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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Talking the Talk: Creating Language

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

If you’re writing a fantasy book, you have probably already begun creating a unique language for your world. Your characters are probably not named “Tom” or “Linda.” Your landmarks and towns are nearly impossible to pronounce, and your favorite animal so far is called the “fargachn.”

It’s almost unconscious in fantasy writers, our need to create new, unusual and strange words. It’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to this genre. We want to go outside the boundaries of the known into the unknown. We love to color outside the lines and it shows from the very beginning of our novels.

For about a year now, I’ve been creating a language for an online role-playing group of Amazons. (You can read more about this in my Fan Fiction article, “Working With A Net”, April 2002 here at Toasted Cheese.) It’s been both a chore and a labor of love. I’ve learned a lot in my struggle and decided to share a few of those hard lessons with you.

Look at what you have before you start.

The major character names and the names you’ve given places are a good place to start looking at how your people speak. Did you add vowels to the end of all their place names? If so, consider doing that with the more common words, as well. What’s the ratio of hyphenated words to regular words? What’s the average length of a word? How much meaning does the word incorporate? These are all good indicators of how your regular words should shape up.

From Children of Dune by Frank Herbert:

He thought: Sietch Tabr is mine. I rule here. I am a Naib of the Fremen. Without me there would have been no Muad’Dib.

You can tell from the context what these words mean. All are place names or titles and each one helps you get into the story and remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Keep it simple.

The temptation to create a hundred-word dictionary for your language is great. Unless you’re going to publish it as an independent novel, or as a companion to your novels, try to restrain yourself. Keep a list and keep track, but don’t bog yourself down by feeling as if you need all the words ever. Create what you need, and leave the rest.

Make it important.

As with all things in a novel or story, create important words instead of common ones. Titles, endearments, places and words of power will take your story farther than objects, colors, or normal activities. Give your words meaning and weight and make sure they’re furthering your story, not just cluttering it up.

From The Magic Of Krynn: The Legacy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman:

Quithain…” Plain repeated to himself. “Means… congratulations. Congratulations, Magus…”

He gasped, staring at Dalamar in disbelief.

“What does it mean?” demanded Caramon, glaring at the dark elf. “I don’t understand–”

“He is one of us now, Caramon,” said Dalamar quietly, taking hold of Palin’s arm and escorting him past his father. “His trials are over. He has completed the Test.”

Here, Palin realizes the importance of what Dalamar has told him in elvish. He also lets the readers in on the secret as he figures it out. Both words are important and are the only elvish used in the story, increasing its impact.

Don’t make it hard to say.

You should be able to speak your own language. If you write, “glrbsxnakl,” be sure your readers will be able to say it in their head. Words that are too long or full of vowels and consonants shoved together are going to be hard to get a mental handle on. Keep things easy to understand.

Use it sparingly.

Just because you created a word, doesn’t mean you should use it. As with all language, a certain amount of repetition is good and will help the reader learn your language in context. However, most readers want things plainly spelled out and easy to read. Pepper your language through your text instead of using it and only it.

From The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien:

“Elen sìla lúmenn omentilmo, a star shines on the hour of our meeting,” he added in the high elven-speech.

“Be careful, friends!” cried Gildor laughing. Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue.”

Here Bilbo speaks enough elvish to Gildor and his friends, proving he is worthy of their friendship and interest. For the rest of the conversation, including a song, no elvish is spoken, just referred to. We know it’s different and we know it’s there, we just aren’t hammered with it.

Use it yourself.

A great way to see if your invented word or phrase works is to use it. Say it out loud, for starters. Find where the inflection is or could be.

Consider using language markers, e.g. umlauts, to show where the emphasis should go. There is a vast difference between “Noel” and “Noël” when spoken aloud. To someone named “Noel”, it can make all the difference in the world around Christmas time. These little accents can bring your language color and flavor and texture.

Try using the same word in a different context. For example, if you create a word for “cup,” try using it both as an object and as an action. Will it work?

Remember it isn’t English.

This is actually a hard one to avoid. Your language should not mirror English, if possible. All language has structure and rules. Take some time to look at foreign languages and learn their unique style. German and Chinese have vastly different grammar rules from English or American. Studying these can help you lay a foundation for something truly your own.

