Picture the scene: you’ve worked long and hard on the perfect setting. You’ve crafted a fantasy world of ancient cities and unexplored depths, or a science fiction empire with planets teetering on the edge of war. Now you must decide, are humans alone in this world? That is, are there other intelligent life forms beyond good old Homo sapiens?
Some very famous genre stories portray a crowded universe, or at least a crowded Middle Earth. Tolkien gave us the standard lineup of elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs. Star Trek aliens like Vulcans and Klingons have been mirrored in countless works as well, if not by name. By the same token, many great works focus entirely on our own species, getting deep into what it means to be human. Which option you chose will depend on a number of important factors.
Non-Humans Make the Setting More Interesting
Never underestimate the power of spectacle. Many fantasy and scifi settings would lose their appeal if they featured only humans. That may sound shallow, but it’s actually the audience’s desire to discover something unknown.
Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series has mastered this element of genre storytelling. Several books are specifically about introducing a new race of mystical creatures so the titular character can learn about them. The audience learns at the same time Dresden does, and they are dazzled by the beauty of it all.
If your story is in a visual medium, or if you’re really good at description, this is extra relevant. One of the most memorable scenes in all of film is the Mos Eisley Cantina, with dozens of unique looking aliens in every corner. Star Trek’s Klingons are so distinctive that even non-Trekkies can recognize their makeup.
There’s also a certain coolness factor to consider. Chewbacca receives little development or backstory in the original Star Wars films, and yet he’s still a beloved character. Why is that? It’s because he’s a cool alien! He’s super strong and covered in fur and he might tear your arms off for beating him at holo chess.
Genre stories depend on some sort of hook that sets them apart from conventional literature, and a few cool aliens can be just the thing. Nothing says ‘escape from reality’ like a pointy eared humanoid or a man with two hearts.
Non-Humans Let You Explore Sensitive Issues From a Safe Distance
Scifi has a long tradition of using aliens to comment on human problems. Star Trek is well known for this, paralleling such difficult subjects as the Vietnam War and class inequality, but the tradition didn’t start there. More than a decade before Roddenberry’s creation aired, the comic Judgement Day made a scathing denouncement of racial segregation using blue and orange robots. Fantasy has fewer entries in this category, but they certainly exist. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books use dwarves, trolls, and goblins to critique everything from generational wars to gender discrimination.
This kind of expression is incredibly valuable. First, it insulates a story from the knee-jerk reaction that often comes with critical analysis. In some cases, disguising what the work is really about is a necessity to get around actual censorship by a repressive government. In others, it fools risk-averse publishers or network executives. Then there’s the audience to consider. Some people will run for the exits in the face of a depressing anti-war film, but will watch with rapt attention as the same scenario is played out by green-skinned aliens.
Second, and perhaps even more important, using non-humans grants us some perspective. When writing a story about something important, it’s easy to get caught up in our own preconceptions. A lifelong Socialist, for example, may have a difficult time imagining Wall Street traders as anything but greedy fat-cats. By removing the story from its original context, we create something that will encourage others to think, free from some of our own prejudice.
When the creators of Battlestar Galactica wanted people to consider what might motivate suicide bombers, they put their story in the context of a Cylon occupation. Even though there were humans involved,* it was far enough removed that American viewers could watch it without all the baggage that’s normally attached to the word ‘terrorist.’
Non-Humans Allow for the Truly Alien
Humans are incredibly diverse, but there are some things most of us have in common. We’re all carbon based, for one thing. Our behavior tends to fall within a certain range as dictated by our biology, and it’s easy to imagine all life working that way. Many fantasy races and alien life forms do little to dissuade us of that notion, with most of them being essentially humans with a bit of makeup and odd sounding names.
However, it is possible to create aliens that are truly, well, alien. This goes for fantasy races as well. When you create a species that is biologically distinct from humans, all kinds of possibilities open up. Such species have different senses, completely altering their outlook on life. A naturally powerful species might not have the same emphasis on technology and devices that we do, focusing instead on new ways to use its own strength. Even something as simple as diet can have a huge impact. A fully herbivorous species would alter its environment differently than omnivorous humans, prioritizing plant growth to the exclusion of other animals.
There are many uses for such truly alien life forms. The horror genre is full of them, from the works of HP Lovecraft to Ridley Scott’s Alien. While they can certainly be terrifying, true aliens have another use: expanding the audience’s mind. For a long time, genre stories have given us a stunted view of what life can be. Little green men and ale guzzling dwarves have been the norm, but we live in a universe capable of so much more. On our own planet, there is a shrimp species that uses sonic cannons to hunt its prey. What could live on other planets, or on fantasy worlds that exist only in our minds?
Our thinking shouldn’t be limited to variations on what we’ve already seen. Genre fiction has the potential to make people consider completely new ideas, and true aliens are a great way to do it.
