One of the challenges and joys to writing speculative fiction is the chance to write non-human characters. Unfortunately, there are a lot of authors who don’t seem to put much work into fleshing out their non-human characters, and consequently, they come across as either humans in funny suits or plot devices.
I’m a firm believer that all characters should have their own agenda. I don’t really do “good guys” and “bad guys”–everybody is looking out for number one, and sometimes self-interest puts characters in conflict, but sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interests to cooperate. Frequently characters change from conflict to cooperation and back again as the situation changes.
That having been said, I feel that an author has to understand her or his non-human characters on a fundamental level in order to create a character who thinks, as John Campbell decreed, “as well as a man, but not like a man.”
Instead, what we too often get are what I call “Flash Gordon aliens”. You got your “hawk-men” who are guys with wings who act kind of hawkish, you got your “cat-men” with fur and cat eyes and short attention spans, you got your “fish-men” with scales and gills and tridents, and so on and so forth.
When I started writing Catskinner’s Book, I knew that I had to make Catskinner a believable character in his own right, and not just James’ dark side. I had some concepts in mind–Catskinner is really just a fictionalized version of a dissociative protector alter–but I wanted him to have a coherent philosophy.
To this end, I considered the five branches of traditional philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics.
Metaphysics is the study of the relationship of the self to the universe. Catskinner’s “self” is non-corporeal, but is contained within James, who is very physical. Consequently Catskinner’s metaphysic is two-tiered, first as a spirit that exists in an informational matrix, but also as a creature who operates through the limitations of James’ body. There is a continual tension between these two conceptions of the universe, his idealized universe of pure information without matter and his realization that physical objects are necessary to his continued existence within James.
Epistemology defines how a character perceives the universe, how we know what is true and what is real. Catskinner is an “orthovore”, he feeds on the order within a system that is released when that system shifts to a higher level of entropy. (Yeah, it’s psuedoscientific claptrap, but I flatter myself that it is at least consistent psuedoscientific claptrap.) Anyway, I remembered that the “macrobes” from C S Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet trilogy were described as perceiving what humans saw as vacuum as solid and physical objects as holes in the void. I liked that concept, so I stole it for Catskinner’s perception. What is “real” to him is empty space, and anything solid is a flaw in the emptiness. While he does process information from James’ eyes, he doesn’t really understand that objects have an internal structure, he just sees them as patches of darkness, the more complex, the darker. Hence human beings are “black boxes” to him, objects to be avoided when possible and removed when they get in the way.
Ethics describes our understanding of how our actions effect other persons in the universe and seeks to construct a cohesive imperative. Catskinner’s ethics is perforce somewhat limited, since he has no real conception that there are other persons in the universe, except for James. It is not so much that he lacks empathy as he lacks anything for which he could feel empathy. He is, as Godiva observed, sui generis. He has realized that some persons are important to James and that keeping James happy is important, but has no more attachment to physical beings than you or I have to passing clouds in the sky. He does have some direct awareness of other non-corporeal beings, but sees them as competing predators rather than kin.
Politics differs from ethics in that politics seeks to understand the actions of groups of independent persons who may not share the same ethos. Catskinner’s political stance is profoundly isolationist. A group of human beings working in concert is the only thing on Earth which has any real chance of harming him, which is why it is the only thing he fears. His policy has always been to keep hidden and to keep moving–this is the source of some of the conflict in Cannibal Hearts, where James has settled down to become part of community.
Aesthetics describes the sense of what should be, as opposed to what is. Catskinner is a minimalist. For him, the empty void is perfect, and anything physical is at best a necessary ugliness. He is able to apprehend that James has a particular reaction to shapes and forms, but it’s all academic to him. As far as Catskinner is concerned, only nothing is sacred.
This ended up getting longer and more theoretical than I planned, but sometimes I just have to let my inner semiotics geek out. Next time I’ll post some pictures of my cats, okay?