The definition of “person” in a human-free story

Hobsyllwin and Kume (artwork by Ciruelo)

Hobsyllwin and Kume (artwork by Ciruelo)

Fantasy and sci-fi stories aren’t limited to human characters. With a little thought and effort, an author can give intelligence, emotion and personality to just about anything we can imagine — animal, vegetable, mineral, or abstract concepts. Dragons and cat-people are actually fairly tame choices, if you think about it.

But fantasy/sci-fi brings up some weak points in our languages — such as the distinction of what, exactly, a “person” is. Is it an accurate term for xenomorphs and magical creatures? Would a non-human individual even identify with the human word “person”?

Oh, there are ways around the issue. We can refer to intelligent non-humans as “beings” or “individuals”. Characters can talk about “this one” or “that one”. And a story can just call characters by their names, species and formal titles, without ever speaking broadly about persons or people.

But why avoid it? If we can’t question the nature of personhood in genres full of faeries and aliens, where can we question it?

colourfulpeople2Language-wise, it’s a tricky issue. Here on real-life Earth, Homo sapiens hasn’t met any other clearly defined intelligent races yet, so we usually only need to talk about ourselves. The human connotation of “person” is usually a moot point. We do, however, see it surface occasionally in the news — such as in medical definitions of consciousness, or as part of the movement to grant personhood rights to whales and dolphins. (That link actually makes some interesting points about the nature of personhood, so I highly recommend reading it.)

This question seems to get mixed responses in the anthropomorphic/furry circles I’ve experienced. Some fans feel that “person” is a term too strongly tied to the human species. Furry literature sometimes uses “fur” to identify an intelligent being — so that an anthropomorphic fox character talks about this fur, somefur, everyfur or anyfur. It’s a striking way to remind the reader that there are no humans here, as well as give the characters a sense of their own vocabulary and culture.

Myself? I think “person” can be used to describe any being comparable to a human in intelligence or complexity. “Person” and “people” are commonly used words in my Stories of Aligare, where the three races call each other “peoplekind” instead of “species”.

Peregrine and Tillian

Here’s TwilightSaint‘s art again!

That was a partly reactionary choice, I have to admit. Anthropomorphic characters are is often marketed — and perceived by the general public — as vapid children’s entertainment. I’ve long been frustrated with people assuming that my stories aren’t about humans, therefore they must be about cartoon mascots for preschoolers. Awww, look at the little animal people! No, my characters are just people.

But word roots also factored into my choice. In the English language, “person” didn’t originally specify a human at all. Quoth the dictionary:

ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French persone, from Latin persona ‘actor’s mask, character in a play,’ later ‘human being.’

Roman_masks

Tragedy and Comedy masks, depicted in a 2nd century Roman mosiac.

Throughout human history, masks have represented a wide variety of beings — humans, animals, mythological beings and gods. And hey, that brings us back to the idea that when we open our minds, anything and anyone can be a significant, meaningful character. Fantasy and sci-fi have the power to really explore that.

So that’s why I like to classify intelligent, fictional beings by the same “person” term I’d use for myself. That term can help a seemingly simple creature serve us up some food for thought.


4 Comments on “The definition of “person” in a human-free story”

  1. You bring up some good points, Heidi. I myself use ‘creature-kind’ and ‘kind’ in my novels, but the way you’ve explained the term and use of ‘people’ makes it totally valid in non-human worlds.

    • Thanks! There’s room for non-humans to be people, but it’s is definitely a matter of each author’s personal taste (no irony intended). I like the term “creature” in non-human worlds, too. I dunno, it has a respect-all-forms-of-life sort of feel to me.

  2. marianallen says:

    Great post! I don’t see any problem with referring to anyone with a PERSONality as a PERSON. It’s tradition among humans to refer to or to consider their own specific group as THE PEOPLE, so it seems reasonable that groups of intelligent beings might each consider themselves more legitimately “people” than others, and learn to work out some cross-cultural …. Oh, damn, now I want to go write something!

    REALLY great post! And super art, too!


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