# How to convey the scale of my humanoid without science or units?

I am writing a short story set in a world inhabited by modern humans (Homo sapiens), bulky humans (inspired by Homo Neanderthalensis) and tiny humans (inspired by Homo Floresiensis). In response to comments, the height of H.F. was roughly 1m. I might make mine smaller for effect, but not below 0.75m

I will not attempt to make it hard science fiction and freely include various kinds of extinct species (such as dire wolf), only broadly minding their actual habitats and possibilities of coexistence. I will also drastically alter the continents (i.e. build a different planet).

Right at the start of the story, where I will only use Tiny Humans for quite some time, I want to make the reader notice their size. I don't want to place them alongside a homo sapiens. One option would be to compare to extant familiar animals, but I am afraid the presence of many exotic animals will simply make the reader suppose all animals are a different size. I absolutely don't want to use any of our units, because I always find such things utterly immersion breaking.

What would be some good formations/objects in nature to compare against (without presupposing deep scientific knowledge)?

Please excuse if my concept is still fledgling. It is only 1 month old.

EDIT: Many answers here have added invaluable information. They also made me realise, how devilishly complex this might be. Like myself, I expect many readers to have grown up with dino books. I will not introduce dinosaurs, but insects from their time. The reader might assume the atmospheric conditions that existed long before humans and led to huge animals and plants! On the other hand, he might be guided by the recent history of some actual plants to assume them much smaller (f.e. earliest watermelons are thought to have measured about 2 inches in diameter). Finally under these atmospheric conditions, even inanimate things like fires may behave differently (Naively I assume more oxygen implied higher flames).

In the beginning I thought the size of the full moon in the sky might help, but as you can't put anything at same distance, I see no easy way.

EDIT: Because the question of images received so much attention in the comments, I want to make clear that I see no difference between description and images. The painter, just like the narrator, needs to know what to put in the picture to convey scale. In the beginning I even thought some rare inanimate structure might be needed, which I would have to fit into my world!

• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Serban Tanasa Sep 15 '16 at 18:12
• I'd reference everything by "hands". This allows the reader to get a good scale of the environment, and you can still play games with the reader since everything is relative to the small guys. – SethWhite Sep 15 '16 at 20:22
• @SethWhite that's what I will do as long as I DON'T reveal their scale. The question is about the time when I do :) – Ludi Sep 24 '16 at 12:09

# Don't tell

At the beginning the reader has no idea that there is something different about your protagonists. They act, communicate, feel etc. just like normal humans, and the story is written from their point of view.

Over time, things get more clear and you learn quite astounding things about them. But not because the author wrote a preamble or just told us. He did not tell us at first because they are just plain and normal to them. None of them would ever think twice about their specialty.

You can try to make the process of discovery of their unique feature very enticing. Maybe include some sentences which just don't seem to quite make sense on first reading (they might even seem to be grammatically nonsensical unless you know the truth), and make it so that the reader does not even assume that there is something wrong about them, at the beginning. When he finally "gets it", it's delicious.

Your mini-humans are, from their point of view, just plain normal. Only when they meet the big-humans or the hulking-humans will anybody, especially the reader, notice any difference.

My prime example for this is... (mouse over to see spoiler)

Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep".

If you have not already, read it - it is very excellent, and not only for a reason somehow connected to this question.

