My protagonist is an average human as we know it in a world populated by different animal-like species. The narrator (different character) is a member of a species that resemble polar bears. As far as the characters (including the narrator and MC) are aware, the MC is the only/first human to have ever existed. Hence the word "human" does not even exist: no one has ever seen anything like him before. The problem is, if the narrator has never seen a human before and does not know what a human is, how would he describe the human MC?

What I have written is simply the narrator pointing out all the differences between the MC and the people of that region:

He was all angles and corners where the rest of us were curved. Even Nuktuk, the runt from a few miles seaward, towered a foot taller than him on his toes. His claws were frail, his canines diminutive, and he had to wrap a length of fur around his head to avoid freezing his oversized ears off. Not to mention his blubber — if it could even be called that — which was so lightly packed that when he shed all those pelts and layers his belly barely bulged at all.

I tried to make it clear that the narrator's comments don't make sense in a human context (claws, blubber, etc) to edge the reader in the direction of thinking, "er, wait, isn't he just normal looking??" But the comments I received said that it wasn't clear to them what species he was.

So my question is: does anyone have any ideas on how to clarify that a character is human without using the word "human"?

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    probably just say he was a naked bear, only skinnier and less ferocious. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 3:24
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    Who always walks on his two back legs. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 6:30
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    @storbror It's a fantasy novel so I'm taking a few liberties and letting everyone use the same language. I might fill that hole later, but not now!
    – sudowoodo
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 8:36
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    Ah.. Well, I guess that makes it a bit more tricky! Imagine if a dog walked around and behaved like "humans" do.. Maybe that can help describe the human from another animals point of view. That with the other advice about descriptions of its physical form should get you a long if not all the way.
    – storbror
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 11:57
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    I think you are doing just fine, judging by the excerpt you gave us. Your approach (comparing the outsider strange features with the POV character species appearance) works rather well, and the fact that bears and humans have much more in common, than, say, dolphins and humans, works to your advantage. Keep writing and do not doubt yourself. :-)
    – Lew
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 15:23

2 Answers 2


There are two levels of complexity, in my opinion.

The first one is linguistical and philosophical. That means, how could someone describe something without any points of references? What is an arm to someone without arms? What does it mean "to walk"? The cognitive processes are different if the body is different, so probably you need to invent a new language to express the different view world of this different being. This is a complex but fascinating issue.

The second issue is simpler. Just find out what the two beings (man and animal) have in common, and describe the differences: my thick bear fur, and his thin human hair; my crouched heavy gait and his standing slim one; my sharp teeth and his little mouth, and so on.

Examples of this are found in Cujo by Stephen King, which has some parts written with the PoV of the dog. Also read Sentinel by F. Brown, a short sci-fi which plays with the twist between the human and alien point of view.


I get cussed for my short dismissive answers but it should be some sort of qualification for a fiction writer to possess an imagination.

You need to primarily note the differences between you (a polar bear) and this new creature. Beyond that you need to attempt to categorise this creature in the context of other creatures you have seen. You may also wish to theorise as to why the creature looked and behaved the way it did.

  • I observed a creature. On first observation it possessed smooth, lizard like skin but it had no tail so it was not a lizard. Al large amphibian perhaps? No. It strayed far from water and its movements were mammal-like - one step at a time as opposed to a two-at-a-time hopping motion. When I braved to get closer I clearly see it was a mammal. Possibly it's fur had been decimated by disease as it did no cover the entire body as should. The creature existed in a perpetual state of anger, always up on its hind-legs ready to fight. This single creature appeared puny and weak, and as a meal could provide very little sustenance. It seemed intelligent, perhaps we could capture and tame this one - teach it to provide some manner of of function or service. Was this specimen male or female, and if we found another would they breed in captivity?
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    As I wrote in the question, I had originally done what is in your first suggestion and was told by my readers that it wasn't clear. So I asked the question to help me clarify since it wasn't obvious to me how to do so. Sometimes we just need a fresh pair of eyes, right? I don't think it's worth dismissing. Definitely no need to be rude about it. Nice answer, aside from that.
    – sudowoodo
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 14:58

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