I read a great blog some time ago (here and here) about the use of non-human characters in fantasy and science-fiction. It’s true that non-human creatures are a staple of these genres; and for those of us who write sci-fi and fantasy, creating new creatures is part of the fun of world-building.
I’m not going to lay out rules for creating magical creatures or alien life-forms. However, similar to other forms of world-building, I believe there are some factors that should be considered when creating non-human people.
Note: these guidelines/suggestions apply primarily to sentient creatures rather than regular animals, as I’m discussing the roles that individuals of these species may play as major or supporting characters. Think Wookies rather than taun-tauns.
If you’re inventing a fairy kingdom or an alien race to be major players in your story, then you want them to well-rounded and have all the nuances and details of any real culture. (This is not to say that every writer must aspire to have Tolkien-esque creations, complete with their own language, mythology, and land of after-life). But if you want your creatures to be appealing to the reader, they should be more than one-dimensional over-generalizations.
What are the qualities that make them non-human?
There’s nothing wrong with simply sticking pointed ears on a human and calling it an elf or a Vulcan, but if you’re going to all the work of creating a non-human race, then why is it important that these people be non-human? This could be for any number of reasons (magical realm, alien planet, plot about human versus non-human war, etc). But my point here is that there need to be some noticeable, and story-specific, reasons that these characters are not mere humans from the neighboring land.
Physiology: Wings, prehensile tails, fur, gills. Creatures that eat rocks, breathe methane, live in the ice, live in the sun. The plot of your story may dictate certain physical attributes that your creatures have. Again, there’s nothing wrong with a humanoid with pointed ears, but consider other aspects of the physiology as it relates to the plot and other needs of your story.
Emotions/Mindset: How do these people (as a race in general, or specific characters) think and feel that makes them different from the human characters? Do they consider anger to be a sign of strength and prestige? Do they have no concept of betrayal, and so your character experiences completely new emotions when betrayed by a human character? Since I’ve been talking about pointy-eared folks, consider the Vulcans and their mindset of placing reason above emotions.
Culture: This one sort of goes along with the previous entry of emotions and racial thought-process, but it’s a bit broader. What about the culture makes it so radically different from any human society? If your pointy-eared elves look, think, feel, dress, eat, talk, work, and play exactly the same way that most any human society would, then why bother making them non-human? How does their clothing indicate each individual’s role in the family structure? What is unique about their art or their music? What do they eat during special ceremonies? Not every detail of a culture has to be established (and if you’re writing a long epic or a series, many of these details can be revealed over the long haul). But again, try to make your people unique as a race in more ways than just pointy-eared humans who all wear purple sashes on Fridays.
Example: Hobbits. Yep, they’re pretty humanoid (and have pointed ears!) They even have a lot of human cultural traits like fancy silverware and books on the bookshelves, ale-drinking at pubs, fireworks at parties. But what are some things that make then distinctly non-human?
Hobbits have giant, furry feet that are sturdier than the best shoes. Frodo and Sam hiked all the way to Mordor barefoot, and sore feet was one thing that never bothered them. Hobbits frown upon adventures and doing anything wild and crazy and new. The very human-like craving to explore and do something new made both Bilbo and Frodo outcasts of a sort. In broader cultural terms, hobbits shun boats and water, despite the prevalence of rivers in their land. And they avoid outsiders, not so much out of fear, but rather out of a cultural mindset of believing that their land is immune to the problems that plague the rest of the world.
What are the qualities that make them human?
Now we come to the flip side of creating imaginary creatures and alien races. Unless you’re writing a humans-versus-creatures-who-have-no-redeeming-qualities story (like, say, in the movie Independence Day), then you want your people to have some human qualities to make them relatable. Chances are your human characters will be interacting with the non-humans in many different ways, and having some point of familiarity can smooth rough patches or add to the tension, depending on your plot and how you use it.
Also, some human qualities will make these made-up creatures more likeable by your readers. Again, unless you’re doing an Independence Day-type story, you want your readers to enjoy reading about the creatures you’ve created.
Physiology: Physical features are perhaps the least important (at least, in my opinion) for the human-relatability factor. But if the needs of your story demand the humans and the non-humans to interact in any way beside total war and annihilation, then having some common ground to work from could be good. In the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark,” the non-human character was a living rock. But even then, the Enterprise crew and the alien found a common ground when the humans figured out that the rock was a female protecting her eggs. Not that humans lay eggs, but the mother-protecting-her-young thing was enough to launch an understanding.
Emotions/Mindset: This category, and the next one of culture, are where you can build the strongest human-like elements in your magical or alien race. It doesn’t have to be big or obvious. But if your fairies have a sense of humor and laugh at jokes – even if those jokes make no sense to the humans – that is your common ground. The fairies have a sense of humor, just like humans – even if each race has to struggle to understand each other’s humor.
Culture: Again, you don’t have to go overboard with similarities to human culture (refer back to the pointy-eared just-like-humans-in-almost-every-way example I used earlier). Unless, of course, loads of similarities is part of the plot or theme of your book. But in general, just a few commonalities is enough to make your fantasy creatures believable and understood by your readers. Maybe your elves put the same emphasis on fashion that most human cultures past and present have? Maybe your aliens are radically alien in every way, but even they bond and find community while eating together? Make it as big or little, emphatic or unimportant as you want, but some little human element can help hook and ground your human readers.
Example: The dragons from Jeff Smith’s epic fantasy comic Bone. Physiology is where they are the least human – they’re dragons, after all. But even the main dragon character The Great Red Dragon has distinctly human-like hands, complete with smooth flexible fingers and opposable thumbs. The dragon racial mindset and culture is one rooted in fear, despite their great wisdom and power. Fear does strange things to people and makes them do things they might not normally do if they were thinking clearly – and this is what has happened to the dragons as a people as the story begins. The Great Red Dragon finds himself trying to be the lone voice of reason to both his own kind and the humans – a position that most people could understand, if not identify with.
So there’s my take on the populating of fantasy worlds. These are far from being rules, for sure, but are just common elements that I’ve noticed from some of the best sci-fi and fantasy stories. Now go grab some humans, some pointed ears, and let your imagination run wild!
Update: Here is another post along this vein, about using real-world animals in a fantasy setting.