I don't know if this is something that is established in the discipline of literature. However, I have found that in any fiction, with all else being equal, the more the characters behave like real humans, the more I enjoy it. Perhaps because I find it easier to feel invested.

What I'm not saying is that I enjoy fiction more if it has more plausible or realistic scenarios in which we would typically find humans. For example, I don't, prima facie, enjoy a scene of humans fighting in the trenches during WW1 more than a scene of humans fighting an army with magic and dragons.

However, I would enjoy a story where characters respond to dragons and magic in a similar manner as I would expect real humans to respond to these things, more than I would enjoy one in which characters respond to these things with unnatural valor or indifference. Even if the characters are some fictional non-human species, like elves.

For example, it was well known that, in WW1, many soldiers had such anxiety in the face of heavy artillery that they would often avoid confrontation if they could get away with it, to the dismay or ignorance of their commanding officers. Live and Let Live is a good illustration of this. I would find it quite jarring and contrary to human nature if, in a battle with wizards that can unleash devastating magic that can kill entire squads in a matter of seconds, every single conscripted soldier was using every opportunity they had to be the best soldier that they could be.

At the same time, I understand that it's entirely plausible for characters in a fictional world to not have similar behavior to us. All of our anxieties, susceptibility to cognitive biases, etc., are a result of a very specific way our brains have evolved. Why should we expect elves, ghost-aliens, or even humans that evolved in a different world, to have those same traits? As long as deviations from human nature are consistent, shouldn't we be just as tolerant of them as we are of the existence of magic and dragons? Yet I find that I'm not.

I should clarify that my preference for human nature is entirely based on psychological and behavioral traits, not on other physical traits. For example, my enjoyment of Animal Farm is in no way diminished by a character's lack of ability to scratch their snout using their front hooves.

Should I expect my readers to share my preference towards characters that accurately portray human nature, even in a fantasy setting or if they're not human? Can unnatural deviations from human nature be useful for the purpose of entertainment in literature?

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    I'd look to the Star Trek universe and see how they've handled this. They have the Ferengi whose culture is codified to profit, Vulcans prioritizing logic, Klingons prioritizing (arguably) honor, the Borg prioritizing assimilation, the Trill who are joined species and have their own nuanced culture therein, and so on and so forth. I think this means the short answer is that a human frame of reference is good, and within that frame of reference there should be consistency for the aspect that you wish to accentuate.
    – SFWriter
    Dec 18, 2018 at 21:19
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    @DPT The Borg don't prioritize assimilation; they prioritize perfection. Assimilation is just their way of reaching that goal. I'd argue that in Star Trek, assimilation is to the Borg as meditation is to the Vulcans.
    – user
    Dec 19, 2018 at 10:16
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    @DPT: I actually listened to a commentator on Star Trek discuss how Borg Society was the perfect Fusion of a Capitalist and Communist society. The former is immediately apparent as a collective where the individual is reduced to a cataloging number and it's service to the collective... and they are aggressive in their collection of new tech to make their own.
    – hszmv
    Dec 19, 2018 at 13:38

6 Answers 6


What you need from your characterisation is not scientific accuracy, but that the characters are relatable. It's easy to mistake this for what you've asked about, since characters need to be somewhat like us to be relatable. I'll say more about why accuracy is the wrong way to think about it in a moment.

I recently watched a video explaining that a lot of writing goes awry due to thinking it needs to be more or less dark, or serious, than something that went before, because that something failed. But in the examples cited, it is argued the problem, not only with the earlier work but also a failed attempt to improve on it, is that the characters were never relatable enough. I wholeheartedly agree with many of the video's points, including the point that the darker parts of a plot "work" because we relate enough to the affected characters to care about the problems they face.

Right, about accuracy. The first issue is most people don't really know what human nature is like anyway (and may overestimate how stable it is across time and places, as in pessimism about the possibility of a progressive future, or underestimate how much different peoples have in common, as in xenophobia). So do you need to be accurate to actual facts, or believed alternatives? The second issue is you can get away with things believed-while-consuming conventions. Conflict occurs far more readily between people who could easily get along, even more so in fiction than in real life, because you need something to drive the story.

Let's look at a few ways, in no particular order, that fiction often deliberately gets human nature "wrong" for the better:

  • When you say a cool enough line, the other person is speechless.
  • In a fight, at least one person says something witty, and the greatest wit wins.
  • When you go on an adventure, you'll change your nature, or your opinion about something important to you in a short time (or if you won't, others around you will).

