Creating non-human characters, by Elizabeth Kay

The exercise I used to set my students at the start of a new year was diary writing. The first person is always a good place to begin as you don’t have to worry about how many heads you can see inside. Of course, you can’t kill off the main character (although there are various ways of doing it, but please don’t). Having more constraints, however, as in poetry, is actually a help rather than a hindrance. Tutors who say, write about whatever you like, are usually in for a disappointment. The big difference in my homework, though, was that I always threw in a curved ball. It could be, write as a pirate. A jackdaw. A palm tree. The trick is to understand the limitations of your subject, and to think the way they might. So I thought I’d try three different personas here, and see what happened.

Rover’s diary. Monday
It’s raining, so we just had a short walk round the block. It’s a good job I can identify people by smell as they all look the same these days, with those silly muzzles on their faces, so no barking needed. We met Rajah’s owner, but she only waved from her side of the road and shouted a few things. My mistress shouted a few things back, although she didn't use the words she usually does when she's shouting. Rajah really wanted to play the way we usually do, and he started tugging hard at his leash. His owner told him he was a bad boy, and they walked off in the opposite direction. Rajah gave a little whine of disappointment. It seems a long time since we went rolling in fox poo together.

Cocky’s diary, Tuesday
Back in March I said to the missus, it’s looks like a good year for eggs. None of those damn great silver things flying about, and no humans around, either. The countryside is back to what it was in the old stories, when there were weeds and hedgerows all over the place, full of seeds and insects. So it was a six-egg year, and good caterpillar weather too. And there were lots of new restaurants opening; sunflower hearts, meal worms, kibbled peanuts, you name it. So all six of the kiddies fledged, and it was up to me to keep them fed for a couple of weeks and teach them all about cats and foxes and children with footballs. And then it all changed. More and more humans out on the common, bicycles everywhere, dogs and more dogs. Roll on autumn, when the weather sends them all back inside again. Just as long as they don’t get out of the habit of filling up those fatball feeders.

Ariadne’s diary, Wednesday

It’s been a bit strange for us cars recently. My name’s Ariadne because of my numberplate. AR14 DNE. There aren’t as many vehicles around as before, despite the occasional lunatic taking advantage of the empty streets. We used to take it in turns to go to the pub once in a while, me and Leo. We share a forecourt. My mistress would go easy on the leaded stuff, and the master could have as much as he liked. Then it would be Leo’s turn, and the mistress could get tanked up instead. Then the other week they decided they’d go together, so they parked me in the road next to the common, walked to the nice pub by the river, caught one of those bus things back and fetched me the following day. A sleepover, Leo called it, and he was dead jealous because he really gets on with the other cars that park there. Well. It turns out that Leo’s a real flirt, especially with the silver coupé and the scarlet soft-top. Ford told me all about, we were parked nose to nose for a while. Leo didn’t tell them he had a girlfriend, did he. He’s been sniffing other exhausts and flashing his headlights at half the cars down that road. I’m not tooting to him at the moment. He can park somewhere else for all I care.

However, if you want the non-human character to hold a proper conversation fantasy is your best bet. I don’t write fantasy in the first person, as it’s too constraining, so this is not a diary entry at all and it’s written in the third person. It’s an edited section from Back to the Divide.

…a weird and wonderful plant was growing in a blue ceramic pot on the window ledge. It looked like a succulent of some sort – a desert plant, anyway. Its stem was thick, bulbous, swelling out like a beer belly beneath rolls of pale green flesh. If it had possessed a head instead of a coronet of spiky leaves it would have looked like a football-sized statue of a sumo wrestler, or a jade Buddha. In the middle of the coronet sat one bright red flower.
“Hello Socrates,” said Betony to the plant. “I haven’t seen you for ages.”
           “Socrates?” queried Felix.
           “What’s wrong with Socrates?” demanded the plant. “Good old-fashioned mythical name.”
Felix lay back against the cushions, and leafed through Moss, Moulds and Mistletoe – a Herbal Primer. It was an old-fashioned schoolbook, handwritten by a scribe. Some of it was quite unpleasant – first, rot your toadstool until the smell makes you vomit. Scrape off the pink mould, mix it with an equal quantity of your own blood and let it fester for two days.
“Are you just going to sit there reading, human?” demanded Socrates, dropping a dead leaf. “I thought I was going to have some interesting company for a change.”
Felix grinned. “Is Leona a real person?” he asked.
           “She’s a riddle-paw. Why do you want a sorceress, anyway?”
           Felix told him everything.
           “Hmm,” said Socrates, re-arranging a petal, “you’ve got a couple of root-tangling posers there, haven’t you?”

When I was a kid we were often given a composition subject such as A Day in the Life of a Penny. The advantage of doing something similar once you’re grown up is that you can have a lot more fun. What on earth did those two talents get up to in the Bible to produce another two? Hm.


Umberto Tosi said…
These are wonderful. So imaginative. I enjoyed the excerpt from Back to the Divide most of all. Of course, it helps when you can describe things in such vivid language, regardless of the creature-POV. It all reminds me of an improv class exercise in which one is assigned to do the reverse: Develop a suggested non-human creature (on a slip of paper drawn from a hat) into a human character, expanding it until the audience guesses the name of said creature.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Thank you! Nice exercise idea, Umberto. I may well use it if we ever get face to face teaching again...
Loved it! The dog one totally captures the local dogs around here... masses of them, surely more obtained for lockdown company! And the robins in the nature reserve...
David Rygus said…
It worked for me. I think I will try this exercise too. I don't fancy myself as a lamp post though.

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