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How to convey the anatomy of a humanoid race?

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I am writing a extra-terrestrial high fantasy novel. The story is completely set in an alien world. No visits from Earth and no visits to Earth.

My characters are humanoids, who look like elves, but with different skin, eye, and hair colours. They lay eggs rather than give birth to children.

How can I prevent my readers from misunderstanding my race to be bird-like creatures?

I would like to avoid a boring introduction paragraph. The story is in third person view.

In the stories I read about egg laying humanoids, the main character is from Earth. So they can easily compare the humanoid race to humans and can give the reader a better picture.

But in my story, all the characters belong to the same race. So when one character sees another, describing the basic structure seem a bit odd.

Why should this post be closed?

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/48164. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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4 answers

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We tend to assume whatever we're reading about is humanoid, unless we're told otherwise. (In fact, multiple stories exploit this trope to reveal later in the story, or in the very end, that the character wasn't in fact human.) Which is to say, your readers are going to start with the assumption that the characters are humanoid.

You fear that once your readers receive the "laying eggs" information, they will change their whole perception of your race to "bird-like". To prevent that, you would need to provide enough information to make it clear that they aren't.

If you never ever mention wings or flying, that's a good indication that your characters don't have wings. Then, I'm sure at some point you will mention a character walking or running, holding something in one's hands, etc.? That's indication that your characters have arms and legs, similar to humans. Those day-to-day actions and the way they are performed are all the indication that is needed of the character's body. You don't need an explicit description of someone having two arms and two legs. In fact, if they have three legs, for instance, you wouldn't want an explicit description either, but give the information through a description of such day-to-day actions.

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Establish their winglessness before you establish their method of gestating children.

You're absolutely right that this is an easier task when you have a character who is from the culture of the reader. It's also fairly easy if the narrator takes the reader's perceptive when describing the aliens. You don't want to use your narrator in that way (nor should you). So you're left with a narrator who belongs to the world you portray, who wouldn't see anything here as strange.

Your narration needs to be subtle. Manipulate the order of scenes or the locations or background conversations. Anything that will be business as usual on first glance, but actually clues the reader in.

For example, you could show a character who likes to take a jog around the block before showering and getting ready for work or school. The roads are a bit slippery from last night's rain, so she's going to pick the running shoes with better traction. You might even show the character's frustration with having to wade through a large puddle on the way home because there's no easy way around it.

Totally mundane experience for a modern-day human in most urban/suburban areas, one that a book set on Earth might use as a way to get the character to a location where she sees something important, or bumps into another character, or just a way to establish her daily rhythms.

There is no way your readers will think you are telling them about your characters' anatomy, because it's assumed they're human, until they're not. Yet you've established a terrestrial being.

Showing multiple characters in motion, basic normal boring motion, in the first couple of chapters will solidify it. There is nothing out of the ordinary here. They move just like humans. As you bring in other elements to make it clear they're not humans, or on Earth, the reader will still view them as like humans in every way that you haven't explicitly told them about.

You can also bring in elements that humanoids would have. Smooth skin with hair on their heads and a few other places. Show a character shaving. Have a parent braid a kid's hair or kiss a husband's stubbly cheek. Throw in the weird colors if you like (even on Earth, such coloring is possible, albeit artificial).

By the time the eggs come in, your reader should know these are human-like aliens and not be too surprised at yet another difference. But they already know these aliens aren't birds, that they don't fly. Because you've established them as terrestrial mammals.

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As a quick thought, many species lay eggs and are not birds. Personally, I would find a second feature from a non-bird egg-laying species (or a sporulating species, or an asexual species) and plant that feature first.

Build your world so that they are cold blooded, and they sun, to warm. When they sun, they develop a glow (or something, a more nimble behavior and so on). Then one character can comment on the behavior, which would be meaningful to them.

Make them photosynthetic. Or give them gills. Or, establish that all flying creatures in the world give live birth.

Creatures that lay eggs include everything from newts to lobsters to snakes to fish to amphibia to platypuses to birds.

This is how I would handle it. Plant up front anything to say 'not bird' (one character could, for example, go so far as to say 'Jackie's duckbill-like lips always gave him pause,' and we automatically get steered to platypus.), and build the world in such a way that the exposition is natural.

If you feel there's a problem, there is, but the problem might be earlier in the story than you believe.

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A wise writer chooses a point of view that enables the reader to see what they need to see of the story. If you choose a point of view arbitrarily, or because it is fashionable, you will often find yourself stuck with no natural way to show the reader what they need to see. You will then be stuck trying to engineer some method to tell the reader what they cannot see by some weird manipulation of dialogue of plot. And when you do this, it will seem odd, and it will take the reader out of the story.

So, the best and most natural way to tackle this problem is to adopt a point of view then does enable the reader to see what they need to see. If you are dealing with a world that is entirely alien, where the reader can bring no assumptions of images with them to the story, they are going to need a guide, a storyteller, who can show them the world of the story.

This can be a third person omniscient narrator (the simplest choice) or it can be a reflective first person narrator (as opposed to a stream-of-consciousness first person). Either way, though, the narrator has to acknowledge that they are describing a world different from the reader's own, and therefore speaking to a reader from a world different from their own. If you are not willing to do that for a character in your story, then you are left with the external narrator.

And note that that is the narrative voice of the vast majority of fantasy stories traditionally -- and for just this reason.

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