• This is an awesome suggestion, that I am actually willing to try, yet answers to the question are still valuable, as I will need to make the reader get it at some point for the big aha :) – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 15:18
• ... and then they will have to read the whole story right again with their new perspective. Two books for the price of one... – AnoE Sep 13 '16 at 15:36
• Some things that small people have that we wouldn't: impressive leaping distance (for thier size) and ability to fall. Possibly really big heads compared to their bodies, and hence women with really really wide hips for their body. They'd also be able to ride creatures that aren't horses easier: due to square-cube law, riding is easier at smaller scales with only a bit of breeding for stronger legs and backs. The general term in stories is "show, don't tell" -- don't tell them they are small, show them when it makes sense in-story. – Yakk Sep 13 '16 at 18:17
• @Ludi This was also one of the twists in Aldiss' Nonstop - though there were many hints along the way due to the nature of their environment, given that the point of view is centered to the protagonists, they never think of themselves as tiny - it's that their enemies that are giants. Until you finally come to the point where familiar scales are estabilished, and the whole mystery unravels, and we finally find what exactly went horribly wrong... The trick is to realize what seem natural to the protagonists, and keep that at the center - don't describe what isn't remarkable to them. – Luaan Sep 14 '16 at 12:01
• You can use >! spoiler blocks if you want to include spoilers but have people make an active choice to see them. Go ahead, try it. – a CVn Sep 15 '16 at 19:53

This is just the cleanest way to do things. Write 1-2 paragraphs informing the reader about Homo Floresiensis, including their size, where they were found, etc. It's informative and (more importantly) serves your purposes of establishing location, timeframe, and size better than any half-done measurement. As long as it's provided in advance of the story the reader does not have to be taken out of the moment while you take them on an adventure.

If You Don't, There are 3 Major Problems to Overcome

To convey scale in a prehistoric sense without using measurements from today you have two major problems:

1. People are Bad at Scale

If your goal is to describe small (~1m) humanoids, you need a scale that people definitely understand and that is not entirely subjective.

To make my point, just look at some of the answers you are getting here. People are talking about using apples grains of sand or snowflakes. Snowflakes! Those literally require a magnifying glass to see well! Not to mention the huge variation possible in grains of sand, snowflakes, apple sizes, plant sizes, etc.

Consider the case of apples, which is intuitive to most people. If you buy organic apples they can literally be half the volume of an apple produced for size (not half the diameter, but half the volume). Using that as a guide, if YOU were thinking of a small apple and your reader is thinking of a big apple, your humanoids would be as tall as homo sapiens today. Going the other way around, they would be half the size you intend!

2. Many Plants and Animals have Changed Size since Prehistory

In one comment you stated that people with an interest in prehistory would know about prehistoric plants. Well, maybe. Doubtful, actually. But what is really going to bite you is if you use a current plant or animal and assume that the size remained the same over the last 12,000 years.

Going back to apples, apples as they existed 12,000 years ago would at best look like crabapples of today!

3. Homo Floresiensis lived in Indonesia

This is a real killer. Anything native to North America or Europe that you introduce as native to your protagonist is not only likely to be anachronistic, it's not going to be native to the region either. And even things that are common - alligators, for example - are going to be from different species, which probably has a different size.

If you are indeed writing for people who are interested in pre-history you will probably leave those who understand the region scratching their heads.

• All excellent points. I was not attempting to write anything accurate, as I will freely mix species that died out much earlier with humanoids (there will be no dinos, but smaller animals from their time, such as insects). I also don't have the knowledge. I was just thinking, many children must have grown up reading dinosaur books. They are used to giant trees and beetles. You have given some excellent pointers! – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 13:37
• Although explaining where your tiny people come from would seem very much like you're ripping off The Hobbit. – Azor Ahai Sep 13 '16 at 19:01
• Re: Preamble - Asimov did this for Nightfall (the novel, not the short story), and in my opinion it was unnecessary. In it, he basically states that one should not infer any particular body style or physical characteristics, and that references to human characteristics such as hands, etc., were mainly for understanding. I.e. he would otherwise have had to explain too much, and he found the thought boring. However, as humans we have a fairly humanocentric/anthropomorphic view, and accepting that doesn't detract from the story. – GalacticCowboy Sep 15 '16 at 17:02
• @GalacticCowboy - I haven't read that story in particular, but I think I understand what you're getting at. In this case though we're talking about small humanoid creatures in a primitive setting, both parts of which are important to the author. I'm not a fan of long explanations in the author's tone, but a quick quote directly from a dictionary/encyclopedia I'm fine with. Very much a personal opinion though. – GrinningX Sep 15 '16 at 18:19
• I find it very oldfashioned to have a preamble to explain what you are going to do. That was kind of a "thing" in prehistoric times (Asimov, Dick...), when readers were not really used to thinking as wildly as we are today. Modern SciFi should not need it. Besides, he is creating a different planet - it's not about N.A./European pre-history at all. – AnoE Sep 16 '16 at 11:07

Use plants. Many of them grow to a fairly consistent size, and you can readily describe your tiny humans moving through them in a way that indicates their relative height. Bulrushes might be a useful example.

