Human Figure of Non-Human Species in Fiction


In fictional stories, sometimes writers use creatures and species that do not exist in the real world. Many times these creatures are inspired by humans or animals living on earth. Is it tied to a scientific fact, or is it about human creativity? The present article will focus on psychological and narratorial reasons why fiction writers frequently use both physical and psychological inspiration from humans.


Writers create remarkable narratives that are filled with originality. One of these elements is how humanity envisions other species. They could be extraterrestrial, fantastic, or otherwise unfathomable animals along with many more. The majority of the time, tales show these imaginative species with human motivations, thought processes, and figures. How come? Do humans’ creative minds only allow them to create characters of their own? Is the human body the ideal form for the top species in the cosmos?


Many studies and stories show that human creativity transcends what they observe. Humans can imagine life beyond planet Earth. Examples of these can be found in many works of science fiction, or even in renowned works of fantasy novels. But it is understandable that, when creating logic in a story, writers may need to change many aspects while creating a creature different from human form.


Image 1: HR Giger / Courtesy of Taschen [Digital Illustration].

As in many science-fiction novels and movies, one of the main things that make readers curious is how extraterrestrial creatures think. What are the goals of extraterrestrial visitors on the planet Earth? Many interpretations regarding the plot are proposed whenever the writers even hint at the motivations of these creatures.


How far can humans go beyond thinking like a human to truly understand the motive of the extraterrestrial creature in situations when readers can fulfil this curiosity? Or do readers become disappointed if they realise that, as humans, they are unable to understand these motives?


Image 2: Generated image using the MidJourney algorithm [Digital Illustration].

Writers use human-like emotions, motivations, and traits that are already seen or experienced to avoid this disappointment. Writers may also picture their non-human creatures with human-like proportions to support this further.


Characters, species with many different aspects from human-being, are hard to identify with (Gunnthorsdottir, 2015). Psychological studies show that humans are more prone to empathise with forms close to human shape (Epley et al., 2008). This doesn’t mean they cannot sympathise with animals or fictional creatures (Nelson et al., 2016). The use of human form makes it simpler for readers to relate to the characters.


Image 3: Clarke, A. C., Kubrick, S. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey [Film]. Super Panavision and Metrocolor.

As Harrison (2010) stated in her work, Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Perceived Communicative Ability Vary With Phylogenetic Relatedness to Humans; “We are highly skilled at inferring others’ mental states. When people can make inferences about what another is experiencing, people can show empathetic responses to others by likening this experience to similar emotions and cognitions they themselves have had when in that situation” (Harrison, 2010, p. 34). It is safely understandable from her work that humans are more likely to understand a creature when they have something in common. Having similar attributes can cause similar experiences compared to having so little resemblance. Harrison (2010) also stated that:


“Our data show another very strong relationship between perceived communicative ability of an animal and phylogenetic relatedness to people. Again, genetic similarity may mediate the attributions of advanced cognitions (an instance of anthropomorphism) to non-humans. If an animal is similar to people, people apparently are more apt to equate that animal's mental state with their own. As communication is a sign of advanced cognitive processes, and we ourselves possess this capability, we are likely to attribute these processes to organisms like ourselves”.

Also according to Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, and Neuberg (1997), human genetic relatedness is linked to empathy and a sense of intimacy — i. e., familial genetics. The less genetically similar animals are to humans, the less they empathise with them and, like with human relatedness, the less they anthropomorphise them (Stokes, 2007).


Image 4: Jackson, P., Cunningham, C., Blomkamp, N. (2009). District 9 [Film]. Sony Pictures.

Imagine a sentient life form made entirely of energy that has no body, thinks only in terms of electrical currencies and has no perception of time. What would their life be like? What kind of motivations can they have? It is hard to answer these questions as readers without using earthly motivations as anchor points. The more writers change a species from humans, the harder it is to understand their perceptions and motivations.


It is observable that even when species are only slightly different from humans, many aspects of their lives may also alter. Imagine a species that resembles humans, but with long lifespans and pointy ears. Their cultures may be very different even with these two elements. Even if writers change many aspects of their lives, readers can still picture what it would be like to be an elf.


Image 5: Bekmambetov, T., Gorak, C. (2011). The Darkest Hour [Film]. Summit Entertainment and 20th Century Fox.

Fiction writers can also create meaningful interactions by creating new species and monsters. It can be useful for writers to give lessons, introduce moral quandaries, and raise ethical issues by giving their creatures humane traits and features.


