I'm trying to have a dialogue where one character says something to the lines of "You're being really hard on yourself. You're only human."

That line doesn't feel right when dealing with an anthropomorphic bug character.

They consider themselves ant folk. I tried "folk" I tried "worker" (the general name for members of an ant colony.) But still am left with a blank. I could say "You're only a bug. Would that have the same impact?


You could try going in the negative. "You're not a god."

Or, "You're not infallible."

Or, "Nobody is perfect."

You could try going sympathetic. "We all make mistakes. Welcome to the club."

Or, "How about that, you are normal, after all."

Or, "You've only got six limbs, you can't be expected to catch every thing."

Remember the point of saying "you are only human," and translate that. The point is that humans are fallible, make mistakes, they aren't perfect, and expecting them to be so is unrealistic.

It is actually not very good writing to engage in such cliché, even in dialogue. You should not want your reader to translate what you are saying into a cliché they know and think, 'Ah, he really means only human.'

If I am reading about ant folk, I expect them to come up with their own clichés, not borrow those of humans.

  • 1
    Good point about having them come up with their own clichés. I like the "You've only got six limbs". May not work in this context but I will borrow it for another time.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 11 '17 at 18:54
  • 4
    "If I am reading about ant folk, I expect them to come up with their own clichés, not borrow those of humans" I you are writing about anthropomorphized bugs, you are playing some sort of game with the reader. What is appropriate depends on exactly which kind of game you are playing. Using human cliches may be part of the game. Inventing ant cliches may be part of the game. If we express a preference for one game over another, that is purely opinion, not an objective answer.
    – user16226
    Nov 11 '17 at 19:03
  • The "You're not infallible." so far I feel works well in context. My soldier character is upset with himself for losing his calm and panicking when he got shot with fire ant venom and tried (unsuccessfully) to pull his troops out of a fire pit/ trap. He's reflecting over this incident with his mentor and being self critical. Thinking "I should have done better considering I'm one of the top generals." Anyways his mentor tries to comfort him.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 11 '17 at 19:03
  • Testing out "formicidaen" in the context of the soldier character self reflecting: "I'm a bad "formicidaen"." I'm still not sure, but so far sounds better than other ideas I tried.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 11 '17 at 19:57
  • The martian in Stranger in a Strange land often said "I am only an egg" and there may be something similar to being a bad formicidaen, such as being a grub (or egg, or larva), or thinking of oneself as a worm instead of an insect.
    – DPT
    Nov 11 '17 at 21:26

We tend to have more and simpler words for things we talk about regularly than for things we talk about seldom, so there probably isn't an exact equivalent to "human" for ants, at least, not one the average reader would recognize.

So I think you have to ask what effect you are trying to produce for the reader. You could have them say:

You're only formicidaen.

Which is obviously a joke and so does not entirely depend (though it is certainly enhanced) the the reader recognizing (or looking up) that Formicidae is to ant as Homo Sapien is to man.

But if you don't want to do the joke, if you want to invoke the familiar cliche in a way that the cliche is what comes through, then you probably have no better choice than:

You're only an ant.

Most readers will recognize the cliche and will not be greatly troubled that "human" and "and ant" are not really parallel.

But if you want to do a nudge nudge wink wink post modern acknowledgement that this is an allegory and it is really about people then you go right ahead and say:

You're only human.

In cases like this it is not really about finding the perfect word so much as finding the phrase that directs the reader's attention where you want it to be.

  • "You're only formicidaen" I smiled when I read that. I may consider that idea somewhere. I feel "you're only an ant" might be a bit too direct/obvious, but it isn't a bad one to consider.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 11 '17 at 18:57
  • 2
    Assuming it's true, "You're only (a) mortal" has a similar connotation Nov 11 '17 at 19:06
  • They are bugs, but overall the story and series has evolved to be an allegory, hopefully with questions relatable to things we face. In the first book of the series I have a soldier character whose backstory is a top ranking officer that lost his troops in battle, sole survivor out of about of 10,000 soldiers going into battle. He's reflecting upon his mistakes and also questioning his morality. (the lead commander may be corrupt deeming "Our colony first") The soldier is not at the point yet but starting to wonder if the "enemy"'s colony may not be as bad as their commander makes them to be.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 11 '17 at 19:11
  • Considering the "enemy" is the one who saved many of the other soldiers from his colony, possibly even saving his own life. He's torn with himself, between, "Damn, we didn't kill them all. I failed that part of the mission", to "Why do I want them all gone? Is that what I really want? Or is that what the commander wants me to believe? Why am I okay with it? Why do I keep following these orders to kill innocents? Am I a horrible "person"? He's essentially a gray moral character/ dark protagonist getting ready for a positive change arc in the series.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 11 '17 at 19:14
  • @BugFolk Again a reminder that this is not a forum and comments are not for chat. Comment to clarify or to ask for a clarification of an answer, not to carry on a conversation or give additional information about your project.
    – user16226
    Nov 11 '17 at 20:07

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