• Bulrushes are a great idea. I think that many people interested in prehistory are familiar with gigantic trees from the past, so I didn't think of plants as the obvious example. But grasses should convey the correct image, if only because the reader forgets to adjust their size too ;) The flames in the other answer are also quite clever! – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 10:57
• Use an apple, maybe? Everyone knows how big an apple is, and two people feeding on an apple the size of their heads might give the proper impression? – Andreas Heese Sep 13 '16 at 11:54
• Not sure I agree with this answer/comments. I am interested in pre-history, but I would not say that I am familiar with gigantic trees of the past. Interest in pre-history is not synonymous with knowledge of paleobotany. I am also unfamiliar with the size of bulrushes. And it was not long ago in human history that apples were much, much smaller than what you commonly see in the supermarket. Even in the supermarket though, between some varieties you can see a 2x size difference! – GrinningX Sep 13 '16 at 13:01
• @AndreasHeese That's tricky. For one, apples vary in size greatly. Two, they were likely much smaller than today's apples before humans started breeding them for their own purposes, not to mention that apple trees that are cared for by humans look nothing like their free-growing brethren, and their fruits are very different as well. Three, while their heads might be smaller, there's no rule that says the proportions are the same as modern humans, so it might be misleading. – Luaan Sep 14 '16 at 12:22
• @Luaan good point, didnt think about that. – Andreas Heese Sep 14 '16 at 12:24

If your story has third-person narration, you could use a phrase like "While other races might view him as a child due to his diminutive size, he was in fact full-grown -- and not only full-grown but wise and strong. He was a leader of his people, the third in his family to be given that honor."

I don't think you have to be specific as to what race -- it could be ours, the reader, or it could be your bulky humans.

If it were my story, and if I had third-person narration, I'd just say it straight out, very early in the story while the readers' expectations and perspective were being established. I don't think that breaks immersion if it's in the first couple of paragraphs. Maybe something like "A human might mistake Chak for a child, since he is only as tall as an 8- or 9-year old, but in fact Chak is ...".

I don't think any one thing would do it, but a combination of things all together would. Giant turtleshells as bathtubs, coconut shells as helms, a man being loaded down with a single watermelon (I don't know what fruits are native to Indonesia, sorry), hunting through grazed grasses waist-high or higher, etc.

Google image searching "Pygmy" has a lot of images, but in a quick look, I can't see anything obviously leaping out as a height cue. You can't tell how tall they are.

The ocean, perhaps?

"It was a balmy, windless day, the calm waves no more than a half his height".

Another might be borrowed items.

In a 3D computer game, it's hard to give the users a sense of scale. Familiar built objects are one such. So for the "Borrowers" series of books, showing that the items were repurposed human items worked well. In Pratchett's "Carpet People", the central conceit is again only slowly revealed, but the scale is greater, so in its way harder to grasp.

Could your Floresiensians perhaps have some items from the Erectuses and Neanderthals?

Edit: another thought: the square cubed law also works in reverse. Smaller characters can be far more elfin of feature and weight. They could be sticklike of proportion while still having whippet-like strength and speed.

So they might have different modes of locomotion: they can scramble in the thinner twigs of trees, and in a forest, leap through the canopy with nimble ease, using the springiness of the trees to help: they needn't use the floor. Climbing trees, they can grasp the wrinkles of the bark, since they are light enough that bark is a realistic handhold.

