What is the definition of “person” and how it relates to speculative fiction

philosopher-mugThe strangest conversations or random thoughts keep me up at night. Sometimes, I write the ideas down and sometimes I call somebody up and ponder with them until that person is either as confused as I am, or ready to hang up, lol. I’m the only only person I know who seems not to need sleep… until about an hour before work. So, here is the latest question that was brought up to me during a writers critique group. What is the definition of “person”? Meaning: what is considered a person and what is not?

I’m steadily working on my second book, The Third Gambit, and for all of you who’ve read or just know a little something about my series Order’s Last Play, you know most of my cast aren’t human. The Fourth Piece, the first book, takes place mostly on Earth, but this second book does not. My characters encounter, interact with, and befriend many different races of alien people. A particular scene has to do with one of the Ladreth brothers discussing the fate of another alien race, and he refers to them as people. A fellow writer said: Oh, I’m confused. I thought Devon was the only “person” in this scene. I blink, confused myself, because there are seven other characters hanging around. Come to find out that to this writer, because Devon is the only character in the scene who is at least half human, he is the only one considered to be a “person”, everyone else is a creature. Another writer said: No, they are all people in this scene because they are humanoid in appearance.

Well, some of my aliens are not humanoid in appearance, are they then creatures? Also, one writer’s definition of “person” was that to be a person you had to be from a certain planet. Well, then to an alien’s perspective, I’m not a person and neither is the other writer. Rather than get into a debate, we moved on to another story, but it didn’t stop me from thinking about it. Especially when the other writer then said she was going to look up the definition of the word “person” for next group.

When I got home, I looked up the word “person”. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as: human, individual; the body of a human being; the personality of a human being; one that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties. **Author’s note: This definition has been truncated due to excessive length, lol.** If I were to use the first and second definitions, my fellow writers were right in saying my non-human characters are not people or are only considered people if they appear humanoid. If I were to use the last definition, then all of my characters are people… but this last definition is troubling.

According to this definition, those who are not given rights by law are not people. In certain places in the world, and in certain time periods, there are and were individuals who are not/were not protected by law or given certain rights: slaves, women, non-Christians, the disabled, the mentally ill. Does/did that make them not people? Well, to a lot of others, they weren’t, and did these others make up definitions to exclude folks they didn’t think much of or wanted control over, yes. I would love to bite into that debatable nugget too, but I’m getting off-track. So, back to definitions and writers groups.

So, next week, I know that my fellow writer will probably come in to read to me the definition of “person” that she found in a dictionary, and I need something to combat it with. I started looking at the definition of “person” from a philosophical standpoint and took bits and pieces from others along with some of my own ideas and came up with the following. In my opinion, a person is a self-aware being in possession of higher mental facilities, capable of independent thought, reasoning, and reflection, and that has language or means of communication. Using this definition, I can conclude that all of my characters are people.

I also want to take this one step further as the subject of my first book was meant to parallel current and past equality movements. In my book, Visitors (people not native to Earth) and vulattos (offspring of Visitors and humans) are discriminated against. In the eyes of the humans who won’t accept them, they are creatures and non-people, meaning they don’t have feelings or thoughts and are not intelligent. The moral of the story is that the definition of a person is: a self-aware being in possession of higher mental facilities, capable of independent thought, reasoning, and reflection, and that has language or means of communication. Those who come from a different place and look differently than you and who may do things differently are not beneath you or so unlike you that you can regard them as things or animals, because if you’re not a person what else can you be? And all people are to be treated with dignity and respect and should be given unspoken rights to fair treatment and protected by law.

I wrote about the importance of tolerance, but used aliens as a literary device. I guess it kind of stings to hear that assessment from someone who read the first book and is now well into the second. I wanted to smack myself in the face and moan about how I failed. I wanted to say: That was the mentality I was attacking, and you didn’t get it! But I didn’t want to preach (not at the meeting anyway). Not everybody is going to get what you put on the page and why, but for those who do, and who let you know that they got it, it’s great.

So, my purpose for writing this is to give a definition of the word “person” as it relates to a speculative writer who features beings from other planets as characters. Why?–because our silly Earth dictionaries aren’t cutting it :D. I know I got on my soapbox a little bit, and got off task, because phew, a lot was said to get out that one little definition. But I feel better for having shared all this. No hard feelings toward anyone. What was said tonight really bugged me. I know it was said in innocence and I doubt the writer was thinking of equality movements or social justice, just the written terms “creatures” versus “humans” and I took it to another level. Had she used the word “human” I’d have been fine, but to say someone who feels, thinks and reacts is not a “person” just rubbed me the wrong way.

Okay, it’s late, I’m yawning, but probably won’t go to sleep for hours. Let’s see if I can be productive and maybe get some writing done. Sorry to pop back up after a month of silence with philosophy, but hey, I like being random. It keeps me interesting.

Until next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. I’ve never once looked up the definition of “person” and certainly never realized that once I might not have been considered a person by a portion of this definition. To me there is a difference between being what I would call a citizen (recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties) and being a person. The potential for not being considered a *person* as well as not being considered a citizen (a sad fact of women’s history and black history among others) boggles the mind. I think the term has evolved through literature and evolving perspectives, however, and considering that I am at least human I count as a person even if I am not recognized as a citizen by law. I don’t even think twice when I read fiction assuming that the Blokthornians from Tinderwall and their red squibble cousins are people. In the expanded universes of science fiction and fantasy, an Elf is just as much a person as a Jovian or a Human. If that intelligent alien is, however, so different from me as a human (i.e. not having the personality of a human being) such as a strange being of light that travels through time warping physics, I would call that a “creature.”

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