Nonhuman Cast?

One thing I'm struggling with in my new story is whether or not to add humans into the cast. It takes place on a fantasy world where, currently, humans don't exist. I started it that way because I wanted to try creating a bunch of brand new races, and I didn't figure humans needed to be one of them. I mean, they're in 99.99% of all the books on the market, so this might be a cool way to branch out. That's created two major problems, though. 1. How well are people going to be able to relate to an entire cast of nonhuman creatures? And I'm not talking elves, dwarves and hobbits, I'm talking completely new races, most of them having fur, scales, tails, claws, etc. Secondly, how far do I need to take that? If there aren't any humans on this world, can there be other earth creatures like horses, wolves, cows, things like that? On one hand that might throw my readers for a loop, having familiar creatures interacting with these completely unfamiliar ones. On the other hand, I can't introduce a ton of new animals into the mix without breaking the flow of the story, and I can't very well just start name dropping them without any context either. "That zik is as ugly as a wastrap," said the Kashni to the fuaro.

So, what do you think?

Personally, I recommend not going with the "whee, look at all the crazy things I've made up!" route, myself. To start with... there is a certain need for readers to be able to empathize with the characters... but personally, I consider that a cheap cop out reason motivated more by marketability than storytelling.

Unless you're Jim Henson. In which case you're both dead and basically a god of storytelling and thus should be giving us advice rather than the other way around.

In all seriousness... the real reason not to do it is because it can't honestly be done. We are human. We think like humans. It is neurochemically impossible for us to imagine nonhuman intelligence past a base animal level. We pretend we can, sure, but we can't.

So any alien races you create are just going to be humans in rubber masks to begin with... which means it's kinder for the writer and reader alike to simply use humans. Even Henson wasn't good enough to break his characters out of the "thinks like human, acts like human, feels like human" mold. Even if his molds are all muppets.

I've had thoughts on doing something similar myself at various times. Most fantasy doesn't seem fantastic enough at times - it can often seem a cut/paste of Earth just with different names.

Two of my favourite fantasy settings were much more out there in their elements. One was Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls game. The other was Athas from the D&D Dark Sun setting.

The difficult lies in getting to right, allowing the readers to relate to the setting and not get overwhelmed trying to remember what everything is.

I, too, have occasionally struggled with writing even something as different as anthro characters. Much as I loved Looney Tunes and TMNT as a kid, there is a definite disconnect in my mind now that I am older. I think kids can better get into the idea of non-human creature characters just due to the visual appeal, the novelty, and possibly some of their own lack of human experience in the world, hence why the vast majority of distinctly non-human characters in fiction are found in cartoons and video games, while most adult-oriented fiction still uses aliens and fantasy races that are basically 90-99% human.

Even that said, very rarely will you find a non-human sapient creature who isn't still basically a human in their mind. Christopher Johnson (District 9) is an upright walking bug creature. He still has a human thought process, with motives, desire, and empathy that resonate with a human perspective. The talking horses of the My Little Pony universes don't even have hands and live in a mythical universe where the very laws of nature operate differently than ours, yet utilize distinctly human architecture, have human past times, and personalities leading to a very human society. And I read several different books as a kid that featured other talking animals (the Bunnicula and Mouse with a Motorcycle series, for example), where the main characters are talking cats, mice, and dogs, with human trappings.

So, I think you can write non-human characters, and still make it work and be relatable as long as you stick with a human-relatable perspective. I mean, superhumans in a lot of cases aren't really human, either, but plenty of people can understand the motivations and experiences of Superman, even if the actual details are off the human scale of experience.

As for how to introduce them, I would say go ahead and make the creatures whatever you want, just go easy on the jargon. If you introduce a new type of creature, say a warovil, be sure to give details of the creature when it's introduced in familiar terms. Try to not use inexplicable local slang too much until well into the story, or mix the new terms with only ones in such a way that the context is easier to figure out:

The two looked over the zik, deliberating on whether or not the animal was worth the purchase. Kashni looked to Zeka, noting his fuaro companion's skeptical expression. Zeka looked back to him and muttered, "That is the ugliest zik I have ever seen."

"Yeah, well, it's all we can afford," said Kashni, his claws tapping the coin purse on his belt.

"Seriously, this thing is so ugly, we could break every mirror in the city just taking it for a walk."

