I'm dealing with a group of non-human characters and Character A is reflecting on how he knows Character B is a good person deep down, despite some of the things she has had to do throughout her life. She has actually saved his life on numerous occasions, so he has seen firsthand what she's capable of. I've got a passage where he's thinking about all of this, but I'm using the word 'humanity' and I'm not sure if that would seem weird since I'm dealing with non-human characters.

Something inside of her had changed at some point, and whether it was due to her upbringing, her training, or something else, he wasn't sure. He'd experienced her [humanity] firsthand, knew what kind of person she was on the inside, but there still remained a part of her that was unforgivably dark, maybe irreversibly so.

Obviously readers would know what I mean, but without knowing anything else about these characters right now, does the use of this word seem jarring? Humans do exist in this universe and these characters interact with them on a regular basis, but "humanity" probably isn't a word they'd use in everyday conversation. Is there something else I could use here, or do you think this is something readers might just gloss over and know what I mean without thinking too hard about the word choice?

  • 1
    The word definitely seems jarring. You could use: goodness, personality, personhood, complexity, he knew her firsthand, etc.
    – SFWriter
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:24
  • What aspect of her humanity are you trying to portray?
    – John Doe
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:41
  • Are you writing in English, or is this a translation of what you've written? I'm not sure "humanity" would be the word in English that I'd reach for in the example you give, even if it was about humans...
    – user
    Jan 9, 2018 at 20:28
  • @JohnDoe So in this particular scene, Character A is comparing the person Character B appears to be with the person she is. Admittedly, it's kind of hard to put this scene in context. He's looking at how she's got this cold outward persona because of her background, and something inside her is very dark, but because of his personal experiences with her, he knows there's a good part of her as well. Thus he has witnessed her [humanity]. She has saved his life, he's seen her save and protect other people, etc.
    – EJF
    Jan 9, 2018 at 21:39
  • @MichaelKjörling yes I'm writing in English
    – EJF
    Jan 9, 2018 at 21:40

1 Answer 1


Congratulations on thinking of it. I think many sci-fi and fantasy authors stumble on this point and make their non-human characters use human references.

I think the straightforward thing to do would be to use a different word that expresses the quality you're referring to. Her "compassion" maybe? I see someone else mentioned "goodness". "Decency"? "Insight"? Etc.

You don't say what kind of creatures these are, but if they are, say, elves, you could say "her elvishness". But that would call attention to the word choice which may not be appropriate here.

Reminds me, in the Disney movie "Little Mermaid", they had a wonderful line where the mermaid wants to say that her friend is lacking in courage in a playful way. A human would say, "You're such a chicken." But of course a mermaid would be unlikely to think of chickens, and the writers were clever enough to have her say, "You're such a guppy." I thought that was a very clever word choice.

I've seen many sci-fi movies where two aliens are talking and one of them says, "The humans would call this ..." or "Humans have a saying ..." 90% of the time I think, Why would the aliens use a human allusion at this point? Maybe if it was a particularly insightful quote, but often it's used for very routine things, where it would be surprising if the aliens didn't have something equivalent in their own language. I'd expect aliens to use human words or sayings less often than, for example, Americans use German words or sayings. Not unheard of or impossible, but rare. It strikes me as lazy writing: the writer wants to use a clever quote or reference, realizes that aliens would rarely reference humans like this, and so he tries to explain his way out of it by having the aliens basically admit that it's a strange reference to use but, etc.

I've never written a science fiction novel, but I hope that if I ever do I make sure that the alien references make sense. Like if I've said that the alien world is broiling hot, I hope I don't later have an alien refer to "a blizzard of paperwork". If I say their planet has no moon, don't later have them talk about "tidal changes". Etc.

  • Thanks for the input! I think I remember that quote from The Little Mermaid but I never considered the reasoning behind it! That's a great example though. Honestly, I may just end up cutting this sentence entirely and then I won't even have to deal with "humanity" and trying to change it.
    – EJF
    Jan 9, 2018 at 21:51

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