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How do you describe non-human characters


New Member
Just curious as to how other people go about describing their non-human characters.

Do you just add their species when you are describing them or do you try to be more subtle and let the reader figure it out for themselves.

Just wondered as in my current WIP one of my main characters is a centaur, though I don't actually use the term until half way through chapter 2. Instead just mention that he has arms, hooves and a long tail, and have him thinking about his foals.

How do other people go about this?
Personally I like to add it gently through their actions and thoughts rather than giving the reader a huge info dump - similar to how you're thinking.

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)

Caged Maiden

Article Team
i use werewolf characters, so for them, in chapter one of my book, an elf is running from violent thugs and a beast jumps out. He prepares to defend himself against both foes, only to realize the hideous creature is killing the thugs and seems to be on his side. When the fight is over, the werewolf stares at him with bright green eyes--the eyes of his friend. He realized who it is and when the creature leaves, only to have his friend return a moment later. I don't think there's any question in his mind about what his friend is, and the subsequent short conversation sort of dances around the word (a feared word and one that could condemn any person to a brutal death).
In my WIP the non-humans have cultural, and genetic diversity similar to Humans, so Elf is as meaningless as Human describing a character. I'll describe their appearance, and if necessary their cultural/national/ethnic identity. I.E. instead of saying 2 Elves, and a Dwarf it could be a Quinametzin, a Liosaelfa, and an Abatwa.


Myth Weaver
Anymore, I name the race right off - that sets up a mental image of sorts in the mind of the reader:

Goblin = short slathering green skinned humanoid

Elf = slender humanoid with pointy ears

Mention those races, and an image fairly close to the ones given will appear in the readers mind.

I then add a few characteristics: muscular, tall, long or short hair, and so on.

Julian S Bartz

I think if you are conforming to the basic standards that fantasy books follow you can get away with either just referring to them as said creatures. However as you mention sometimes it is nice to let the reader figure it out for themselves first with some good description.

I would suggest a combination of the two. If it is a secondary character whose importance is minor, there is no problem just referring to them as the dwarf, or vampire of werewolf. Unless there is a substantial difference in those races/creatures that deviates from the general consensus.


Generally for a main/important character, I'll let the description give the reader an idea before I say what a creature actually is. I really enjoy reading that technique in other books, so I try to follow it in my own. And for an unimportant character, I'll jut refer to the race and maybe a short description, such as "one of the elves, a red-head, was napping in the corner."

But here's a question: What about introducing shape-shifters who aren't in their natural shape? Especially if other characters are already aware of the shifting abilities?

A direct example would be the first introduction of a phoenix that's interacting with elves in its elfin/humanoid form. If I talk about a humanoid body but call the man a phoenix, how much will that confuse/turn off readers?
Sometimes just a race will work, but if you have made alterations it might be better to include a description. Say your Centaurs are built more like Satyrs, with just the back half of the horse, not the whole horse body, you might want to slip that in.
I almost always use limited POV for these. I'll write one off the top of my head, human meeting alien:

-- -- -- --

Teeth. So many teeth.

The pale, hairless creature didn't seem to be hostile. Its large yellow eyes stared keenly at him, tracking his movements, but it was otherwise completely still. A low noise came from its throat, shifting up and down in pitch--surprise? Laughter? He had no way of knowing.

Its mouth hung slightly open, revealing its horrid yellow teeth. Its long, jagged teeth. Its teeth that seemed like they shouldn't fit in its mouth . . .

He tried unsuccessfully to keep from shaking.

-- -- -- --

And here's how the alien would describe the human:

-- -- -- --

The creature was big, burly, and surprisingly pink. It looked mammalian, but its fur was patchy, mostly concentrated on the top of its head. It had a pronounced nose, and she wondered if smell was its primary sense. It certainly couldn't see much with those tiny eyes.

It raised its arms, twice as thick as her own, gesturing as if to push her away. She moved slowly, making no sudden movements--this thing could snap her like a dry bone if it so desired.

It spoke to her, its words jumbled and incomprehensible. She had no idea what its tone meant, but it spoke very rapidly, as if it expected to be interrupted.

Is it afraid of me? she wondered. Its trimmed claws and short fangs were admittedly less than inpressive, but in a fight with something that big, she'd undoubtedly come out the loser.

-- -- -- --

Both versions reveal some things about the alien, though one's much more direct about it.

Ayaka Di'rutia

When I describe non-human characters, I give the name of the race and a general description. For example, I too have a race of centaurs called Morva'i in their native tongue; since most readers already have a general idea of what a centaur looks like, I usually only mention that they have a humanoid torso, and a horse body, and maybe some facial features and their coloring. I may describe other features that may seem interesting and pertinent throughout the story, but the reader by that point should have a very good idea of what centaurs in general look like.

I try not to info-dump (it's taken me a while to get better at that!), but at the same time I try to give important characteristics so the reader gets a good idea of what the race looks like. I describe more important stuff (personality traits, expressions, etc.) about the member of that particular race throughout the rest of the story as needed. Personally, I get frustrated when a writer introduces a non-human character/race, but only describes their claws, or their hair, and slowly gets in the rest of the details throughout the story; I try to imagine the creature being one thing, and it ends up being entirely different by the end of the story :/ I like to know right up front what the character looks like.