Sunday, June 24, 2018

Human-flavored humans

(No, this isn't the post about cannibalism.)

If you're going to have a bunch of different species in a story, they all need some sort of flavor, something that makes them different from everyone else.  Dwarves, for example, tend to be short, underground miners and craftsmen who like to drink.  Elves are usually portrayed as slender, wise, nature-loving elder beings.

What about humans?

Humans are often "special" by just being average.  Elves are graceful and long-lived, orcs are brutish and quick to die, so humans are right in the middle.  They're not as good at metalworking as the dwarves, but they do fine.  Humans can't swim as well as mermaids, but they can swim well enough.

Don't get me wrong—there's nothing wrong with having humans as the default.  Most of your readers are human, after all [citation needed], so being human is what they know best.  But for me, humans as jack-of-all-trades has gotten stale.  For this project, I'd like to try something different.  I'd like humans to have their own flavor, things that make them notably human instead of generic.

Human Qualities

So what makes humans different from other real-world species?  Sure, we're smarter than everyone else (that we know of) but some other fantasy species will likely be intelligent too.  What else is special about humans here on Earth?
humans and dogs pursuing prey
Humans and dogs pursuing prey.
  • Humans have endurance.  We (well, those of us in better shape than me) can outwalk pretty much any other creature on Earth.  Humans can simply walk their prey to death, pursuing them until they die from exhaustion.  (We're pretty good at deliberately enduring pain, too.)
  • Humans have dogs.  Dogs and humans are together in just about every culture.  We've brought dogs with us as we explored the world, from the Kalahari to the Australian outback to the South Pole.  We've even taken dogs to space.  Humans have a lousy sense of smell, so we made up for it by adopting dogs.  One theory says humans actually evolved to work with dogs.
  • Humans can throw things.  A few other species can throw a little, but none of them have the musculature or depth perception needed to precisely throw things like humans can.  We don't have sharp claws or fearsome teeth, but leave a human alone with a rock or a stick or a can of beans, and they're armed with a fairly long-range weapon.
  • Humans are good at forming impromptu groups to do a task.  Watch what happens when there's an emergency and a bunch of unrelated bystanders form a rescue team almost instantly.  This is at least partly because humans are used to being part of a kin group, but we do this even with random strangers we're not related to.
bystanders working together to rescue someone from a burning car
Working together in an emergency.
Put all these together and you get an interesting species.  Now, it's true that not all humans do all these things, and that if other intelligent species evolved they might do some of them, too.  Yet this is a great place to start for what humans are actually like compared to others.


So what would it look like for an intelligent species to be bad at these things?
  • An intelligent species without endurance could be done in plenty of ways.  They could be good sprinters, like deer or cheetahs.  They could be massive and tough to kill, like elephants or musk oxen.  They could lie in wait to ambush prey, like snapping turtles.
  • A species without dogs would be...well, they just wouldn't have dogs.  They might simply have other kinds of domesticated animals, or they might not have any animals at all.
  • If they can't throw things, they'll have to rely more on their own reach or jumping/flying to get to things they can't reach.  Inventions might let them affect things from further away.
  • Without impromptu groups, they could either be loners who never work together, or they could have fixed groups that are already practiced at working together to accomplish a task.
For Signs in the Wilderness, I've been using these concepts to work up four different intelligent species, humans being one of them.  Is this the right way to make fantasy creatures?  I don't know, but I'm having fun with it.


  1. I really like this approach. Since most fantasy races tend towards "a type of human", I see this being very, very well-suited for a lots-of-aliens sci fi setting.

    1. Thanks for being the first commenter ever on this blog! Glad to hear you're enjoying it.

  2. I'm excited to see just what you come up with. Sounds like good soil for interesting concepts.
    I also like the "humans are mercurial" approach. It fits with the jack-of-all-trades model, but gives humans something unique. Humans switch up jobs or even cultures. They can behave enlightened one day and corrupt the next. They are always the first to adopt new ideas, and the most likely to die doing so.