As for non-human peoples in fiction, that's always tricky because you'll need to think carefully about how inventive you want to be. I recommend studying examples of this trope to see what happens when aliens are, well... alien in their ideas or behaviour. The "likely candidates" paragraph will help you, but so will how well you think specific examples of this trope worked. But if they don't work, I suspect it's because they're not relatable enough.

A great example, in my opinion, of a relatable alien morality - for villains, no less - is that of the Sontarans in Doctor Who. Their morality is one they can consistently apply to other peoples, rather than a simple "we're best" attitude. They wage war, not necessarily because they hate the opponent or want their resources, but because they think war itself is a good thing. (Their ongoing war with the Rutans is a product of that species feeling the same way.) They can be stunned from the back, but don't see this as a weakness because it means they'll always nobly face their enemies. They think death in battle, of a Sontaran or otherwise, is honourable. They sometimes punish their own kind by forcing them to care for the sick.

That's all very unlike humans, isn't it? But be honest, it's relatable. Not only does knowing one or two facts about them make sense of the others; you can really get inside their head, and imagine how they'd feel and why. You won't agree, but you'll relate, which is what really matters. You could argue their thoughts are not so much alien as like those of certain militaries before World War I. But the Sontarans are just as relatable whether or not that's true, or you think it is, or it occurs to you.

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    Sontarans don't sound much different than Vikings, which is who the Klingons were modeled after. Dying in battle is what got you into Valhalla, any kind of dishonor or cowardice left you out. In particular, for any race that devoutly believes in a "good" and a "bad" eternal afterlife, getting into the good place can plausibly be worth dying, in any amount of pain.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 18, 2018 at 23:28
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    @Amadeus That's another good comparison. But now imagine having their ethics without an afterlife premise backing it up.
    – J.G.
    Dec 18, 2018 at 23:32
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    Hmm, I thought that was an excellent example of "lazy aliens". Most human beings see fighting for their country as a great and noble thing. The Sontarans are just an exageration of this. It's taking one aspect of human behavior and carrying it to an extreme, not postulating something truly different and alien.
    – Jay
    Dec 19, 2018 at 14:21
  • @Jay If you know which cultures to look like, you can probably dissect all "very alien" moralities in fiction in the same way, whether the author intended that or not. But it stands out falls by its relatability to the audience. That's why so many works set in the past make the history PC. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PoliticallyCorrectHistory
    – J.G.
    Dec 19, 2018 at 15:11

"Factual realism" is just a style, and an inclination towards it is just a personal preference. But "emotional realism" is everything in fiction. We'll forgive any kind of factual implausibility (or flight of fancy) if the emotions read true. The reason is simple: One of the main reasons we read fiction is for non-didactic learning. The fictional scenario puts us in the place and mindset of another person, and we learn, in a very natural, emotion based way, from what that person does or fails to do. It's not necessary for the circumstances to be realistic, or naturalistic, but if they are unrealistic to the point that we can neither emphasize nor learn anything, it greatly diminishes our pleasure and immersion.

Some of this is individual to the specific reader. But some of it is not. A wholly alien protagonist would be frustrating and off-putting to most readers. But so would an otherwise realistic protagonist who makes unjustifiable mistakes no reasonable person would make. On the other hand, reading about a person who is coping with special, idiosyncratic challenges (as in Room or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Lord of the Rings) can be extremely compelling, even though we don't share those particular challenges, because we all have our own personal challenges we have to face. (The key here is making the challenges believable and consistent.)

The flip side of this is that there's more room to be genuinely "alien" with the antagonist (or even with the protagonist's allies), at least as seen from the protagonist's POV. Most of us can identify with at least occasionally dealing with other people whose behaviors we find odd, inscrutable, or flat out insane. So the writing can still be relatable even if the villain isn't. (A villain of this sort, however, is more of a "condition of nature" than a three-dimensional character --i.e Sauron in LOTR. A villain who is more directly present in the story will generally require more believability.)

