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Getting inside the head of a non-human MC

Azul-din

Troubadour
It's easy to describe what a non-human character says and does, but thoughts and perceptions are another matter. How do they see the world? What do they think of, say, human civilization and motivations? Suppose they have a tail- how do they feel about it? What would it be like to have a wolf's sense of smell? What does it feel like to have thick fur or scales? Suppose they were cold blooded, like Mr. Saria, in one of my published stories, trying to function in a world of warm-blooded humans. Suppose they were thousands of years old? What do you think?
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
I'd think it sounds like a good place to start. My team writes Urban Fantasy, so we have a whole lot of characters who either have never been human or aren't anymore. Lots of immortals. Dragons. Therian shapeshifters who are basically animals that turn into people. It's all doable and all enormous fun to write. So, yes, definitely in the Non-Human Yay camp.
 
It does really depend on the non-human character doesn’t it. Then you have different variations in each ‘race’. Fairies for example are made up of lots of different types of beings, that all have different origins and life experiences, different types of magic too - so it isn’t a question that can really be answered universally.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
*cough* Just sayin' but for a fair few people imagining that is the fantasy.
Oh really? How does it feel to be an Orc? What is a dragon thinking about when he eats the Princess? What does it feel like to be born out of an egg? Can you imagine what it would be like to be turned into an owl? I don't mean just physically, what about the change in the nature of consciousness? George RR Martin did it for Direwolves in Game of Thrones, but to get onto the mind of one of Daenerys' dragons? I was not talking about transposing a human consciousness into a different body.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
Oh really? How does it feel to be an Orc? What is a dragon thinking about when he eats the Princess? What does it feel like to be born out of an egg? Can you imagine what it would be like to be turned into an owl? I don't mean just physically, what about the change in the nature of consciousness? George RR Martin did it for Direwolves in Game of Thrones, but to get onto the mind of one of Daenerys' dragons? I was not talking about transposing a human consciousness into a different body.
Broke my tailbone a few years ago - yes, the only bone I've broken to date is my ass - so now I can tell you exactly what it feels like to have a broken tail. As for everything else, of course. We're writers of speculative fiction. Imagination is why they pay us the tiny bucks! :D
 

Queshire

Auror
Oh really? How does it feel to be an Orc? What is a dragon thinking about when he eats the Princess? What does it feel like to be born out of an egg? Can you imagine what it would be like to be turned into an owl? I don't mean just physically, what about the change in the nature of consciousness? George RR Martin did it for Direwolves in Game of Thrones, but to get onto the mind of one of Daenerys' dragons? I was not talking about transposing a human consciousness into a different body.

Honestly I was mostly just making a joke about furries. Imagining what it'd feel like to be an owl in flight or something is part of the appeal.
 

Genly

Scribe
Just putting it out there, but perhaps one issue to think about is whether a non-human character has different or additional "levels of attention". For example, they may react strongly to certain stimuli that humans might be unaware of. Or they may lack a particular important human trait e.g. empathy. Humans may follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but non-humans might have different ones. And so on.

Unfortunately, I think that what a dragon might be thinking about when he eats the princess is "crunchy".
 

BJ Swabb

Sage
I for one have to think about these things with many types of races. For me I think about intellect of the races. Like sure humans have average intellect and most only use 10% of their brains but like dragons, elves, fairies and other creatures in which have magical or unique abilities like telepathic have my intellect as they use more percentage of thier brains. Unlike ogres or dumb wild beast may only use 5% for survival skills. It really just depends on the creature and if you think they have the capability to think before or after they act, or if they have any real emotions like humans do.
 
If the only thing making them non human is their abilities and outward appearance, they probably aren't much different from writing normal humans.
I have several 'not humans' species and they're all written like humans, outside of the cultural differences.

In one of my stories if we set aside the cultural differences (which are pretty fun to come up with for any species) my Kitsune are basically just magic humans with fox ears/tail and can turn into foxes when they want. (and as tradition extremely long lifespans) They need to 'get with the times' because their culture hasn't really 'evolved' since the edo period, and the story takes place in modern earth, but otherwise they are quick to adapt to modern humans.

