Trope Explorer #5: Not Quite Human

The Not Quite Human is a trope that has a plethora of sub-tropes. It’s mostly used in sci-fi or urban fantasy and similar genres. Aliens. Little Green Men (which is a trope in itself), Werewolves (shapeshifters of all types, actually), and various other creatures, monsters, alien-types, gods, etc. that all can or have appeared to be human.

Photo by Ranah Malberg on Unsplash

In this post, I’m going to be concentrating on two particular tropes, one that falls under the heading of Not Quite Human, which is Ambiguously Human.

According to, Ambiguously Human usually means that:

Sure, they seem human, what with their upright stance, human-like intelligence, and ability to speak, and yet there’s just something about them that gives them away as something distinctly other. Maybe it’s that they live in a series where no human can do the things they do, maybe it’s that a certain part of their body (or even most of it) is kept conspicuously concealed or they explicitly have a visible part of their body that’s unusual such as weird-coloured hair or Four-Fingered Hands (provided not everyone in the work looks like that), maybe they were clearly human at some point but something happened to them that may have made them undead/supernatural, or maybe it’s that there just plain aren’t any “other” humans around, raising suspicions.

And the trope Humanoid Aliens, which falls under the trope Bizarre Alien Biology which according to is:

There are Human Aliens which are indistinguishable from humans (at least on the outside appearance). Then there are Rubber-Forehead Aliens, which look like humans but with some minor differences.

Then there are Humanoid Aliens that have the general shape of a human, but definitely look nothing like us.

In my mind, these two tropes, Humanoid Aliens and Ambiguously Human can be combined, or often appear in the same novel or movie, although there are some distinct differences between them, mostly, in my opinion, having to do with genre.

  • Aliens vs. Paranormal Creatures
    • Either aliens or paranormal creatures (let’s use werewolves as an example) could fall under the tropes of either Ambiguously Human or Humanoid Aliens, with the “Alien” part referring to unfamiliarity in terms of the paranormal. For instance, though many people are familiar with the myth of the werewolf, an average human would no doubt consider them in the category of aliens. The important thing to remember is that when it comes to aliens vs. (let’s say) werewolves, in terms of not being quite human, for aliens it’s usually a biological reason, and for werewolves it’s usually a sort of magical, shape shifting reason.
  • Magic vs. Science (Biology)
    • When you have a story involving aliens, to the humans, at first, they seem like a mythical or even magical creature. Especially if the physical or mental capabilities of the aliens are along mythical lines (ex. mind reading). This is where the lines between, say, urban fantasy and science fiction are sometimes blurred. The science fiction author may be explaining the mind reading with scientific sounding words and explanations that have no basis in reality, and the fantasy writer will (most likely) chalk it off to magic, and honestly it’s just the same cat in different fur. But the distinction is sometimes what defines the genre, other than, perhaps, the setting.
  • Would Aliens Even Work in Urban Fantasy?
    • So let’s say, besides the werewolves, vampires, and witches in your urban fantasy, you also have aliens. Aliens usually come from space, which means space flight, which means your milieu may or may not change, which means the urban part would no longer apply. Also, every single one of your other characters, the witch, the vampire, and the werewolf, are what they are because of magic (most of the time; this is not a rule) and your aliens are . . . firmly based in a science you generally ignore? Unless, of course, you go the Star Wars route and make whatever the hell kind of aliens you want – who cares about biology. (No offence, biologists.) Having your aliens ignore magic culturally would work, but physically would be stretching the credibility of your world (although, let’s face it, at the end of the day you’re writing about werewolves, aliens, vampires, and witches – anything goes).
  • Werewolves in Space
    • What if your fantasy creatures were the aliens? From one standpoint, a werewolf in space sounds like a terrible idea (how would that effect the full moon scenario?), but the great thing about myths and legends is that no one knows how much is real, not real, made up, twisted, lost, changed – you can do whatever the hell you want. Maybe, your werewolves (spacewolves?) don’t have to turn on the full moon. Or maybe they turn every time their spaceship flies past a moon. Either way, for most of the time, they would be both Ambiguously Human and Humanoid Aliens.
  • There’s A Slight Difference, But That’s The Only Difference
    • A lot of writers simply give their Ambiguous Human or Humanoid Alien weird eyes or an unusual skin color and call it a day. These stories aren’t any less enjoyable because of that, but if you’re advertising your book as exploring a completely alien sounding character or mythical creature or person, then readers may feel disappointed when they read your book and all they find are humans with cat eyes who can jump super high. Or green skinned Victoria Secret models in space. Or humans with wings. The term ‘alien’ (for sci-fi) and ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ person or creature (for fantasy) implies not only a difference physically, but also differences in culture and language, in ways of thinking, and even in values or morals.

Ambiguous Human and Humanoid Aliens in Popular Culture

Humanoid Aliens

  • C.J. Cherryh does this brilliantly in her Foreigner series with the atevi aliens. They are humanoid in form, except with golden eyes, dark skin (all of them) and are very tall compared to humans. The way they think is vastly different from humans to the point where a misunderstanding could be fatal. One of the defining factors of the series (as I’ve read it so far) is that the main character, a human, constantly struggles with the fact that he can’t think of the atevi in human terms.
  • Stargate SG-1 featured various humanoid aliens, most notably the Goa’uld and the Tokra, which are essentially the same alien species, but with very different ways of treating their human hosts. The show Stargate Atlantis introduced the humanoid aliens the Wraith, who have also been colloquially referred to as “space vampires”. However, only the Goa’uld and the Tok’ra can pretend to be fully human.
  • Star Wars. Basically any alien that had human-like physical form, but with added physical differences. For example, the Twi’lek species, which were human in form, but were often blue or green, and had appendages, called lekku, that formed from their heads and trailed to their shoulders.

Ambiguous Humans

  • In the Mercy Thompson series buy Patricia Briggs werewolves, vampires, and the fey abound. All of them can present as humans, although the vampires have the most difficult time of seeming human and often have to use a form of hypnotism to ensure that humans walk away thinking they were talking to a normal person. Some of the Fey also can not use glamour, are generally in hiding. The werewolves are the best at seeming human; in fact, they essentially are half-human in a way, as they were all born humans (as were the vampires, but they lose their humanity to a degree far more than the werewolves). For the werewolves, it is a constant struggle between their humanity and their wolves.
  • In a similar vein, the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire features Fey who appear human on a regular basis. Some are only part human, but still have to wear a sort of glamour to disguise tell-tale signs of they Feyness, most notably their ears and their exquisite beauty. The series also features creatures like the Cait Sidhe, who can appear human, human-like Fey, and shift into cats. Sometimes their behavior is very cat-like in human form, which can disturb those around them.
  • Recently I’ve started watching Teen Wolf again. In the show, there are werewolves that are bitten, but also werewolves that are born. Derek Hale, one of the characters in the series, is a natural born werewolf who eventually gets the ability to shift to a full wolf. In the Teen Wolf universe, that is a rare ability even for a werewolf. His position as a Ambiguous Human is farther from human, in a sense, than Scott McCall, the main character who is a bitten werewolf.

Writing Prompt

Write a story/scene where a character is either an Ambiguous Human or Humanoid Alien. For an Ambiguous Human try to give an indication of the character not being fully human without making it obvious. Describe an unusual behavior, or have another character notice something off about them. For the Humanoid Alien, keep the physical description simple, more human-like than not, but use other indicators of why this person is not human. Something about the way they speak, or the way they think.

Be sure to link any stories in the comments below!

Let me know what you think of the tropes Ambiguous Human or Humanoid Aliens? Comment below!

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