  • Thanks for the answer! As for the last paragraph, when you say that an adversary's behavior can be inscrutable, do you mean that in an absolute sense, or strictly from the PoV of a protagonist? I ask because I find it contrary to reality that anyone's behavior can't be sympathetic, or at the very least, explainable. I think that's true of even history's worst villains. And it takes me out of a story when I read about a villain who's behaving inexplicably. Dec 19, 2018 at 17:43
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    @Bridgeburners Good question. I mean from the POV of the protagonist. I think the less you're in the protagonist's mind, the more understandable the villain needs to be. I'll try to edit to clarify. Dec 19, 2018 at 18:12

Personally I do feel that psychologically believable writing is generally the best - whatever the genre. It's one of the things I love about Harry Potter, for instance. Note that Rowling managed to create a believable psychology for house-elves which is different from human psychology (or western culture), but still within the realm of what humans can relate to. Same for centaurs and goblins.

Your readers will be people who relate to your way of writing - so if you enjoy reading and writing psychologically realistic stuff, that's the approach you should take. Simply because that's the approach that you're likely to be best at. You have to assume that the readers will follow, even though that is always going to be a gamble.

  • Admittedly the goblins and house elves in Harry Potter are psychologically believable, but from my perspective it's an ironic choice since I don't see the Humans as psychologically believable! What about Harry Potter specifically made you choose it?
    – Onyz
    Dec 19, 2018 at 12:32
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    I think the Harry Potter characters are believable enough, and I am a fan :) I agree though that when thinking things through there are several issues with believable psychology in Harry Potter. Starting with the amount of trauma that Harry Potter experiences and the (relative) lack of psychological consequences for him. Dec 19, 2018 at 14:48

I agree with you, but with a qualifier.

I often read science fiction stories where humans in the future are fundamentally different from people today. The story will say how in the future people no longer fight wars or commit violent crimes because humanity has "matured" or "evolved", the people are all more intelligent, they are more rational, etc. I find this very implausible. People today are not particularly different from people hundreds or thousands of years ago. Read some very old book -- ancient Greek plays or the Bible, for example. (And when I mention the Bible, for present purposes ignore the religious content, just think about how the people behave.) What were the motives of people in ancient times? At their worst they wanted sex and money and power. At their best they wanted love and honor. Take any of these ancient stories and re-tell it in a modern setting. Would the behavior of the people seem at all peculiar? To pick one well-known Bible story off the top of my head, consider David and Bathsheba. A man gets an accidental view of a woman naked in her bath and instantly wants her. They are both married, but he approaches her and they have an affair. She gets pregnant. He is rich and powerful and so he arranges for her husband, who is a soldier, to be sent on a dangerous mission where, as he hoped, the man is killed. Certainly a dramatic and extreme story, but if you set that in 21st century America, would anyone find the behavior of the characters implausible?

I've read plenty of stories where I've found myself saying, "Oh come on, why would he do THAT? It doesn't even occur to him to be suspicious?" or "Yeah, I get that peole can panic in an extreme situation, but would anyone really be THAT stupid?" etc.

My caveat is this: We expect the hero, and often the villain, to be extreme. The hero or heroine may be much more brave or smart or sexy or whatever than any real person. I don't want to read a story about a guy who goes to work in an office every day, sits at a computer filling out forms, and then goes home, eats dinner, and goes to sleep. I want to read about bold adventurers, clever spies, sexy seductresses, etc.

With non-human races, I expect them to be different from humans in some way. Well, by definition they must be different in SOME way, but this could well include their behavior. There are lots of lazy stories where the dwarves or aliens or whatever just take some human characteristic and exaggerate it. How many non-humans in fiction are extremely war-like? Or extremely conformist? These are ideas that were not very interesting to begin with and that have been beaten to death.

I read a story once where the writer said that while humans primarily think in terms of "right and wrong", the aliens think in terms of "respectable and not-respectable". It was an interesting attempt to make a truly alien alien. In my humble opinion he never explained it well or explored the implications, but it was a good try.

I once came across the "writer's guide" for the original Star Trek series. They had what I considered an excellent little exercise in there. They described 3 brief scenes, and asked which had the biggest problems. One referred to the ship as "United States Ship Enterprise". Yes that's wrong, they said, but a trivial error that can be fixed by changing one word. Another described some futuristic weapon, and they said, sure, the description of the weapon appears to violate known laws of physics, but we don't care, and we don't want writers to be pre-occupied with gadgets. The third described a teaser scene where the Enterprise is attacked, and it concludes with Captain Kirk putting his arm around Yeoman Rand "as they wait for certain death". This, they said, was wildly implausible. Move the setting to a 20th century US Navy ship. They are attacked and expect to all be killed. Would the captain of the ship put his arm around a female officer and hug her as they prepared to die? Very unlikely.

