Good morning, readers.
I have an inertia problem. The longer I don’t post on this blog, the less I want to post on this blog. The more I imagine that it’s a pointless endeavor and the more I have flashbacks to trying to start conversations in the middle school lunch room.
In order to break that inertia–because I know I should be blogging and I know that very few of you are scrutinizing my words for the merest hint of weakness, which you will seize upon in order to heave yourselves up the social hierarchy, if only for a moment–here’s something I’m calling a “lazy blog.”
Sometimes people ask me questions on forums. This often results in an enormous answer that might as well be a blog post. So I’m cheating and making a couple into blog posts, which is probably okay, since I suspect most of you don’t kick around those fora (and if you do, feel free to talk about Fire in the Blood more!).
Here’s Lazy Blog #1, a question from Entromancer on Candlekeep, a forum for Forgotten Realms fans.
Originally posted by Entromancer
Erin, I’d like to pick your brain on the writing process for the Brimstone Angels characters. How do you approach writing from the perspectives of the tieflings and dragonborn in such a way that someone couldn’t shrug any of these off as being interchangeable with humans?
There are four “directions” I think non-human characters ought to be considered from, assuming you want them to be relatable (e.g. if they have a point-of-view within a narrative, they ought to be relatable). To roughly sketch them out with categories I literally just made up:
Internal-Internal: This is who they are on the inside, their hopes and fears and goals and such. Their personality. This is the most “human” part, because again, we’re assuming relatability. Besides, when you’re talking about tieflings and dragonborn and even cambions, you’re talking about races that are part human. You can’t lose sight of that. Specifics here ought to broadly match up to the kinds of specifics you’d give a human character: What does she do to relieve stress? How does he react when a pretty/handsome counterpart flirts? Are they a morning person? Do they like snakes? What would make them barf? Etc.
But the next critical step to consider in terms of a non-human character is how socio-cultural pressures affect their personality.* The pitfall here is the PHB Prototype Trap: making your character The Tiefling or The Dragonborn or The Elf, even, instead of considering them as an individual within their culture/others’ culture. Characters shouldn’t exist solely to show off the PHB summary, you know? They need to have their own story, not just the story of their race.
The Brimstone Angels excerpt placed in the tiefling entry for the 5E PHB summarizes this: Tieflings don’t have a homogenous culture, but it’s fair to say many societies marginalize them in a predictable way and expect bad things from them. So what do you do? Do you fight that perception? Do you embrace it? Do you ignore it and push it all down? Do you happen to live in circumstances where you’re “normal” and you don’t need to think about what it’s like to be a tiefling somewhere else? The pressures on a tiefling in Calimshan aren’t going to be the pressures in Narfell or Impiltur or Aglarond or Neverwinter or Cormyr. Farideh’s grown up in a village full of tieflings who fled their home societies and so she’s been bombarded with a mix of internalized racism and kind of passive defiance. That shapes her.
Dragonborn in Djerad Thymar/Tymanther have most of my focus right now, and they actually have a greater risk of falling into the PHB Prototype Trap, because they do come from a really homogenous culture. The culture of DT is hugely structured. You have a place in a clan, which has a place in the whole of society, and signaling where you fit is a big deal. They wear the clan piercings, they have a strict division between adolescence and adulthood based on whether you’ve served in the Lance Defenders or earned your status weapon. There’s a kind of comfort for someone from this world in seeing these indicators, in knowing before you ever speak who someone is. That’s not a pressure that’s familiar in those terms to North American readers, but we might be familiar with the kind of conforming pressures that mean our outward appearance/dress fits us into a mold.
Someone like Mehen who’s clanless, who has no place in society, really agitates people. WHO ARE YOU EVEN? And that in turn agitates Mehen, because he grew up here. He used to have those same reactions. Being who he is, he kind of shrugs it off and gets more and more angry. On the other hand, someone like Kallan–who grew up in the homesteads raising sheep and became a sellsword–hasn’t really felt much pressure for lacking clan piercings. His society has been his family and maybe some far-flung neighbors who all know him personally as So-and-So’s boy. Followed by a life where very few people even know to look for piercings. It annoys him to have people act like he’s this unmoored ghost, because this is a new-fangled pressure, but to him, that’s just city-folk nuttery.
And then if you take them out of Tymanther, both of them get treated like novelties. Mehen uses that to intimidate people into leaving him alone, mostly. In Ashes of the Tyrant right now, he’s made Brin a sort of figurehead leader of the party, because he’s come to realize humans pay their own kind more fairly.
TL;DR: Think about ways that the character’s personality is shaped by the way the people they regularly interact with treat them.
External-Internal: This is the next step from the above. The people that your non-human characters interact with are going to notice that they’re not human. They will have a variety of opinions on this fact. Showcasing a variety of reactions and interactions helps shape the world the non-human characters live in. Whether that’s not-reacting (“What’ll it be?”), acting SUPER OKAY WITH IT (“I think it’s so cool you have a tail! My babysitter was a tiefling!”), getting skittish (“…Yeah, I’m going to need that coin up front. You know. Just in case.”), being a full-on bigot (“We don’t like your kind around here.”) or anything in between, people are complicated. And showing those interactions and your character’s reaction to those interactions is important. This, IMO, is the best way to display that PHB Prototype: reader’s will pick it up in the differences between the expectations and the realities of your character.
Internal-External: This is simpler. It boils down to remembering that physically, these characters have attributes that aren’t human. Farideh and Havilar’s tails. Mehen’s facial structure/teeth. Lorcan’s wings. These are all tools for signaling emotional reactions. Dragonborn in particular are hard to describe in ways that indicate emotional reactions. They don’t have human faces and so they can’t, say, wrinkle their noses or stick out their tongues the way we do or smile or frown in as subtle a way (assuming that your viewpoint character is a human; a dragonborn would likely pick up a lot of nuance a human would miss entirely).
And in a broader sense, just reminding readers that those parts exist (and are absolutely normal to those characters!) makes a difference.
Example: All my dragonborn tap their tongues against the roofs of their mouths when they’re nervous. Because I’ve seen people say that they’re functionally reptiles or functionally monotremes, this is me taking that to the logical step of giving them an enhanced Jacobsen’s organ, which lets them smell better. So, the biz gets tense, you introduce some air to that organ out of reflex, you taste that this dude you’re talking to is nervous, you react accordingly. Nothing more beneficial, really, than reading someone’s body language, but more tailored to a character who experiences the world in a very different body.
External-External: This is the inverse of the above. How do your non-human characters interact with the world beyond? Do they fit? How do they adapt to make themselves fit? What do they do to survive? What kind of jobs might be open to them and what would they never be able or willing to do?
A really obvious, basic example is furniture. Tieflings are going to be really good at sitting down carefully since their tails could easily get in the way. In Fire in the Blood Farideh gets strapped down to a chair and she can’t get comfortable because her tail doesn’t fit. They need room to either let it trail over the back, or to wrap alongside their leg. But they live like this so it’s something they consider—other places aren’t going to think about that. Similarly, dragonborn are sized like very big humans. Imagine going through doorways and using furniture as a 6’8”, 350 lb person. Not everything is going to fit you. So is this the kind of character who brings their own campstool with them? Is this the kind of character who wordlessly breaks off the arm rests of a chair so they can sit comfortably? Do they complain about it or suffer in silence? Do they just stand? Do they sit on the floor?
The takeaway here (but for all of this really) is to put yourself in the shoes of your character as much as possible, and think about them as an individual first and foremost.
Hope that helps!
*This is all important for human characters, too, by the way.