I've been working on a story idea for a few years now, during which I designed a world (fantasy-based) in which it would take place. The thing is that because this is a different planet, I thought it would be cool to create a world without any humans or any animals/plants found on earth. While thinking about it, however, I've become concerned with the thought that maybe a world without humans would be too difficult for readers to relate to. Even stories/movies such as Star Wars, John Carter, etc. all have humans found throughout the universe.

Even though there are no humans in the world I created, all the races are humanoid, and the plants/animals are mostly similar to earthly/fantasy plants/animals, which I thought may be able to give readers a base to start from.

So I guess my question is: Is a world without humans just too alien for a reader to get into? or do I need to re-design my world to include humans (and possibly other "already known" species)?

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    You've correctly identified a major challenge in writing such stories :) I'd be very interested in answers addressing how to craft alien POVs which are unique and non-human, yet still relateable.
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 6:16
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    'The Gods Themselves' by Asimov consists of two (sort of unrelated) stories. One of them is an alien universe, where there are for example three sexes with fixed roles for each sex. The differences in the laws of physics in the parallel universe mean that the aliens' bodies do not have the same material properties as living matter in this universe. And although it's completely different to anything we might experience as humans, it's still fascinating to read and quite easy to relate to.
    – Yisela
    Commented Sep 16, 2013 at 23:54
  • Another examples would be Egan's "Clockwork rocket" and "Dichronauts" which do not involve humans, and are set in universes with very different physical laws; Cook's "Darkwar" (humans make a brief appearance) or Vinge's Zones of Thought books (large parts of the story happen in completely alien societies).
    – fjarri
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 7:04

5 Answers 5


One of the noblest quests of science fiction is to attempt to create a convincing alien. Most of the ones we find, even in good quality science fiction, are mere variations of human beings. Yet stories, even entire novels, have certainly been written in which no human being appears. Trying to understand alien beings is an important metaphor for the crucial necessity of understanding those who are not like us, and science fiction is a marvelous place for opening our minds on this matter.

Yes, of course you can, and should, try to write something with nothing but aliens in it. If I were still editing a science fiction magazine, I for one would love to see it. And I still would anyway!

  • Just as a side note, it can also be effective to use an "alien" which is unknown or even possibly unknowable as a part of a story - like whatever created the monoliths in 2001 (at least in the movie version). Obviously, this would be an unlikely candidate for a main character.
    – Joe
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 20:28
  • @Joe Nice point, Joe. And as it happens, the monolith in 2001 originated in Arthur C. Clarke's story The Sentinel, so it was not merely in the movie. And yes, I would be hard pressed to see how to use its creator as a character. :) Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 22:46

Why do we really connect with a character anyway? It's not because they're human - not neccessarily, although it helps.

But why do animated films work? Why does an audience care if Nemo finds his Dad, or if Ratatouille becomes a chef? They're animated animals, right?

A reader or viewer will always emphasize and sympathize with any human or anthropomorphized animal/object, if we can see the same emotions in that object as in a human.

For instance, take classic sci-fi: Yoda. He's a little green alien, but we can understand him. His emotions in the way he speaks and his words convey wisdom, an old master of an even older order, who has seen it all before and is forced to watch as the younger generation comes through. We 'get' him as a character.

As I mentioned, Pixar and Sony have done wonders with the animated industry, allowing children and adults alike to connect with animated, often animal, but sometimes alien (Despicable Me minions, and Escape From Planet Earth blue aliens), characters.

So there's no reason a novel wouldn't work - but you need to create the same complex array of emotions that a human has, within an alien. If the reader can laugh, cry and feel anger, and all the other emotions, then it'll work out right.

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    I suggest you should think carefully about your argument here. The main thrust of what you are saying is that lots of stories about non-human characters succeed because we basically transpose human emotions into a non-human creature. In other words, we make something non-human into a human after all. And you're right, this works very well in mass market fiction, like Finding Nemo. But you started out your post by asking why do we connect with a character, and saying it's not because they're human, and then you went on to say make them human. (continued next comment) Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 4:31
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    So you're contradicting yourself, but I reiterate, you are correct; anthropomorphizing animals and aliens is often very entertaining and successful. My point in my answer to this post, however, is that a true alien is not merely a human hiding in an animal skin or an alien carcass. Trying to create a genuine alien is much harder than simply making a cute fish that acts like your own kid, or a wise Yoda who is really just a revered kung-fu master, grasshopper. The greatest science fiction strives for goals like this, and is much treasured by cognoscenti within the field. Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 4:35
  • I was on the verge of upvoting, because what's included in this answer reiterates what I already knew: I was already convinced it's all true. But then, indeed, John's reminder is spot on: OP's question is not how to hide a human in an alien-looking costume.
    – Levente
    Commented Apr 28, 2021 at 17:18

Absolutely. CJ Cherryh's stock-in-trade is advanced sophisticated nonhuman species, and showing how humans flail around when meeting them.