Some forms of undergrowth could become a "go through" instead of a "go round" thing (bramble thickets, etc).

On the other hand, even a small stream or brook would be a swim for them instead of a paddle.

• These are very intriguing images. You probably know there are extant turtles that can get more than 1m long. During prehistoric times they were probably wide spread! en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_tortoise – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 20:14
• It is only secondary, what is native to Indonesia, as I will redo the entire continents. I really like the watermelon and plan to use it as a water storage, ignoring the fact that ancestral watermelons were allegedly 2inches in diameter and bitter:) – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 21:03
• How did Tolkien do this? I need to go re-read the Hobbit. I think it was partly "tell" and partly "show" with Gandalf. – Dewi Morgan Sep 14 '16 at 0:20
• "They are (or were) a little people, about half our height..." This was the 4th paragraph of the book, before Gandalf was introduced. – chepner Sep 15 '16 at 15:25
• And a lovely paragraph it is too, filled with parenthetical commentary on their lifestyle, it reads to me as a "mellow fruitfulness" passage. esl-bits.net/ESL.English.Learning.Audiobooks/The.Hobbit/01A/… - but yes, he could do this easily, because he could compare to "us". Without that, it will be tricky. Hrm... but physical proportions, I didn't think of that! Will add to my answer. – Dewi Morgan Sep 15 '16 at 19:29

If we are talking about the same gravity as on Earth, then maybe you can describe their unusual strength for a human-sized being, and that will give the reader a little hint that maybe they are smaller or lighter than a regular human.

For example for us it's impressive to jump as high as 2m which is a little bit more than a normal human height, but smaller species often have no problem jumping several times their height. So you can describe how a human sees a tree 3 times taller than they are, but has no problem jumping and grabbing a fruit on top of it or whatever. Another thing is the weight one can carry, again with carrying more than one own weight being not very usual. To add some numbers, based on this answer (question "Why are smaller animals stronger than larger ones, when considered relative to their body weight?"), an animal two times smaller will appear two times stronger: let's take a 2m 80kg human who is able to carry 40kg, which is half their weight, and scale them down 2 times - now we have 1m 10kg human who is able to carry 10kg, which is equal to their weight.

As for the "lighter than a normal human": how about being able to land unharmed from a higher elevation.

Those two things aren't 100% reliable as one can assume these people have different bones durability or muscle structure, but it may be worth leaving as many not-so-obvious hints as possible so that the twist about giants at the end will make a lot of sense.

• Though most answers are very valuable, this goes into the desired direction! Something physical, invariant and yet not techie! – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 19:47
• @Ludi glad to know that. Check out a little bit of calculations in the recent edit – ugnpaul Sep 13 '16 at 20:18

I would suggest describing a lot of smaller objects and/or showing things being out of reach/insurmountable.

Fauna won't work as you said, because by our standards they were larger back then.

Pointing out a lot of smaller objects, especially on the ground would hint at the reader that they were closer. Normally irrelevant things like pebbles and minuscule insects could be brought up. Describing trees or outcrops as being out of reach or too high up would also suggest that they are short, while dense vegetation could pose a real obstacle. They are only small, and cutting their way through something would take more effort.

However, this would only make sense if stated from a third person perspective - they wouldn't likely see themselves as short if they are all similar heights to each other, unless they have had previous contact with the "Neanderthals". This could even include bones or fossils- a skull of a Neanderthal perhaps.

You can use this as a plot device and allow your readers to discover the disparity in size/scale.

Your tiny humans can interact with beetles the size of their fists, scrabble their way through ferns that don't show the sky above them, flames that extend up beyond their upraised arms.

Larger humans wouldn't notice crushing those same beetles, ferns would tickle their knees as they brushed past them, they would huddle around camp fires, warming their hands as they sat on their haunches.

Is it really necessary to know how big they are? You could introduce the humans first, in the process hinting at the size of one or more objects. Then shift the scene to the little people and find a reason to mention the same object(s).

