Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nonhuman Viewpoint Characters

Hello, this is Haphazard, Haph or Hap for short. Of course, that’s not my real name, but I’m not giving out any name until I’m published either under my real name or a pseudonym.

I feel that I haven’t properly introduced myself. I live in the nostalgic city of St. Louis, Missouri, where I also go to school and write and read and generally do other functions that are necessary to live. I usually write fantasy and humor, preferably mixed together, but here’s a shocker – I don’t typically read YA. I’m a part of this blog to represent a specific group of people; those young adults that don’t read young adult fiction.

But today, that’s not the point of discussion. The point of this entry is the use of nonhuman viewpoint characters.

When writing speculative fiction, you have the opportunity to do something that not a lot of other writers get to do; you have the chance to write from the point of view of nonhuman, yet still sapient, viewpoint characters. Of course, in a lot of children’s literature there are personified animals, but they tend to be personified as more or less human anyway. An intelligent nonhuman character in speculative fiction can be as different from a human as the writer wants, whether the character be faerie or ghost or alien or AI. And this is wonderful! It gives a bunch of potential viewpoints you can’t use anywhere else. So, why don’t people use them that often?

It’s quite sad, really. There’s a stigma about nonhuman viewpoint characters, that these characters can never be related to from a human point of view, which we (foolishly?) assume all our readers have. Under this assumption, these nonhuman characters are tossed aside to play second fiddle to the humans because many writers are convinced that their point of view isn’t sympathetic enough, or, worse, they are used and their alien characteristics are toned down to make them more ‘human’ and therefore fit for human consumption.

Now, one could take this as somewhat xenophobic. If we assume certain things about our readers, we start making, well, an ass out of you and me. Lots of books have been published in the United States about characters with drastically different point of views from the average person living in the U.S., and even in the States there are thousands of ways to live. Why shouldn’t we reach out a sympathetic hand to a character just because they don’t have a proper human genome? It seems silly to me.

And either way, humans have a tendency to personify things to be human. Dolls become human in the arms of little girls instead of a lump of plastic covered in cloth, a computer becomes stupid instead of out of RAM, and, all of the sudden, because your car won’t start, it hates you instead of simply having a dead battery. It’s not like nonhuman things having feelings and generally being relatable is a completely alien concept to the average reader.

One of the reasons writers may stray away from this concept is because, according to so much fiction, readers like reading about characters that are outcasts but are still similar to themselves. The unpopular teenager appears to be a very popular character. Main characters are often characters that are branded as ‘different’ and ‘strange’ even though they have no significant personality flaw to brand them that way. With a nonhuman character in their natural environment, it’s the exact opposite. We have these characters that by our standards have every reason to be labeled ‘strange’ but aren’t because their society functions in a way that supports them. In a setting populated by humans, where these characters typically are, though, are they not a fish out of water? Everybody can sympathize with culture shock, at least to some extent.

Even if these nonhuman characters aren’t sympathetic enough, that doesn’t automatically send the story to shambles. A good story can support itself on other things than sympathetic characters, such as the narrative style itself, plot, or, if it’s a comedy, the humor involved. A nonhuman character’s point of view can easily become symbolic, giving the story a theme in a way a human character never could.

Finally, writing is as much about exploring new concepts as it is trying to convey a message. As Elie Wiesel once said, “I write to understand as much as to be understood.” So, no matter what the critics say, let’s boldly go where no human point of view has gone before!


Jordan said...

Viewpoint is one of the most important things a writer must consider, since it determines just how the reader is going to approach the world.

The same story is so much different when told by--instead of the girl who falls in love with the boy--the guy who brings them their ice cream sundaes every weekend and watches as they fall in love.

The same story is even more different if it's told by her dog. Especially if she no longer has time to play with the dog, now that she has a steady boyfriend.

Writers really shouldn't be afraid of different POVs, I agree. They open up so many possibilities it's insane. I've never written from a truly non-human POV, but now I think I might...