Where this stuff gets difficult/tricky is when you're writing actual animals. ya know, literal foxes and stuff. Some authors can do that, but I personally can't.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
I think there's two ends to the spectrum of this. The first is simply treating the non-human as very similar to humans in the way they act and think. Hey that dragon loves a smoke and a martini as well the crunch of cow bones between their teeth.

Then there's treating them as truly alien in their thinking. I remember reading a short story where the author--I want to say Connie Willis, but I don't think it's her--got into the head of an alien, and it reminded me of trying to slog through a tremendously tough philosophy paper. My brain hurt trying to process it. I think I remember reading that they approached the alien's way of thinking as a form of schizophrenia.

There's also this short story, I've been meaning to read called, The Things. It won a Hugo, and it tells the story of John Carpenter's movie, The Thing, from the Thing's POV.

How easy and how hard it is depends on your story and how close to human or alien you want to make them. A lot of times aliens are just stand-ins for humans and human culture. They're basically humans with different bumps on their heads. Star Trek does a lot of this. The closer you are to the 100% alien part of the spectrum, the tougher it gets. I mean if the non-human's senses and/or appendages aren't even close to what humans have, they'll probably perceive and interact with the environment in a completely different way than us.

To us, sight is probably the dominant sense. But with a non-human with no sight, no arms or legs, something akin to smelling through the skin might be how they interact with the world. Where to even begin in that instance? Can you imagine, a king walking into a diplomatic meeting and accidentally declaring war on the Dominion of Slime, because they tried to shake hands after scratching their ass?
 
Katherine Arden does this very well in her Winternight Trilogy when she gets inside the head of horses - reading it I was convinced that that is how those horses really felt and thought. They all had different personalities too - as you would expect.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
What is a dragon thinking about when he eats the Princess?

Just want to clear the record. Dragons would never eat the princess. Even pesky knights don't taste good. Better to just cook em and leave em smoking in their armor.

Anyway....

You know....how can I, with my human brain, ever really know what its like to have a different brain? Its just that I dare to speculate and make the best effort I can. I just have to use a heavy dose of imagination, and weigh it with experiences that might maybe get me there, and use that old tool called logic whenever it can guide me. Otherwise, your guess is as good as mine, and that is good....cause no else can really know if you got it wrong. Yet, no matter how hard I try, it could never really be separate from a human mind, cause a human mind will have to create it. (Though I would like to write a truly alien mind, and do spend a bit of effort on how it might be alien and relatable...but maybe in the next book series).

But...many of us make the effort, and some to great effect and success. Heck, Richard Adams even made up a whole bunny language for his rabbits in Watership down. He did a pretty good job of making them animals with animal type thoughts.

Mr. Lovecraft brought us the idea that to understand them would just make us insane, and I think that succeeded too as a way of saying its too alien to even put to paper.

For all of us struggling to get the story written, we just got to pit all our skills against it. And as Quesh says, trying to answer that question, and then relating it to others is one of the fun parts of fantasy. What if.... The only question a writer needs.
 
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You know....how can I, with my human brain, ever really know what its like to have a different brain?
Funny thing actually is that it's very hard even to fully know what's going on in a different human brain and how they're thinking.

Over the years I've had several discussions with people about how their brain functions compared to mine, and it's just very, very different. As humans we assume that everyone's brain works the same way, but they just don't. It's very obvious perhaps with autistic people, but it goes for everyone. What triggers thoughts, the connections I make, they're all individual to me.

For instance, I just know facts. When I'm playing a question / answer trivia game, the answer very often will simply pop into my head. I will have no idea where that answer came from or why I know it. I just know it. I always assumed this was how it worked for everyone, but a friend told me her brain doesn't do this at all. For her to find answers, she's got to "look up" the answer, often going through the steps she took when learning it in her mind.

Just one silly example, but this goes for a lot of things. There isn't just 1 human mind. They're all different.
 
