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describing non-human main characters and races when there are no humans

How do I describe a non-human character in a world where there are no humans to compare them with? In a story I'm writing - and in several others I'm prewriting - I have constructed a world where elves have replaced humans as the dominant forms of life. Humans do not exist in these worlds, so the elves take up the roles usually assigned to humans.I am unsure how I would go about describing my characters as being elves, and not humans. I could replace "human" with "elf", but that might be too clumsy - especially when there is nothing to contrast an "elf" against. Is there anyway I could describe the people of my world (and main characters) as "elves" (or whatever word I substitute for elves) without being clumsy and/or breaking the flow of my story; especially when there is nothing to distinguish elves from other species (like pointing out the characters of a realistic fiction story are humans instead of - say - dogs)?
I think that making up a new word for your planet's inhabitants might be best. If your people have characteristics like elves, like pointy ears or something very common like that, calling them elves might be appropriate. You say that elves have replaced humans as the dominant form of life; what happened to the rest of the species that they displaced? Or are humans remembered?

If you want to stay true to classic fantasy, elves are the way to go, but otherwise, make up a new name, I say!


Queen of Titania
Hello demented-tiger!! In my fantasy worlds there are no humans at all, and all of my characters (both Mages and common people) belong to a different species that is very sadistic and they have claws, tails, fangs, huge eyes and dangerous powers of their own =)

What I suggest to you is that you should not focus on this difference on the storytelling: Just write normally like they were not different to human characters, and write separately a "species guide" to provide a full description of what your species is like!! Good luck =)


Don't even worry about it. Write the story. If you do it right, your readers will realize what is going pretty fast.


Don't even worry about it. Write the story. If you do it right, your readers will realize what is going pretty fast.

This. And if it is that important include something in the back of the book to fully describe your species.


I'm in a similar situation, where humans have died out and there are several "races" of elves that act as the human-equivalent for the world. Personally, I think you're fine calling them elves or your equivalent, and using an elfin standard of comparison. You may have to work a little harder to describe things than a world with humans, but your readers will get it.

For example, are your elves taller, like Tolkein's, shorter, or diminutive, like Victorian fairies? You'll have to subtley introduce the reader to your elves' standard. For instance, a shorter elf meeting a dwarf might "look the dwarf in the eye." This way you set your standard for the reader while still flowing with the story.

Like Zizban and SlimShady said, don't worry about it. Second drafts and writing groups will help you smooth out the clumsy bits. And by the time you take a second look at them, they may be less clumsy than you thought the first time. :)
There's currently a similar thread in the writing questions forum - covering very similar gtound - you might want to look at that.


To repeat what I posted there:

I can recommend Hal Clement's novels such as 'Mission of gravity', 'Needle', Cycle of Fire etc. as great examples of non-human characters as the main protagonist. Hal Clement was ahead of his time in taking the non-human point of view and making it believable along with good solid hard sf. I remember them with great fondness.

I'd also recommend James Blish's 'The seedling stars' - The protagonists in that are human but altered to fit on other worlds. The book is made up of several unlinked segments set on other worlds. In one of these main segments 'Surface Tension' man has been adapted to be a tiny microscopic creature living in a pool of water that freezes solid in winter (the reasons are well explained in the book) - the introduction of their world and their adaptations to it are well paced. (It's one of my favorite books of all time)

Ayaka Di'rutia

You could use the term "humanoid" to describe the elves (assuming they basically look like humans except with pointed ears and finer features, or something similar). Even though that may be an iffy term in your scenario, it could still be plausible, as humans used to exist in your world, and it would give the reader a good idea of what they look like in general.

In some of my fantasy writing, I've used the term humanoid to describe races that are very similar to humans in appearance (two legs, two arms, little to no hair on skin, flat face).
I'd say "humanoid" isn't quite a natural word; D&D and some well-educated characters might throw it around, but mostly it doesn't feel quite right.

And it isn't necessary. If you're describing someone more as a "person" than as a "beast," the reader's eager to assume they're humanoid. All you need is a quick but not invisible mention of how many feet they have, OR arms (he's not a sword-and-shield-and-longspear fighter?) to round out the picture, and if everyone's humanoid you might only need it for the first character. Then you can go on to subtler points like size, scales, and so on... and concentrating on those also implies that the basic shape has been covered.