Sage said...

I've definitely heard the argument in the SF/F community about humanizing "alien" races. You know, the why is every alien on Star Trek a variation on humans (I realize they explained that in Star Trek, but still) question. I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand it's ridiculous to assume that every intelligent race, whether fantastical or off in space, would look, think, or act anything like humans. Then again, it *is* easier to identify with characters somewhat similar to yourself.

So what I hear a lot in Sci-fi, at least, is that if you're going to go from a non-human POV, you have to be saying something about human nature with it.

I don't know if it's really necessary, but that's just what I hear.

Really, I think the hardest part about it would be integrating the reader into the world. Because to the nonhuman character, the world is normal, so there's no reason for them to make a big deal of things that would be a big deal to a human. That's why you get a lot of stories of regular humans (or people who thought they were regular humans) being taken introduced to other worlds from the human's POV (HP, Narnia, Doctor Who, for example). Because as they learn so does the audience. But if you're going from the POV of Doctor Who or Dobby the House Elf, well, they've always been doing that stuff, so it's not so wondrous anymore. That's not to say that the reader can't figure it out as they go along. It's just more difficult.

Which is only a bad thing if you're not up to the challenge, of course ;)

Haphazard said...

Sagers, I've never believed in introductions to stories, whether that be for better or for worse. I don't think the reader has to be eased into things, so I've never seen the point of these characters that are just there to be explained to.

But, I see your argument about wonder and raise you another. Who says our mundane world can't be just as wondrous and strange to a nonhuman viewpoint? In fact, I think it'd be more interesting to see our world from an outside viewpoint than their world from a 'human' (see 'typical reader's') viewpoint.

Sage said...

"Who says our mundane world can't be just as wondrous and strange to a nonhuman viewpoint?"

That would fall into the same sort of category as having a nonhuman POV be a commentary on human nature, which is a common Sci-fi/fantasy bit of advice that I did mention.

Haphazard said...

Sure, but it can be more than allegory.

It can be humor (also common), it can just be an experiment, rather than just saying something about the world.

A lot of Sci-Fi started out as being allegory, and then Space Opera formed and now there's soft and hard and symbolic and fluff. I'd like to see more fluff from nonhuman viewpoints, where not everything is commentary.

If I'm making any sense.

Vanessa Concannon said...

Great post, Haph. I love me some nonhuman POV characters. And while yes, they tend to have very human qualities, they're also very not. One of my MCs is a harpy--pretty humanoid, but also with a weird sense of duty leftover from her listening to orders days. A few of my POV characters are gods, also pretty humanoid, but also very how they don't have anyone to please but themselves. Lots of power and no one to answer to, you know?

And so they show parts of our humanity, through mirrors or whatever, that are tougher to show using a human character. It's not commentary, it's not allegory, but it's also not fluff--my stories, I think, show the same things as a regular old romance or a regular old mother/daughter story, or whatever. But because the characters aren't human, they show slightly different aspects of humanity.

Anyway, yea, Haph, good post.

althrasher said...

I know I've never written with a non-human viewpoint just because I don't think I could make it real enough. And I think that's why a lot of writers stay away--they're afraid that a reader won't be able to relate to them as much as a human character.

Vanessa Concannon said...

I don't think it's as hard as it seems. I mean, the harpy was only my third character ever in long-form fiction (and the first I wrote at age 12, and the second at age 15). The trick is to make the thought processes match the character...just like with any other character.

Like, she's a harpy, right? Her entire existence has been following orders, torturing some bad people and being completely isolated from any and all dilemmas for...millions of years. She thinks simply, even about tough things, because she's simple. It's all just a reflection of itself, I guess.

And Haph, you gave me an idea for my next post.

bethany said...

I wanted to comment on a very well done non-human character, and that was the dog in Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin. The story starts out with the dog of the deceased girl. I thought this was an ingenious way to start the book, though if it hadn't been well done, it could easily have been off-putting.

Great post, Hap!

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