"Yeah, I get it."

"It should come with a free paper bag helmet. Not for it, because it won't cover it enough. For us, because no woman is going to talk to us carrying that thing arou-"

"Rao's Balls, I get it already!"

Alright, clearly you want to write a better example than that, but you want to kind of slowly sprinkle the weird details in.

This is something I'm very interested in as well. I have a demon on my cast, and although his outward appearance and interactions are completely human, his motives and the way he thinks is different, leading to some plots and junk behind the scenes. I've always wanted to explore at some point writing a protagonist with a different mode of existence, like an artificial intelligence. It's on the agenda.

Something I think would be a good illustration would be the Halo video game series. You have the covenant, which is a multitude of alien races, but all of them anthropomorphic and relatable. But then we have the FLOOD, which is a truly foreign perspective to ours, but all the same just as important. Their cause for expansion and survival is just as legitimate as the humans/covenant. But they are regarded as monstrous. I do think it's possible to postulate what nonhuman intelligence would be like, and I'd be interested to read something like it. But any story revolving around it would make very little sense in classical storytelling terms.

It just depends on how far 'out there' you're willing to go.

I tend to think it's less what you do than how.

If I were trying to do what you're talking about, I'd probably start with a non-human character in their own element, giving you time to learn about them and their own non-human group. Once you have that group as a reference point, I'd move them into contact with others. That said, I'd also probably hint at the existence of those other groups in the process of introducing the first one. What's more I'd then probably have them hint at what they think of those other groups in the process of mentioning them. This first of all shows what the original group that you're introducing thinks of themselves and secondly says what they think of the other groups you plan to introduce.

The fun part of this from my point of view is that the things they think of the next group you introduce don't even have to be true. They just have to be something for the audience to hang an idea on.

As for whether you can have Earth animals... You're writing fantasy, so that's an option. It's not as if you're stuck with making things consistent with science. Still, if there are no sentient beings that you recognize, it's reasonable to think that there wouldn't be animals either. That said, you might consider avoiding making up words so that you don't talk about "ziks" at any point.

Create names out of words people recognize and you'll be halfway to making things understandable. For example, if you have a food animal that lives in trees, you might make up a word, but you might call them a "treecow." Then the reader will instantly guess that they live in trees and probably provide milk or something very like it etc...

It's a fairly common problem in science fiction. The basic solution amounts to, "Don't call it a smerp when you can call it a rabbit." Sure, the rabbits around here are descended from reptiles, but they're small, hop, and have floppy ears, so...

Anyway, you might not want to do that precisely, but doing that in a general way will help bridge the gap.

Here's a couple of examples of how I'm introducing these characters. I'm putting serious thought into replacing one of the four races into humans, and turning the two main characters human. Let me know what you think!


The feeble light of a candle and a bottle of whiskey was all Kulgan had to chase away the cold desert night. He hunched forward over the table, facing the wall, as he poured himself another shot. A few amber drops flew free of the glass, landing on his chest and staining his gray fur brown, which he ignored as he turned the glass upside down and swallowed its contents in one gulp. Placing it gingerly back on the table, he wrinkled his nose, his long pointed ears twitching as the drink burned its way to his stomach, and then grunted in satisfaction before raising the bottle again.

The sound of a gunshot came from outside, but Kulgan's only reaction was a twitch of his tail, sending up a small cloud of dust as the tip brushed the floor. He hesitated for only a moment before filling his glass again. If they needed him, they would find him.


(this is just a few paragraphs later)


The gravelly voice broke through Kulgan's trance, and he jumped, spilling whiskey across the table and onto the floor. He blinked, took a moment to gather his wits, and then slipped the pendant back under under his shirt just as a sharp rapping came from the door, which swung open with a creak. A large reptilian creature stood out in the road, glaring inside with golden slitted eyes. The lantern in his fist reflected off of his ruby red scales, sending flecks of scarlet light dancing across the walls and ceiling.


