We often need to create nonhuman characters in the stories we write – animals, robots, talking trees.
In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that human characters achieve dimensionality by highlighting their human attributes.
Highlighting nonhuman attributes of dogs, such as barking louder or digging faster to get the buried bone, will not make them more endearing. To achieve that we must give them human personality.
We need to do at least three things: choose one or two attributes that will help create character identity, understand the associations the audience itself brings to the character, and create a strong story context to deepen the character.
Attributes in themselves do not give enough interest and variety. Audiences need to project associations onto them. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in advertising.
Reader and Audience Association with Nonhuman Characters
Mercedes is branded as the car of engineering, Ford represents quality, and so on. By associating the car with a certain quality you get the rub-off or halo effect. In advertising this causes the consumer to want to purchase the product. In films and novels the effect draws us closer to the characters through our projecting personal feelings onto them.
In producer Al Burton’s TV series, Lassie, the dog part is written in a way that allows the animal to become part of the family, a best friend to the adults and their son. Through this deft move the series becomes family viewing, and not merely a kid’s show.
A character such as King Kong, however, brings very different associations. He comes from the South Seas. He is enveloped in a dark, mysterious, and terrifying aura. His associations include a vague knowledge of ancient rituals, human sacrifice, and dark, unrepressed sexuality. We, as adults, are frightened of King Kong because we bring to his character our apprehensions of the unknown.
In my novel, Scarab, the Man-Lion, a mythical creature in the likeness of the Spinx of Giza, carries the same sort of frightening mystery and intrigue. Its dark fascination for the reader is generated more by the power of association than a detailed description in the pages of the novel.
Understanding the power of association and how to use it, then, is a crucial part of creating and positioning characters in your stories, and in the market place.
Highlighting specific human characteristics in nonhuman characters, and using them to amplify our reader’s and audience’s personal experience, helps to make them more engaging.