Alien Worlds

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Even with all the new special effects, the majority of aliens in the movies and on television tend to be humanoid. Sure, we all know that’s because you have human actors underneath the pointed ears or the tusked faces. But we don’t have that restriction when we are writing. Our aliens can be as alien as we want to make them.

So why do so many alien societies feel like the emotional equivalent of human actors in alien costumes?

Robert Lynn Asprin has a multiverse of creatures to pull from in his Myth Adventures series, but at core, all the different species act like regular humans and are pretty much indistinguishable culturally from humans. Elves in many books are simply humans with pointy ears and some magic talent. Even plants seem to develop human characteristics once they are sentient. At least Tolkien’s Ents moved slowly. But beyond viewing other life forms as “hasty” they still tended to think like humans while they were in front of the reading audience.

Part of that, of course, is because we are humans, and no matter what we do, we are writing from a human perspective. We want to be able to relate to our characters, so there does need to be some element of humanness to them. But is there a way to make aliens, alien worlds and societies, or even just “other” worlds and societies, feel less like the ones we know and more… well… alien?

When you sit down to build a world, you usually start out with a neat idea. Run with it. But take a good look at the ideas you use, and dig deeply into the consequences of your choices. This is what will make your aliens truly alien. Each time you make a choice about your alien and your alien world, ask yourself: what does it mean? Dig deep into the implications, so that you can build up a consistent picture based on your choices.

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

The Consequences of Physique

Sometimes the starting idea is about the type of creature you are creating. Maybe you would start with something like, “What if my aliens were giant lizards?” So you make them giant lizards. Now, you can, of course, have your giant lizards wander around talking and acting like humans. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they acted like lizards instead of humans in lizard suits? Are they cold-blooded like Earth lizards? Then pay close attention to how they react to temperatures. Have them slow down when it gets cold. Or sleep when it gets hot.

If your reptiles have the ability to climb walls and stick to ceilings the way geckos do, then they should think like wall climbers, not ground walkers. Walls and floors and ceilings would be accessible. What does that sort of freedom do to the mind? Maybe they lay eggs in nests and leave the eggs to hatch, so that their children are born needing to fend for themselves. What would that lack of parental involvement mean for a lizard society? There wouldn’t be a close bond between children and parents. In fact, children may not even know their parents in such a case. So there would need to be some mechanism by which children become functioning members of a lizard society that is different from the “raise your kids to be members of society” model.

Ask Yourself:

  • If I’m basing my alien on a real creature, what things affect that creature?
  • How does that sort of creature behave when it’s alone? When it’s in a group of its own kind? When it’s with other kinds of creatures?
  • What are the implications of the physical characteristics I’ve picked?
  • What types of environments will my alien do well in? In what ways will it do well?
  • What types of environments will limit my alien? In what way will it be limited?
  • What are the implications of how my alien race reproduces?
  • What does this method of reproduction imply about my alien society?
  • What does it imply for my alien characters?

The Consequences of Environment

Sometimes you start with the type of world you are building. Consider the uniqueness of that world. Use that to explore what it means for your societies, and how it would affect the mindset of your alien characters. What if your aliens lived in gravity-free space? There would be no concept of down. Or friction. They would think in terms of propelling, action, and reaction. This sort of thinking should be implicit in your character’s words and thoughts. The word “walk” for instance, would be relatively meaningless to a gravity-free society. If your aliens live and breathe underwater, they will not have any native concept of fire. Their idea of day and night will be governed by the light patterns through the water—they may not, if they live deep enough under water, have any concept of a sun, or sky. So they wouldn’t be talking or thinking about these things as a matter of course.

Also think about the natural hazards your aliens would normally worry about, and the implications of these hazards. If predators are common, your aliens might prefer to travel in groups, or with some kind of weapon. If the terrain is difficult to navigate, your alien society might preferentially honor the members who are more agile. Think about ways your aliens might have evolved to cope with these hazards, and build that into the alien behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What normal things around you would you think about or talk about that your aliens just wouldn’t know anything about?
  • What things around your aliens would they think about or know about that humans wouldn’t?
  • What things in the environment are important to your alien society?
  • What are the implications of the physical terrain for individuals? What are the implications of the physical terrain for society?
  • What sorts of plants and animals are on your world? How do individuals deal with these plants and animals? What deeper implications might there be for the alien society?
  • Is food and water plentiful? If not, how do your aliens deal with that?

Think about the words your aliens might use to describe their environment. What might be missing from their language? Would they need words we don’t use?

The Consequences of Cultural Norms

Sometimes you start off with a neat cultural idea. When you go this route, take the time to really explore the cultural nucleus. Try not to impose your own culture on it, however. Let’s say you think, “Hey, how about a planet ruled by women instead of men?” Think about what this would really be like. Don’t just flip each “he” to a “she” and each “she” to a “he” and make it about male-like women oppressing female-like men. (Yes, I’m thinking of something specific here. For a prime example of what not to do, I point to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One.”) Instead, take a look at examples of matrilineal cultures, or animal cultures where the female dominates (like bonobos) and use those instead. Or come up with a society that you think the women around you might build.

Or let’s say you have a society where your alien could only have one child, ever. What would that restriction mean in terms of how members of that society treat their children? You could end up with a society where children are never allowed to do anything, and are kept in a total bubble until adulthood. Or one where no one has children early, but wait until they are able to ensure its safety and comfort. Every child might be the most important thing in an adult’s life, every child’s death a devastation to the gene pool.

By exploring any cultural norms you want to impose to the absolute limit, you can build a very rich alien society that goes deeper than a human in alien clothing society would.

Ask Yourself:

  • What effect does this cultural norm have on an individual? What does it imply about day-to-day living?
  • What effect does this cultural norm have on society as a whole?
  • Are there hidden ways in which I am imposing my own cultural norms, even if they don’t really apply to this society?
  • Am I basing this culture on a similar culture that already exists?
  • What is the same about that culture and mine?
  • What is different? How would those differences change what is going on?
  • Is my culture self-consistent?
  • Do I have conflicting norms? If my norms conflict, do they do so intentionally? What kinds of choices would be facing members of my alien society because of these conflicts?
  • What sorts of assumptions am I making about my society?
  • Which of these assumptions am I making deliberately? Which am I making unconsciously?

Thing about connections. Think about consequences. Keep digging beneath the surface of your ideas. The more deeply you can explore the implications of your choices, the more unique and alien your characters and their world will be.



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