Marlen Hansen stated in her article, Humanization of the Science Fiction Alien, that “Aliens will always have some inherent humanity imposed on them either by the writer intentionally making it so or by the reader’s interpretation” (Hansen, 2020, p. 15). Hansen also stated “Stories containing aliens are also able to produce meaningful encounters involving moral, ethics and acceptance. The science fiction alien is, therefore, as Robson suggests, a device that could be used to create a bottomless well of content” (Hansen, 2020, p. 16).


As examples of giving message by using non-human creatures, Canadian filmmaker James Cameron (born August 16, 1954) used “aliens“ in his movie Avatar (2009) to show a struggle against racial oppression, American filmmaker George Lucas (born May 14, 1944) gave “Hutts“ (Specie of Jabba the Hutt character) exaggerated version of cunningness to depict human struggle against mafia bosses.


Image 6: Cameron, J. (2022). Avatar: The Way of Water [Film]. 20th Century Studios.

By giving any creature or object a human attribute, as can be seen in many stories and fairy tales, writers can give the specific being a character. Thus, this character helps readers to have a mental bond with it. In many stories writers want their readers to have a connection, and some understanding of their characters to make their stories more “immersive”. Along with many techniques to make readers feel in the story, a mental bond along with readers’ imagination greatly supports the occurring immersion.


Suzanne Keen (2007) stated in her book, Empathy and the Novel, that:


“Novels and stories featuring animals, miniaturized figures such as Tolkien's hobbits, and toys come to life provoke empathetic reactions of readers who report ready identification with nonhuman figures. This suggests that character identification and empathy felt for fictional characters requires certain traits (such as a name, a recognizable situation, and at least implicit feelings) but dispenses with other requirements associated with realistic representation. Readers' tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman characters even in texts strongly resistant to normalizing character, such as the early stories in Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics (1965, trans. 1968), persists well beyond their attainment of the developmental sophistication that enables humans to distinguish between people and unconscious or inanimate others. The literature and orature of most cultures feature talking animals, and anthropomorphism, sometimes disapproved of by educators, has proven difficult to stamp out” (p. 68).

Image 7: Skeleton and Flayed Figure with a Laurel Crown (detail), 1682 [Illustration].

Humans are more likely to develop a connection to a narrative if they understand the morals of the villain, empathise with the protagonist, feel the victim’s fear, or experience the romance of the lover. Other methods like this one can make it easier for readers to enjoy the story.


Writers use humane morals and human figures to create their characters so readers can easily feel connected to characters without losing their perception of their morals. However, thanks to humans’ limitless imagination, they can develop characters with a wide range of traits, appearances, and ideologies. Writers will always try to come up with creative ideas, but it can be safely assumed that writers will also continue creating species with human forms as long as the human way of empathising stays the same.


Bibliographical References

Cialdini, R., Brown, S., Lewis, B., Luce, C., & Neuberg, S. (1997). Reinterpreting the empathy-altruism relationship: When one into one equals oneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 481-494.


Epley, N., Waytz, A., Akalis, S., & Cacioppo, J. (2008). When we need a human: Motivational determinants of anthropomorphism. Social Cognition, 26, 143-155. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.73.3.481


Gunnthorsdottir, A. (2015). Physical Attractiveness of an Animal Species as a Decision Factor for its Preservation. Anthrozoös 14, 204–215. https://doi.org/10.2752/089279301786999355


Hansen, M. Humanization of the Science Fiction Alien (2020). The figure of the alien, 15-17. https://uia.brage.unit.no/uia-xmlui/handle/11250/2680682


Harrison, M. A. (2010). Anthropomorphism, empathy, and perceived communicative ability vary with phylogenetic relatedness to humans. J. Soc. Evol. Cult. Psychol. 4, 34–48. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0099303


Keen, S. (2007). Empathy and the Novel. 3 Readers’ Empathy, 65-100. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195175769.003.0003


Nelson, M. P., Bruskotter, J. T., Vucetich, J. A., & Chapron, G. (2016). Emotions and the ethics of consequence in conservation decisions: lessons from Cecil the Lion. Conserv. Lett. 9, 302–306, https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12232


Stokes, D. L. (2007). Things We Like: Human Preferences among Similar Organisms and Implications for Conservation. Hum. Ecol. 35, 361–369, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-006-9056-7

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Oğuzcan Kiremitçi

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