Non-Humans Can be Overplayed
While it’s possible for non-humans to be truly alien, most of them aren’t. A disappointing number of fantasy races are retreads of Tolkien’s creations, with a small number of variations to make them look distinctive. Authors have been copying Middle Earth for decades, each dwarf louder and more boisterous than the last. Even George R. R. Martin had to have his Children of the Forest, an ancient elf-like race that loves nature.
If you thought fantasy authors were a repetitive crowd, they don’t hold a candle to roleplaying games. Dungeons and Dragons steals wholesale from The Lord of the Rings, and makes no apology for it. Because D&D so completely dominates the market, other systems have followed suit in an attempt to cut a slightly larger piece of the pie.
While science fiction doesn’t have a single blueprint the way fantasy does, many alien species have fallen into the same roles over and over again. There’s the honorable warrior race, the cold and calculating race, the sneaky dishonorable race, and so on.
Many authors put non-humans into their world because they feel it’s expected of them, not because they have an interesting idea. Even those who do have ideas often get trapped in the preconceptions of what a non-human should look like, and so we get the same thing over and over again.
Non-Humans Are Often One Note
The Klingons of Star Trek can be summed up with one word: warrior. Everything about their culture and physiology is based on fighting. Only the very best episodes show them to have any desires other than to stab the nearest living creature. They’re the quintessential example of a monoculture: a group focused on one thing to exclusion of all else. While Star Trek is particularly notable for this trope, they’re not the only ones. Wookies in the Star Wars Extended Universe are similar, and when was the last time you read about a dragon who didn’t want to hoard gold?
Similarly, orcs and goblins are almost always evil. There’s rarely a reason given, they just exist to be bad. Entire races are confined to a single moral attitude. This kind of one note characterization is caused by lazy writing, but it’s surprisingly difficult to avoid. Authors want their non-humans to be memorable, and there often isn’t time to fully explore an entire culture. As such, the non-humans get slapped with their most plot-relevant label and left that way.
As common as it is, it’s a terrible practice that goes far beyond bad worldbuilding. Non-human races are seen as stand-ins for real life cultures, even if the author never intended them that way. Building an entire group around one idea encourages the audience to see real people that way, which is the exact opposite of what genre fiction should be doing.
While groups of humans can certainly be given the same one note treatment as non-humans, it’s harder to get away with. Most of us, including authors, know that people are diverse and will usually try to reflect that in our writing. Unfortunately, that instinct often goes out the window when non-humans are involved.
To avoid this, anyone planning to include non-human races must spend the time to develop them. The rampaging orc horde can still be the bad guys, but the audience should understand what drives them. What makes such a large group go to war? Are they fleeing some kind of ecological disaster? Did predatory trade pacts with humans rob them of their natural resources? If you go to the trouble of including them, they should be worth fleshing out.
Non-Humans Make Humans More Homogenized
This is an unavoidable consequence of introducing aliens or fantasy races into your setting: they make humans look like a single group. This shouldn’t be surprising – apples and oranges are both seen as part of the fruit group when compared to broccoli – but it’s problematic. Humans are diverse, and that diversity should be celebrated.
In many high fantasy settings, there may be more than one nation of humans, but they still end up being fairly similar. The main difference between Rohan and Gondor is that one likes to ride horses more than the other. The real cultural differences are saved for the elves and dwarves. Science fiction settings have the same problem, with aliens providing the Other which contrasts against the main characters.
Then there’s the unfortunate reality that when we consolidate humans, we tend to make them like us. Far too often, that’s white and Anglo-American.* Sometimes we’ll get really creative and model them off of other European cultures. It’s so bad that genre readers must be specifically told a character’s ethnicity, or they will assume white. Even Star Trek, which usually does a good job of casting diverse actors, seems to assume that only Western culture will be relevant in the future.
This is a bad habit we need to get over, but it’s harder to avoid when non-humans are involved. Time spent fleshing out gnome and wookie societies is time not spent fleshing out human society. TV shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Firefly were able to create diverse and complicated human cultures because they didn’t have to split their time with non-humans.* Books like the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold do the same thing, diving deep into the complexities of human civilization.
Of course, it’s possible to have well developed human cultures and non-human races. It’s just difficult. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are one example, with dozens of vivid and interconnected societies, both human and non. This did not happen by accident. Pratchett took his time, developing the Discworld setting over the course of 40 novels. If you want to have your non-human cake and eat it too, you’ll have to put in the work.
The most important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to include non-humans in your setting is what kind of stories you want to tell. Although non-human races often fall into poorly thought out clichés, they have also been the catalyst for superb literature. Is your story the kind that will benefit from an extreme Other? Something so different, it doesn’t even share DNA with us? If so, then non-humans may be right for you! On the other hand, if you’re only putting them in because it’s expected, then hands off the elves – humans need attention too.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.