Perhaps your language has a complex simplicity, where many words are summed up by one word. Perhaps there are no prepositions in your language. Perhaps there are no pronouns. Perhaps your language is a combination of dialects from throughout the region and it has a little bit of everything mixed together. Be creative and be unique.

From the Amazon (Tae’Nah) language:

“It is coming, Valkyra,” Deoris said. “I have seen it.”

Ahu,” the Queen whispered with reverence. The beginning and end of all things. She looked up at the Ti’Sa. “What can we do?”

Here, one word carries a lot of weight in the conversation. It encompasses an idea, instead of a single item.

Too many cooks can spoil the stew.

Your language might improve if you share your created words with others. Having a buddy to bounce ideas off of is a great way to be sure your language is easy to understand and readable. I suggest only one or two people, however. Everyone has an idea of what works and what doesn’t and you can go around and around over the simplest of words. Remember in the end that the final decision is yours. If they hated “fargachn” and you loved it, go with your instinct and override them.

There is no Amazon word for “help.” I have submitted no less than twenty possibilities, from the normal to the insane, trying to please a panel of four judges. There always seems to be a reason to reject it. It’s too long, it’s too short, it looks too much like this word over there, whatever. In order for a word to be created, I will have to ignore the panel and simply make a call and choose something.

Resources are out there.

There are many Web sources available for language creation. Toasted Cheese has listed several on our Resources page, Mustard and Cress. Look under the “Dictionary” heading. Check out online dictionaries for old or dead languages and for foreign languages. Some of my best words come straight from Latin and some are Turkish with a twist. It’s a great source of inspiration and information.

From Amazon: high = archila

This is an overview of how I got the Amazon word for “leader” or “first rank”, which all ended up as the word for “high.”

Since our Amazon tribe is historically placed in Turkey during the years of Julius Caesar’s reign, I started with Latin. The Latin-American Dictionary was suggested at Mustard and Cress. I typed in “leader” and was given several possibilities. I scanned the list and decided none of them sounded right to me, but “rector: guider, leader, director, ruler, master” was the closest in meaning. I followed some of those words and came upon “archos: ruler” which I thought was great, but a little too obviously Latin.

Looking through the words I’d already created, I noticed a tendency to end the words with vowel combinations such as “la” “za” “ra” or “li” “zi” “ri.” Drawing on that, I came up with “ila” as an ending for “arch” instead of the Latin “os.” Archila became the word for “high” and was added to the Amazon Dictionary.

As you can see, creating a unique language can be a difficult and time-consuming process. The rewards are wonderful however, giving your world a depth it might be missing. Don’t be afraid to explore this interesting avenue of creation.

Final Poll Results

Creating A Fantasy World

Absolute Blank

By Patsy Sheehan

When writing fantasy or science fiction, the writer has the opportunity to create an alternate world. It could be on earth, but in a mythological time, or hidden in another dimension. It could be on another planet. Or it could be a place of the imagination, like a fairyland.

Whenever the writer leaves familiar settings, she must create a three-dimensional geography for her characters to occupy. She must provide them with a civilization and culture. She must invent plausible characters, and other creatures to inhabit that world. No matter how fantastic a world the writer creates, the reader must feel comfortable jumping into it.

Although many writers like to let their fantasy worlds evolve, this can lead to rewrites if the narrative takes an unexpected turn. A well-planned fantasy world gives the writer a framework to work within and allows her to concentrate on writing.

To illustrate this, if the writer is doing an alternate-earth world, she should ask herself what the natural surface will be like. Will it be desert, forest or prairie? Are there oceans, lakes, and rivers and where will she place them? Will there be mountains or tableland? Now is a good time for her to start roughing out a map. This may seem like too much work at first. Many of these details might never end up in the story. However, these background details will help her write the story.

GEOGRAPHY

Geography influences the weather and the seasons. For instance, forests are rainy and deserts are dry. Cold regions are close to the poles and tropical regions are close to the equator. This seems obvious. However, some writers make terrible mistakes in this regard, like placing an arctic region on the equator of a planet.

“Yes, but this is fantasy,” the writer says.

True, but remember you want to make the reader feel comfortable in this world. A discerning reader will question apparent impossibilities, so the writer must have a plausible explanation. The arctic region could be on the equator of a planet tipped on its side with a horizontal rather than vertical axis. The reader must accept this situation as a fact. He won’t be comfortable if his logic is challenged.