^ I like this perspective in that we have to get into the minds of others, human or not when we write characters, and so is writing a non-human character so very different? We also probably need to do a varying degree of imbuing those characters with human-like traits anyway, or else how would they be understood? But there is I think an approach of asking how would this non-human character differ from a human character. What gives a lion its distinct voice, or how would a dwarf or a fairy think differently to a human.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
While it is true, we cannot really know the mind of others, there are things that ought to be true regardless of the minds in involved. Math, Logic, some understanding of cause and effect, a sense of empathy, and sympathy, a sense of object permanence, a type of universal understanding that somethings are bad, and good, and in human types, and sense of morality, and probably many others capacities. Getting those wrong can have dramatic impact to ones well being, and/or longevity.

When we move beyond humanity, and its capacity, these things may be skewed, but not non-existent. A bear may not know that one fish plus another fish is two fist, but it probably knows a bigger pile of fish is better than a smaller one.

Even a completely alien mind should still be bound by logic and math, and physical realities. And so...it ought to still exist somewhat in the parameters that govern us all, even if it has not an earthly form of development. If one could show a world where logic and math did not mean the same, that would seem truly alien in deed, and maybe even drive one mad (as Lovecraft might like), but then how to explain something illogical to a reader, who requires logic to understand it?

Which is all to say....if one persons says don't swing a hammer that way, you'll hit your thumb, and another human says....No, my different brain says I can hold a nail this way and swing at it blindly....get ready for a sore thumb.
 
pmmg I think we're saying more or less the same thing. Sure, there are people without empathy, and what's good or bad is different between people. But those are fairly superficial differences. Everone's different, some people or non-human races are just more different. You still need to make it understandable to the reader. And there still has to be some common ground.

To give some helpful advice, were I see most writers who write non-humans go wrong is in 2 places. Either they're just humans with 1 or 2 traits magnified. Dwarves are just short humans, who are grumpy, love gold and dig in mountains. And by the way, they are all like that. No Dwarves who just love nice clothes and want to be actors instead of that lousy digging for stuff. That sort of thing.

The other is writing their experiences from a human perspective. Something like elves being amazed at their magic and referring to it as magic. For a magical elf, magic just is. It might seem extraordinary to a human, but if you're 2000 years old and have experienced it all your life, then that's just the way things are. I think Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings is an example of how to do this the correct way, when she shows Frodo her mirror and explains that she thinks that's what they mean with magic, though she doesn't really have that word in her own language.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
"Getting into the head" is a pretty vague phrase. As has been pointed out, we have plenty of challenge in "truly understanding" our fellow humans.

As authors, though, I think we are after something more particular. We want our non-human characters to be both individuals and obviously not human--in more than just appearance. This is why so often we have non-humans behave mostly like humans except for a handful of traits. Sure, it might just be an author being lazy and working strictly from stereotypes, but I see it even in authors I respect.

So the real question for me as an author is, what aspects of my elves, dwarves, orcs, whatevers, do I want to emphasize? At the same time, what traits do I want them to have in common with each other and with humans?

Whatever those traits might be, I explore them. I do this both in the abstract, but also in-story. I find all sorts of interesting avenues to explore that I discover only through the process of writing stories. But doing that background thinking (and writing) also seems necessary. By the time I've had gnomes or orcs in a couple of books, I do begin to feel that I'm "getting into the head" of that particular race or species or nation.

Besides writing stories, or scenarios, one other technique has proved useful fo rme. i deliberately make different kinds of the same people. For example, some elves are mostly sedentary, living a particular kind of way (e.g., my fisher elves). But others are itinerant. Now, most elves go on some kind of walkabout at some point in their lives, but wagoneers are different. They are permanently on the move. So their social organization is different, as is their relationship with other elves. That's what I mean by making different kinds of sub-groups. By making differences, it helps highlight parts that make them all part of the same larger grouping. Then I can go another layer down and create an individual character who goes against type. I can really only do this effectively by knowing the type first.
 
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