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    +1 with one caveat: we don't need the hero to be super-brave, etc., though we accept it. Consider Frodo - he's a regular guy, not particularly brave, not particularly skilled, not particularly anything. He mentions again and again and again that he's terrified of the whole situation. But you'd hardly want Aragorn, rather than Frodo, to be the MC, would you? Dec 19, 2018 at 15:04
  • You should look at The Better Angels of our Nature. It claims the exact opposite of what you're saying in the first paragraph. Yes, our neural wiring is just as oriented towards senseless violence and moral stupidity as our ancient ancestors. Yet, exogenous cultural influences have allowed us to suppress that dramatically over time. Quantitative history research bears this out. We are living in the least violent period in human history by orders of magnitude. Rates of violence, in every form, has declined precipitously over history, from its peak in pre-state societies. Dec 19, 2018 at 17:34
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    As for the rest of your answer, I agree with your characterization of alien attempts. Human psychology is very complicated. It's a push and pull of many different impulses we have, and that battle is susceptible to different environments. Yet they often treat it like a DnD character sheet where you can add "points" to charisma, and subtract points from logical thinking. It's hard enough for us to portray human nature properly in literature. I think it would be practically impossible to make a species with different nature, and keep it as complex and consistent as ours. Dec 19, 2018 at 17:53
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    @Galastel Fair enough. The hero CAN be super-brave, super-smart, whatever, and that can make for a fun story. But he doesn't have to be. The point I was trying to make is that you can have a story where the hero is super-brave and it works because the reader is caught up in the excitement of the story. But if EVERYONE in the story is super-brave, it becomes implausible.
    – Jay
    Dec 19, 2018 at 18:09
  • @Bridgeburners I've seen that argument before and find it unconvincing. How many people were killed in wars or victimized by violent in 500 BC as compared to today? (Presumably as a percentage of population.) I don't think anyone knows, so it would be almost impossible to prove that the world is more (or less) peaceful now than 2500 years ago. Yes, compared to World War 2 the world is very peaceful today. But you can always make something look good by comparing it to the worst.
    – Jay
    Dec 19, 2018 at 18:13

As someone pointed out Trek, I'd like to point out that Trek took special care (especially in DS9) to show that all the aliens had those members in their society that they disagreed with the cultural norm or saw it creatively. Much of Worf's story-lines was about being an outsider to Klingon Culture and realizing not all Klingons model his strict adherence to Honor that Worf had. For example, in TNG he eventually became an outcast for a period of time among the Klingons, having been declared without honor... however, everyone party to the entire incident knew Worf was not guilty of a damn thing even by their own laws, and that his dishonor status was done as a step to preserve the Empire and prevent information that would start a civil war from reaching the general population. Bearing the sins of an empire for it's own preservation would seem honorable to humans, but Klingons did not have any such understanding of this notion.

Honor as a concept can often be divided into two categories: Personal Honor and Societal Honor. The former concerns itself with how one perceives ones actions and the actions one would take with no one watching. That is, if I could do a moral wrong and get away with it, it would be honorable to not perform the action, witnesses or no witness. Societal Honor concerns other's perception of you and your reputation when evaluating your honorable status. Thus, if I could do a moral wrong and get away with it, it is practical to take that action, as society will still think I am honorable. While the concept of Personal Honor as described in the above is not unknown to Klingons, but it's generally pretty foreign to them in what we see.

This is entirely relatable to humans because human society recognizes these two types of honor but can be found and used against people... consider something in society that no one anticipated when writing Worf: Social Networks. These often act much like Klingon society because they rate people based on their actions perceived by the community, but not the quality of their character or the content of what is said. It can even be recognized in the past. The Tragedy of Caesar has the famous line "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil men do lives on after them; The Good Oft interred with their bones..."

In this speech, Mark Atony is stealthily explaining to the public that the stated reason for Caesar's murder was his ambitious nature but that does not discount the good that Caesar has done for his people as a leader. Up until this point, the crowd has believed that the crime of being ambitious, and ignore that Romans were better off because of Caeser alive than dead.