When adding geographical features, the writer needs to keep the reader in that acceptance mode. Children can embrace a stream flowing with chocolate. The adult reader prefers that the white knight cross a stream consisting of water on his way to rescue the fair damsel from the dragon.

In science fiction about a distant planet, the stream could consist of some other chemical but it would have to be a liquid form of a chemical, like liquid hydrogen, to be consistent with the concept of a river. Help the reader accept this world by keeping it scientific, even if it is pseudo-science.

When the writer is satisfied with the natural features of her world, she is ready to create the artificial structures of a civilization.

CIVILIZATION

The characters live and work in the farms, villages and cities the inhabitants have built. The writer needs to decide what level of civilization this society has achieved. Are they using fire or electricity? Have they harnessed some another form of energy?

When writing futuristic fantasy or science fiction, the writer can invent all kinds of technological and scientific advances as long as they seem plausible in her setting. Some level of scientific knowledge helps to explain those things that don’t seem real. If the writer doesn’t have enough scientific knowledge and is reluctant to do the research, it would be best to avoid this genre. A writer in this genre would need to have a plausible, scientific-sounding explanation for questions like: “How do the characters walk around a spaceship?”

The architecture of the buildings and layout of the farms, villages, or cities need visual explanations. What building materials are used? What are the roads like and what kind of transportation do the inhabitants use? Do they have parks or gardens? In addition, at what artistic level are they? Remember that civilizations that didn’t have electricity, running water and advanced medicine have produced some of the greatest works of art, architecture and engineering.

CULTURE

Next, the writer needs to create the culture of the inhabitants. Who is in charge? Do they have a king or are they democratic? Are their leaders elected, appointed or born into the job? Do they have a class-tiered society of rich, middle-class and poor? Are they egalitarian? Are they matriarchal or patriarchal? What is their religion and what are their spiritual beliefs? What is their economy based on? Are they peaceful or warlike? How do they heal themselves? Do they have writing or do they pass their stories and traditions down orally? What is their music like? What do they eat? What do they wear and what ornamentation do they use?

The deeper and more varied the details of the culture are, the richer and more nuanced the writing will be. Once the writer is satisfied with the culture, she is ready to create the physical appearance of the inhabitants of her world.

INHABITANTS

What do the characters look like? Are they human, humanoid, or intelligent beings of other species? The writer needs to take care when peppering her world with other species that they remain credible. For instance, if she writes a story that takes place in Africa, she needs to keep the species African. If she throws American buffalo into the Congo, she needs to explain how they got there.

Likewise, she shouldn’t put real Earth species on a fantasy planet unless they were transported there from Earth. She may have similar species, yet they must be a species unique to that planet. Creatures from Greek mythology, like griffins, would be inappropriate in Mayan mythology, unless the author explained their presence.

The writer needs to keep her characters within the context of her fantasy world. When J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle Earth in The Hobbit and his later works, his characters were rooted in northern European mythology. The same can be said about the wealth of literature surrounding the Arthurian legends. When Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, he created Martians who could inhabit what was known of the planet at that time. Frank Herbert’s Dune characters and society are an alternate earth-like society with very human denizens and institutions.

HISTORICAL FANTASY

Sometimes, the writer may want to place her fantasy squarely in the middle of a real time and place on earth. When writing fantasy in a historical context, the writer needs to be prepared to do plenty of research. If the writer doesn’t like history and doing research, then she shouldn’t write in this cross genre. Without the historical background references, the writing becomes flat and boring or even nonsensical.

If she has a delicious vampire story, and she wants to place it in a historical era, she needs to get her facts straight. She must decide when and where her story will take place and find out everything she can about that period, which means researching the history and geography, literature, art and folk customs. After she has gleaned as much information as possible, then she is free to invent details to fill in the gaps in information.

Like all guidelines, don’t be afraid to break these. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy fiction is flexible. Some writers have placed castles in valleys, which in real life would make them vulnerable to attack. Yet, the reader accepted the situation because the writer explained why the story needed that castle to be in a valley.

To summarize, in order to make a fantasy world work, it has to seem possible and credible, while remaining fantastic.

Final Poll Results