It's a common trick, to have the first two chapters appear completely unrelated, yet come together later in the story.

• You could also have either or both species mention a legend of the other and then scoff at it as a silly myth. – WGroleau Sep 13 '16 at 23:49

As the target audience is composed of modern humans, why not use them for comparison? That shouldn't be immersion-breaking, after all, you are using English (or some other modern language) to write the story, instead of the language of your humanoids.

Mentioning at the beginning, especially when the first such creature appears on the scene, that they were roughly half as tall as modern humans (especially if the story is set on a past Earth), should be less immersion breaking than mentioning centimeters.

If the story is not set on a past Earth, some subtle connection to how the story came into the hands of humans might also make a connection between their size and ours. Tolkien used this from time to time, posing as a translator between the in-universe languages and modern English.

There are physicists who think that if we humans were ever to have a communications link with distant aliens and someone were to ask "How big are you beings? How massive? How tall?" or "How long is your day? or seasons? or mean lifespan?" or "How strong is gravity on your planet?" that the only way we could communicate these quantities to the aliens (or them to us) would be to communicate such in terms of Planck Units. This assumes that the aliens have the same universal speed of light, Planck constant, and Gravitational constant as we do.

• Excellent point. I used to be a physicist myself and I can appreciate the difficulty. Yet, I hoped that communicating across geological epochs might be a bit easier. That some familiar things might exist that kept their size on earth. Yet I can't come up with any (non-technological ones). – Ludi Sep 13 '16 at 16:05
• There are a few nice constants accessible at a much lower tech level though. "How big is a wood fire?" turns out to have a pretty consistent if somewhat rough answer. (Physics dictates a camp fire size smaller than about 18 inches is hard to keep going.) – Joshua Sep 13 '16 at 20:29
• @Joshua I would think that depends on the atmosphere in which the wood fire is burning, as well as what type of wood you are burning, right? So if this is a long time ago when we had a higher oxygen concentration or different types of trees, that may not be as consistent as you would hope. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, even though I love physics, I am not a physicist) – Kevin Wells Sep 14 '16 at 17:21
• @KevinWells: You're not wrong. The life parameters of a planet place this fairly well but there's about a factor of two variance. The partial pressure of oxygen does have to be about what it is but the tolerance is rather high. – Joshua Sep 14 '16 at 17:43

A variation of John Dallman's answer.

Use animals. You said you don't want to use extant ones, so use the fossils of extinct ones instead. Most people have an idea about the size of am adult T-Rex from movies such as Jurassic Park. If your characters live close to the exposed cranium of a T-Rex, you can compare the size of their heads with the length of a tooth, for example.

Many people will also know what you are talking about if you include a Megalodon there. If it is not extinct in your world, you could have one of your hominids see a shark hunting a whale - mostly everyone will know it's a Megalodon - and then you can compare their teeth (perhaps some teeth someone found on a shore and is using as amulets?) size against your hominids' body parts.

I feel a lot of these answers violate the 'show, don't tell' principle by 'slapping you in the face' with the fact they are short. Any book that tells me straight out the bat some species has XYZ trait not only feels like it's deigning me for being stupid (like 'you can't figure this out unless I tell you it's London, England!'), but it tells me that said trait is plot crucial and ergo is a pre-emptive spoiler.

Rather than trying to find forceful ways to make it obvious, then discarding it as a known fact, perhaps you should allow the creatures to interact in their environment and 'discover' ways that a shorter group of humans would have trouble interacting.

For example, climbing would be difficult, they would be able to fit into small holes, they would have to make use of climbing implements or some sort of 'extension' tools to grab things out of reach. You could then infer it by having the taller humans 'hit their heads' on the ceiling of the shorter humans when they meet up (I presume there is a language barrier so the taller humans wouldn't immediately go 'duh, these guys are short!').

Have the humans have to 'jump up' to reach things (fairly regularly) or stand on their tiptoes. Eventually your readers will get the impression they have trouble reaching up for things, and are by inference, short, without conveying a specific size.

