used to love on Star Trek were the aliens. Man, the aliens were awesome. You had the cold and logical, yet also dangerously passionate Vulcans and their black sheep cousins, the underhanded Romulans, the honorable, but vicious Klingons, and those funky lizard guys, the Gorn (ok, the Gorn were only in two episodes, but I thought they were cool looking), just to name a few. There were blue dudes and red dudes and telepathic dudes and dudes with tentacles and dudes with antennae and undeniably sexy green chicks. Sexy, sexy green chicks. Three of my favorite characters were (you guessed it) Mr. Spock, Data, and Lieutenant Worf.

The appeal of nonhuman characters is manifold.

Firstly, I find that by making a character nonhuman in most ways, it's possible to make the ways that the character is human stand out in interesting ways. Take Data from Stark Trek, for example. While ostensibly nonhuman, he experiences loyalty and love. These traits humanize the character, and also stand out in him, because they are so distinct from the rest of him. The writers were able to tell great stories about love and loyalty using Data.

Secondly - and Star Trek did this best - you can use alien creatures to cast real life issues in new light. This is an outgrowth of reason number one. Make them alien creatures, but have them be dealing with issues of sexuality, racism, nationalism, or whatever, and the differences - they're blue, they have magic powers, they don't die, whatever - will highlight the similarities.

Finally, a nonhuman characters can give you a license to be really creative. Want to give a main character some unlikely personality traits, special abilities, or cultural biases and afraid your audience won't be able to suspend disbelief? Present her as an alien creature of some kind, and you're golden! Similarly, nonhuman characters are great for stories about alienation, difference, and discrimination. Tell a story of a nonhuman among humans (or a human among nonhumans) and you can take a story about what it's like to not belong to a whole new level.

Oddly enough, as I drifted away from science fiction and towards fantasy, I never felt the same kinship with the fantasy races. Dwarves, elves, gnomes, and so on don't really do it for me the same way that the aliens of Star Trek did. As I matured as a fantasy writer, I found myself slipping away from the usual assumptions of fantasy species. In most of my latest works, I either assume that only humans exist or cherry pick one or two 'standard fantasy races' to exist in the setting, and only when I have some specific use for them. A Knight of the Land, for example, features the Na'Aril, troll-like creatures that are tied to the land, and Darak'hur, dragons-as-the-souls-of-the-landscape. Rat and Starling has elves, and that's it, but they're... not your grandpa's elves.

The question is what did Star Trek do right that fantasy did wrong?

As I look back, I think the answer is that every alien on Stark Trek was, like the trolls, dragons, and elves of my stories, designed with a specific purpose in mind. Fantasy, on the other hand, tends to fall into predictable (boring) tropes. They're elves, so they're long-lived and snooty. They're dwarfs, so they're short, greedy, and like to make stuff, and probably they live underground. They're gnomes, so... whatever. They're gnomish.

This is sad, because I don't think this needs to be this way. There is a lot of potential in fantasy for exciting nonhuman creatures. So, go out there are write fantasy stories with more cool alien creatures. I'll be watching.

Just, uh... keep your spackle to yourself, ok sparky?

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  • Where have you written nonhuman characters and had it work really well, or really poorly, and why do you think it turned out the way it did?
  • What are some particularly good or particularly bad examples of nonhuman characters in fiction?
  • Wouldn't a story about kung-fu nine-feet tall ape-people be awesome? I've got this idea that one of the main characters is an outcast, albino kung-fu nine foot tall ape-man who is seen as a total pervert because he has a human girlfriend. And they fight crime! Or something.


Scattercat said...

I think the main difference is that fantasy originated as a hearkening back to traditional tales, whereas science fiction was, from its inception, about extrapolating the now into the if. That is, fantasy races are garbled versions of the old stories, in which the monsters and faeries were basically cyphers for types of people. Science fiction gets to feel more relevant because aliens are a wholly unknown quantity; you can make up any alien race and have it work well, whereas new fantasy races are heading upstream against the prescriptions.

In the end, all nonhumans are just humans with the color palettes switched around a bit, used to exemplify something about human lives.


For really well-done non-humans, I have to go with the Sithi from Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. They were "elves, but not your granddaddy's elves," as you put it. It was one of the few times that I've really felt like "elves" really were a different race and not just humans with pointy ears.

Anonymous said...

I agree that that probably is the origin, but I have to admit to a fascination with the idea of swimming against that stream and either redefining the standard fantasy species, or bucking the trend and writing fantasies with whole new creatures as characters.

. . .

Now, the Sithi really pissed me off. they were very will written, but they created in me the first real example of Elf Rage: intense dislike of an elfoid species based on their supreme arrogance. I really wanted Seoman to give them the finger, tell them to go screw, and go save the world on his own, and the fact that he didn't - that after all that he was still in awe of those assholes - was endlessly frustrating.

Scattercat said...

I think that said a lot more about Seoman than the Sithi. I rather liked that they were very ambiguous at best.

Anonymous said...

They were ambiguous, and I can't argue that it said a lot about Seoman that he didn't.

But still. Elf Rage.

Scattercat said...

Gonna get your ale'n'chainmail dwarf groove-thang going?