(more descriptions of ziks in the next chapter)

Adlis wiped her brow, and noticed how coarse her hair felt. With a soft groan, she reached down into her bag and withdrew the hairbrush she had nicked during her escape, and began running it through her hair. The bristles were soft and slid easily through her hair, making the tiny grains of sand patter onto the floor around her feet. Her hair hung down a few inches past her shoulders, so it took her nearly an hour to brush all of it. She welcomed the opportunity to think about anything besides the bumpy carriage ride. Once that was done, she began to groom the fur on her tail as well. Her dress had a hole cut into the small of her back for her tail to fit through, free for all of Larz to see. The thought still made her blush. There wasn't a single day where she wasn't tempted to tuck it into the dress itself, as was modest, but the bump it made inside the tight material only made it more embarrassing. Like walking down the street with only a bath towel to cover her breasts, the pitiful attempt to hide her indecency only drew more attention to it.

From what I read here, the characters seem relatable. The concerns seem basically human, and I don't feel like there's a particularly alien perspective. Being embarrassed about some aspect of your body is relatable. Similarly, ignoring violence because it isn't his problem unless help is specifically requested (and the plan to drink until that point) creates the impression of a recognizable kind of character.

I don't feel like these characters have to become human. At the same time, from what I've got here I see any real problems with converting them to human if you want to. So far, there isn't anything that requires them to be a member of some other species. Obviously, there isn't much text to draw the latter conclusion from. You might easily plan to create something specifically unworkable with having humans for all I know.

So that's a first impression from limited data. Take that with the proverbial grain of salt.

When I make story choices, I always ask myself why I want to change things from the "default".

"Default" species, magic systems, worlds, etc. are easy. You can pull them directly from all the other fantasy you've read, or even your own life experience, and so can your readers. With the barest sketch of words, you evoke a whole tradition of rich detail, and can focus on plot and character rather than setting.

Straying from that default at least a little bit is necessary. People don't want to read a story identical to hundreds they've already read. Whether that is in the details of the default setting, or in characterization, or by mixing with novel elements, you take the readers' expectations and twist them around a little bit, adding surprise and interest.

Straying completely from that default is almost never necessary to accomplish whatever you're trying to accomplish. I love fantasy because it explores that "what if" of the human psyche. Humanoid races tweak small details from the default to explore specific "what ifs". Completely alien races ask others, especially if they end up clashing with humans. But a completely alien world, with alien people and species? What are you trying to accomplish? If it's something that can't be done without implementing such an alien world, do it. If it's just for the sake of being different, and the same story could be written with human/humanoid characters, implementing such a setting would take exhausting amounts of description and characterization and probably detract from the story you're trying to tell.

@TheAdamBo - Yeah, what you wrote there seems just fine. Stick with that style, and it should work out.

I'm actually extremely torn about this. I love the new races I've created, but the more I think about it the more I'm sure that using them exclusively will keep me from being taken seriously by anyone but the furry community. I could fix that problem by replacing one of the races (I'm thinking the fuaros) with humans and turning the main characters human, but... would it still be the story I wanted to write?

Speaking of furries, the lack of human characters didn't put people off the Thundercats!

I dunno, that might be because they barely looked like cats at all. They looked more like He-Man rejects with cat-patterned skin. Mine are going to be extremely animalistic. The ziks resemble monkeys, the Kashni are gila monsters that walk on two legs, and the fuaros are cat-people. Of course, I can't explicitly point this out in the story because monkeys, cats, and gila monsters don't exist on that world :P

Neither does the English language, but I suspect that's what you'll be writing in.

I dunno, everybody seems to love the TMNT and all their wacky animal characters, too! :P

Of course, they also are a minority of mutants living in an otherwise all-human society (until Earth joins the alien society anyway).

Also, apart from the weird original comics, TMNT has always been children's entertainment. The book I'm writing now is actually turning out to be surprisingly dark, and I don't think it'd be appropriate for children. People get shot, blown to pieces by cannons, burned to death, and that's all in the first chapter. In chapter two the bandit leader acts like he's going to rape the main female character before murdering one of his own men instead and throwing his body in the fire.

Wouldn't it make more sense to turn the monkey-like race into humans than the cat-like one?

Nah, lol. Between the two races, I like the ziks better than the fuaros anyway. They were the first ones I thought up, and I feel like I've already fleshed their culture out more than I have the fuaros.

That's good, anyway. Catgirls are possibly the most annoying thing in fiction that wasn't dreamed up by George Lucas.

Ehh, they were more like a Caitian from Star Trek than a neko, but whatever :P