Even a famous Irish/Scottish Joke observes the effect of misdeeds rising above good. The joke is set in a bar where a drunk named Angus is imparting an important lesson to the traveller who doesn't know much about the local gossip. He lists all the things he did in the town in a similar format: "I built all the fences in this town [excrutiating detail into the effort it took]. But do they call me Angus the Fence Builder? No." This list goes on for some time to give you an idea that Angus has done some really great things for the town (built the church, saved the kids in the school house fire, so on and so forth) and not once is he named by the towns people for these deeds. Finally, the traveler asks Angus what his point is and Angus explains, "Because you can do all these things and no one will care to remember them," Angus then sighs, looks at his empty pint, and then looks at the traveler, "But you screw one goat..."

Star Trek was able to build from this and demonstrate the good and bad aspects of human traits by making aliens that exhibited human traits and ideas in logical excess. The Ferengi (the people who worship captitilism as a religion) have some pretty ugly traits, being opposed to unions, being greedy, selfish, and never missing an angle to make a quick buck, hating organized labor, holiday pay, sick leave, and view pregnancies as terms of contracts. But they also note that unlike humans, they never had wars among themselves (though hostile take overs are known), they never had slavery (menial wages sure, but they would never be so crass as to suggest that someone's work has no value worth paying for), and never committed genocide (why kill potential customers when you can sell to them?!). And then there are Rom and Nog, the former having no sense of business what-so-ever but is an amazing engineer and is on par with the best of Star Fleet (who in verse, have a reputation for being so good, they could take an ordinary rock and turn it into a replicator... even their enemies are impressed by them). Nog, his son, has a better buisness sense than his father, but suspects he's not nearly as good as Ferengi need to be to become big in their own society and is really upset by his father's treatment. However, he does decide to become a Starfleet officer, a first for his people, and actually carves out an impressive niche of being able to assess the situation and find the things needed to get the job done. Where as the Ferengi don't join Starfleet because there is no prophet to it, Nog is the first to realize that humans still make transactions for things they want but do not have, they just do not use currency to get it done. Even Starfleet, the military of a post-scarcity society, still has scarcities aplenty.

In a similar vein, in one DS9 episode, the crew meet a Klingon Lawyer who is not hostile or aggressive in anyway, and assume he is not a warrior and the proffesion is not the most desirable in Klingon society. The lawyer, however, argues that he is in fact a warrior still: Klingon honor codes demand that they achieve their honor on the battlefield, but are not specific about what a field of battle looks like. Is space any less a battle field than a court room in an Adversarial System? The logical conclusion is no, and he makes a rather impressive presentation of his case (in his first legal case in the Federation, which no doubt has different jurisprudence than in the Klingon Empire). In these cases, the aggressive nature is played with to show how it can be applied to professions that wouldn't otherwise matter in a society where murder is legal if it can be proven honorable.


This gets into what I have dubbed the "principle of donuts".

Humans like donuts, not because they are particularly good for us, but because they appeal to several appetites which serve their own purposes, and evolved for specific reasons.

We like sweet things - presumably in part because fruit which is sweet is often very nutritious. We like fatty things and starchy things, because they are good sources of calories (and our pre-agricultural ancestors, who we're scarcely distinguishable from, had to work hard to get enough calories). Fatty foods also often carried important proteins. Also, salt is difficult to obtain in nature, and it's key for our neurological function, and there's usually a hint of saltiness in your donut...

A thing is appetizing (or satisfying) because it appeals to appetites which already exist in us. True, people with variance in inborn preference, or raised on particular diets, may find donuts either overwhelmingly sugary and rich, or kind of bland... But there's a general popularity to donuts, not because our instincts primed us for liking donuts per se, but for all the attributes which the cook devised to combine in the donut.

As J.G. pointed out (in an answer that's probably more directly useful than mine), what is lacking in poor characterization is often not realism, but relatability. I would add that individual audience members will have trained themselves (or have been trained by their literary "diet") to expect varying degrees of realism as a prerequisite for relatability.

What is the correct level of realism? To begin with, are you making donuts? If you're unconcerned with nutritional content, and only want to hit as many appetites as possible - it's not realism exactly you need to aim for, but what your audience "likes", without putting in so many contradictions or inconsistencies that they choke.

In certain cases, making the character choose what a person would realistically choose, rather than what the audience wants them to choose, will alienate your audience. (Or so my experience and observation has led me to believe.) On the other hand, if your characters' behavior is consistently implausible and "unrelatable", your audience won't see your characters as people in the first place, and you won't have an audience for very long.

But beware - most people don't binge on donuts all day. If something doesn't feel at least a little bit "nutritious", it's staying power is actually lower.

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