Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Five more features to change

Inspired by Writtenwyrdd’s suggestion that speculative fiction writers change something other than a character’s eyes (because that’s the first thing most of us think to change), here are a few other ideas.

1. Skin

Skin color, texture, etc. is an extremely easy way to differentiate a character or race from the norm. Zoology can provide a lot of inspiration in this regard – the ways in which animals’ hides camouflage or protect them can often be adapted to humanoid skins as well.

When I first discovered the Wild Cards novels, I came up with a few Aces of my own. One of them was Slime, who, as you can probably guess, oozed fluids of various kinds from his skin. Said fluids could be highly acidic (used as a weapon), flame-retardant (a defense), strongly adhesive (enabling him to climb snail-like up the side of a building) and so on.

2. Mouths

Alien or fantastic species might not use their mouths for the same things humans do. Human mouths serve at least two functions – ingestion and speech (intimacy and nonverbal communication are others). An alien might use its mouth simply for talking, and would be as unlikely to put food in there as you would be to stuff French fries in your ear. He/she might also be concerned about how easy it is for humans to end up with food/partially-digested food getting into the respiratory system by accident.

Or, conversely, the mouth might be used for eating alone, and the species would communicate through some method other than spoken speech. Either way, this is a quick and easy way to show how different a species is.

3. Hair

For me, hair is a tricky area. I’d really like to give a few of my characters streaks, but that’s been done so very often in speculative fiction that it seems stale. The ability to change hair color or length would be useful to a character, but it always reminds me of Tonks from the Harry Potter books.

One thing that wouldn’t remind me of Tonks, though, is hair that magically sets itself into different styles. That might be great for a light-hearted story.

4. Hands

Alterations to hands are easy to do, and just as importantly, easy to communicate to the reader. I’ve altered characters by giving them weapons that slide out of their wrists, but I’ve read of fantastic species that have fangs under their fingernails.

And what about palm-located chemical sensors that resemble tightly closed, lipless mouths or stomata? For that matter, I wouldn’t mind having sensors of different kinds in my fingertips either.

5. Teeth

I have characters with fangs – not just the two dainty eating implements prominently featured in Interview with the Vampire but more like a cat’s or dog’s teeth. Zoology comes in handy here as well. I’d like to see characters with the gnawing abilities of rodents, only multiplied to the point where they can chew escape routes through wooden walls in a few hours. Or how about poison-injecting teeth like those of venomous snakes?

Or maybe they don’t have teeth at all, so they expel digestive fluids into or on their food and then absorb the resulting products. I would definitely provide them with individual soup spoons for that purpose.


writtenwyrdd said...

Even more difficult to do well: Make you nonhumans non-bipedal. I know that it's more difficult to get into the head of a character who isn't bipedal; but it would be a good challenge to attempt it.

I got some really harsh comments on an alien AI based on slimemold which inhabited hosts. It thought like a computer. They didn't like it. They really, really didn't like it. :)

Sarpedon said...

The magical style changing hair makes me think of Susan in Terry Pratchett's Discworld

ChristaCarol said...

Hm, I"m trying to think how I can do this with my characters. Maybe teeth . . . nothing like a good character having bad teeth. Genetics run in fantasy life, too, eh?

Loren said...

Look around the Earth's biota, and you'll find lots of features that may look odd by human standards.

Skin - how about scales or armadillo-like tough leather? Turtle-like shells would be rather heavy, however, and that's what makes turtles slow.

Digestion - birds don't chew with their mouths, but instead, they wolf it down and grind up their food in their gizzards (tough, muscular stomachs). Helping out this grinding up is what pet-bird grit is for.

Tentacles? Insect-like mouthparts? (modified limbs) Antennae?


Marian said...

Hey writtenwyrdd,

You're right, such a character wouldn't be easy, though what I'd find interesting about such a challenge would be making the character as cool as possible anyway.

There are tripedal antelopes in Wayne Barlow's Expedition but if I were trying such a character in a fantasy, I'd probably attempt a winged, legless dragon of some kind. But the intelligent slime mold sounds great too. :)

Marian said...

Hey Christa,

Wasn't there a James Bond villain who had metallic teeth? Maybe you could use that as a jumping-off point - give people different kinds of teeth.

Or rather than sprouting fangs when they're ready to feed, how about they grow wild boar tusks when they're about to go into battle?

That would be berserker awesome.