Robots Are People, Too: On the Ways Writers Use Non-Human Characters to Tell Human Stories
Allegories, Companions, Advisor, Otherworldly, and Outsiders
The rise of chatbots like ChatGPT, Bard, and Claude has revived old debates about just how human a machine can be. When it comes to the capabilities of these current tools, the answer is simple (spoiler: they’re not), but in the world of literature, the answer is very different.
Sapient machines have appeared in stories for over a hundred years, but they’re just one example in our long tradition of using non-human characters to tell stories about ourselves. Long before Asimov wrote his first story about robots, we were telling stories about animals, trees, and even rocks that could talk and think like we do, all in the service of telling a great story.
I’ve grouped these characters into four broad categories based on how they’re used, but any story could include two or more categories, depending on the motives of the author.
Allegory and Satire
Non-human characters, especially animals, are great at subtle communication when the author has something to say. The character’s inherent nature can be shorthand for specific ideas, qualities, or beliefs, and the reader picks up on this almost subconsciously thanks to centuries of traditions and archetypes in storytelling. No matter how accurate or inaccurate it may be in reality, it’s easy to read a lion character as regal or noble and a rat as traitorous or dirty.
One of the main benefits of using non-human characters in allegory is that they soften what could otherwise be an annoyingly didactic story. It removes the story from daily life just enough that it becomes more palatable. The story of Peter Rabbit, for example, would be insufferable if it was just another Edwardian tale about a naughty boy. The reader doesn’t always want the point to be spelled out for them, so non-human characters create enough of a remove from reality, while still feeling familiar, that the moral is understandable without feeling too “on the nose.”
This style of storytelling isn’t just for fables and children’s literature. Orwell’s Animal Farm without the animals would be a heavily summarized and potentially boring history lesson. Changing the humans of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era to animals makes it easy to identify traits from historical figures with certain characters. There’s a reason that Napoleon is a pig and Boxer is a workhorse. The animal characters also help lighten the tone of a dark story, at least for a while, but then make the outcome feel even more tragic and the transformation of the pigs even more ironic.
The Outsider’s Perspective
While they may act like humans, non-human characters are still different enough that they can feel a little alien, and this is a useful tool for telling stories. Sometimes, the most effective way to comment on human behavior is to take the perspective of someone outside looking in. This outsider character can be a naive newcomer or could also be someone who has been ostracized or othered in a community for quite some time. In these stories, the non-human character can comment on what humans are doing because it’s unfamiliar to them, which encourages the reader to consider a part of their life or culture that they may have never thought about.
Robots are an especially common character in this type of storytelling. I specifically chose to make the protagonist of my novel, The Inevitable, a robot, so that he could explore human ideas about the value of life and what it means to be human through an outsider’s lens. Robots in stories often look human while also being very different, especially when they can’t understand the social aspects of being a human. That feeling of being the same but different is very familiar and relatable to readers.
The outsider-ness can work both ways, too. A human can be the outsider in a community of non-humans. Portal fantasies are a common way to create this perspective, as in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. So is a story about visiting an alien civilization, as in Burroughs’ stories about John Carter of Mars. Even though humans may be the minority, the differences in customs, religion, politics, and morals are easy to highlight, and frequently reveal quite a bit about the author’s biases.
The Companion or Advisor
In some stories, human characters have a friend or caretaker who isn’t human and serves a support or advisory role. This is a particularly common role for machines and artificial intelligences because they’re often portrayed as incredibly intelligent and rare. Think of Dixie Flatline or Wintermute in Gibson’s Neuromancer. But it’s just as common for animals and even children’s toys to play this role.
Non-human characters have an advantage in these stories because it’s easy for the author to give them wisdom and experience that most humans don’t have. They can also be there for a human character when other humans aren’t around, aren’t emotionally available, or are an open threat.
The Whimsical or Otherworldly
Sometimes an author doesn’t want to convey a message; they want a feeling or tone that isn’t available in our everyday lives. This is where non-human characters really shine. They can feel whimsical and humorous, as in Label’s Frog and Toad series, or alien and even menacing, as in Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. The possibilities are essentially endless because characters can be tailored to fit any tone or setting. Basically, all the author needs to do is ask “What if…?”
Myths and legends have used this technique for millennia. Talking animals are common in ancient stories from just about every culture, and plenty of other objects, like trees, rivers, and landmarks, get the anthropomorphic treatment. They can even be gods or demigods with mystical powers and superhuman abilities that invoke a sense of awe.
These characters can also bring the feeling of the otherworldly home to a familiar setting. Supernatural creatures like kitsune or golems are great examples because they live among humans, and cultures throughout the world have stories of spirits, fairies, gnomes, and other creatures who live just outside of our perceptions but still bring a sense of wonder and mystery to the otherwise unremarkable setting of our daily lives.
The common thread connecting these characters is the way their attributes contrast with our own. They’re similar to humans in some key ways, especially their desires, and yet so very different in their abilities and appearance. It’s an incredible tool for storytelling. Nothing is off limits. We can explore our own humanity through magnificent dragons, distant aliens, or a Brave Little Toaster.
It’s hard to tell if this is a surprisingly inclusive thing for us to do, to look beyond ourselves for inspiration, or an unsurprisingly narcissistic thing to do, to make even animals and objects just like us. Either way, it’s incredibly human.