I’ve been thinking a lot about non-human characters in various speculative fiction genres lately, partly because I’ve been writing about space aliens for my MFA critical work this year. It strikes me that non-human characters can be very useful devices for reflecting the nature of humanity from an “outsider” perspective. But there are some tricks and traps to avoid in the process if you want your outsider character to operate to maximum effect. Of course, if you are simply looking for thrills and horror, you really can’t go past zombies, mummies and the like. Even vampires and werewolves can be portrayed as two-dimensional plot devices. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this if it’s the point of the story. I, for one, never turn up my nose at a good thrill ride.
However, if you’re using an “outsider” kind of character to reflect on the human characters, you’ll want to ensure that the character is both sufficiently human-like for the reader to relate to, and sufficiently “other” to give that character some distance from the human and, in doing so, to encourage the reader to reflect on humanity from the outsider’s perspective. Many authors do this extremely well. One example I keep going back to in the sci-fi alien context is the character of Evan Walker in Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, the film adaptation of which, I see, will soon be “coming to a theater near me!” January 22nd, 2016. While Evan looks human, he’s really an alien in human clothing and struggles with his growing humanity as he falls in love with human protagonist Cassie (to be played by Chloe Grace Moretz in the film).
And let’s not forget Mr. Spock in Star Trek. The halfblood alien (half Vulcan, half Human) is a great foil to Captain Kirk’s all-too-human (and some would say superhuman!) commanding presence. Spock will champion logic to the bitter end, reflecting on the often illogical and emotional activities of his commanding officer. All the while, Spock struggles with his human side. It’s that battle inside Spock that makes him such an intriguing character.
And while I hate to mention Twilight, Edward Cullen really dislikes being a vampire and wishes he could be more human, while Bella yearns to have what he has so she can be “other” than what she is (a clumsy, fragile, human girl – at least that’s how she sees herself).
The examples of non-human characters who reflect aspects of humanity that we both love and hate are boundless in writing and popular culture for younger and older audiences alike. Who are some of your favorite non-human characters, and why?