You can then easily contrast by having the bigger humans simply grab fruit out of trees 'without hassle' and 'without extension tools'.

Show, don't tell.

Have your protagonist see some non-exotic animals, animals that many of your readers would be familiar with. Perhaps he is trapping doves. Or perhaps he watches a fox chase and catch a rabbit.

Only after the scale of these creatures is in the reader's mind will your protagonist interact with them. When taking the doves from the net, rather than simply filling the hand, the dove has to be grabbed with hands and forearms. Driving the fox away to steal its kill involves confronting a waist-high creature and the rabbit is a substantial haul of meat rather than just a bit of meat for the pot.

The problem here is that everything would be scaled to them, because they built it. So any conveyance of size will have to rely on comparisons of known things. I think Pete is right in saying that you should use it as plot. To do that, you should constantly be giving scales of everything, but in terms of use... And you can also have regular human scale without having humans for things. For example, an abandoned castle would be massive to them, common corridors with roofs so high that 2 men could stand on each other's shoulders and still have head room. Or everything feeds them for at least 2 times as long. If they have horses you could point out that they cover 2 days journey easily in a day, because their towns would be built at around 15km apart rather than 30km apart, but a horse could still travel to the further settlement in the same time.

If they are hunting food, then they will cure it and preserve it which will require a certain amount of time and amount of salt and a place to put it. This being the case you have another opportunity to correlate size, because the amount of time, salt, and room needed will be the same for them for us, but feel as twice as much for them...probably depending on their population and dietary habits.

You could also say "legend tells of giants, twice our size".

But the fact is unless people know sizes and numbers of things off the top of their head, as most people don't, they're not going to get that they're the small ones until you introduce humans, but then when you do, it will all click and suddenly they'll see that these gigantic creatures you seem to be talking about talking about are really just normal size and it will paint the picture better than using real units anyways.

Everything is relative to the things in their world. We use London buses, Nelson's Column and Wales/Texas as things that everyone has an idea of the size of. What you need to do is pick something in their world that anyone in the conversation would know the size of.

The key things in their world will be the primary prey or food source, the primary predator, the home, and something permanent near the home like a large rock.

This ultimately leads to The Register's unit converter

You could use grains of sand. e.g. they can only hold 20 or so grains of sand in their hands. If you explicitly refer to the grains as grains of sand it'll be clear to the reader that they aren't just normal sized people and larger pebbles.

Or snowflakes.

• Grains of sand and snowflakes are INCREDIBLY small. Holding a handful of either and asking "how many am I holding" is worse than the old county fair question about how many marbles are in a jar. Readers would be likely to have issues with understanding scale properly when these are in use, similar to how most people do not understand the true scale of the distance from Earth to Jupiter. – GrinningX Sep 13 '16 at 12:57
• @GrinningX I was imagining Thumbelina sized people who could nearly have a countable number of grains of sand in their hand, but on reading the clarification in the OP I see they could be about 1m tall so I suppose the grains of sand wouldn't be so useful. – colmde Sep 13 '16 at 13:50
• Also, sand grains come in different sizes. – Paŭlo Ebermann Sep 15 '16 at 20:17

You could use something as a scale that didn't change over the millenia: The moon.

If you, as a modern human, extend your arm while looking at the full moon, you can completely cover the moon with your thumb. Thumb-Moon-Math

Perhaps your H.F.'s could only partially cover the moon with their small thumbs, or need two fingers. (assumed they have thinner fingers than we do)

You could include it as a sort of game between their kids and grown ups to show who can cover more of the moon. Perhaps some kind of legend about others that can cover the moon completely with one thumb.

• So your Neanderthals will have unnaturally short arms? – Snow Sep 19 '16 at 8:42
• This was the very first thing I considered, but discarded due to degeneracy of the variables arm length and thumb area! – Ludi Sep 19 '16 at 14:40