Foreigner (15 books and counting) Human among atevi

The Faded Sun trilogy Human among mri

The Chanur Saga Human among kif

And those are just the ones I've read. The woman is more prolific than Asimov. And she's terrifyingly good.

Larry Niven's Kzinti are another great example. (14 books and counting, I think)

For an easier on-ramp — because CJ Cherryh is not for wimps — there are a few Classic Trek novels by Diane Duane (Spock's World and The Romulan Way) which are set on their respective planets, and the humans don't show up until the end.

And if you think about it, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit don't really have many humans in them either. There are two main humans in LOTR, and one of them dies a third of the way in. The rest are elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, orcs, and so on.

The challenge is to make your nonhuman species relatable — to make your characters behave or think in ways which humans can understand.

  • Asked to recommend just one of her books (your favorite or the one you want to read most), which would you choose?
    – Mussri
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 13:44
  • Mot answers here seem to imply that 'humanness' is purely biological/anatomical. Seriously, I've seen too many wooden, stupid, unsympathetic, and plainly, too me, non-human human characters to count. On the other hand, I can't see why elves or hobbits are any less 'human' than the biological humans in LOTR. From the OP's description, his characters seem to be mostly 'human-like'. What I'd really be concerned about in his shoes is the social/sentience/sapience differences they'd have compared to us. (-->)
    – Mussri
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 13:49
  • (CONT'D) Biology, ecology, history and contemporary society are what ultimately decides how 'human' the aliens are. So other challenges would be: How and in what ways are they similar/different to us given the differences in everything in their environment (which is what what shaped them) to ours (what shaped us), and why are they similar/different in these ways?
    – Mussri
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 13:53
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    @Mussri Your thought is aligned with mine. In my own story, Embodied In Its Opposite, I placed a human ambassador on a distant planet among creatures I tried to make so unlike us that nothing about them even seemed human. It's a daunting task, to say the least, but it's worth doing. Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 18:21
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    @Mussri If I had to pick one series, I would definitely say Foreigner. Be warned that the first book is very hard to get through, reflecting the state of mind of the protagonist, but the remainder flow much smoothly. Stick with it; it's exceptionally rewarding. Bren is a hero for his intellect and his skills at diplomacy, which is damn refreshing. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 1:23

The podcast 'Writing Excuses' talked about this in an episode (season 3, episode 3)

They got a question on how to make aliens convincingly alien in regards to personality and behavior as opposed to biology.

Their guest, Eric James Stone, answered the following:

"One of the most difficult things to do in writing science fiction is to write from an alien point of view. For that very reason. We don't relate very well to people or things that don't think like we do. The stranger they are, the harder it is to pull off the idea that this is a thinking being yet with thinking so extraordinarily different from ours. I think what you have to do is essentially try to put yourself in the mindset of the creature and figure out its logic which may be very different from our logic. What its priorities are and how it gets to its priorities."

And Brandon Sanderson had this answer:

"This is an excellent question. I say that because it's something that science fiction writers have been arguing over for about 100 years. Because it's a really fine balance. Science fiction in particular -- fantasy to a lesser extent honestly -- science fiction tries for realism in its aliens. There is an entire movement for this. As Eric said, the more realistic you get, the less identifiable. There are authors out there doing a brilliant job of this. I really like it when Vernor Vinge does it. He manages to do it well. I would say how does he manage to make aliens that feel so strange yet work so well? in one hand, he's building on the common attributes. He's saying what is universal between all sentient beings? What are these creatures... how are they going to be similar? And using those similarities to highlight the differences. So that when you run into one of those differences, you run smack into it face first. It's like The Left Hand of Darkness if you've read that. When some of the differences come in, you run into them face first because the book spends a lot of time building ground between the common beliefs between the humans and the aliens, and then... bam! No. There is something completely different. Using those two things to highlight one another would be what I would suggest."

  • It should also be noted that the very alienness can be exploited to stir fear, wonder, curiosity, confusion, or other emotions. Even among humans, not all relation is sympathetic. Also, the emotional reaction of the reader does not need to make sense to a character and vice versa. E.g., a r-selection species might have a mind that acts randomly under high stress since reason or even gut feelings are more likely to be wrong (and doom everyone to the same reaction) in highly variable environments and losing 95% is better than losing 100%. A human could not sympathize much with ...
    – user5232
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 17:07
  • ... such sentient beings but could be drawn into the story by curiosity (why do they act so strangely, how do they maintain a society given such behavior) or fear (what if such crazy aliens actually exist and come to earth). Inaccurate feelings are still feelings/relationships (e.g., misplaced pity).
    – user5232
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 17:10

Characters appeal to us because of the element of personification. Emotions, human-like actions and thoughts is what makes them relate to us. Well, it isn't just about humans, but characters resembling things which we can relate too.. e.g. dogs, cats, sheep, etc.

It's really difficult to create characters which can't be related to humans as such. But then, in that case, you provide hints through references to human/familiar actions/attitudes.

If the races you are creating are humanoid, then there won't be a problem relating to them.

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