Gods of Terra | Aliens in Fiction: How Not to Design Them


As a science fiction fan who’s written fiction of my own, and this blog and elsewhere, I like to design my own aliens. Recently I got a comment on an older post of mine, and since I don’t normally respond to comments on posts more than two weeks old, I thought I’d instead respond here.

Here’s the comment:

I searched this topic to try to find a site that would tell me not what to do as I write my first alien contact book.
I have never been on this site before, and don’t know if replying is possible, but if so, can you reply and tell me what not to do? Or someone, anyone. I’m trying to create an interesting diverse alien culture for my already created human hybrid race to interact with positively, but with some difficulties. My main character is a language communication expert.

So, what not to do when designing aliens (plausible, however fictional)? Here are some quick tips:

  • Don’t succumb to humans-in-funny-suits syndrome: Aliens in looks should be aliens in mentality. At the very least, especially with obvious nonhumans, give them some sort of outstanding but plausible psychological or cultural distinctions from other species that will not only set them apart, but make them memorable to the readers of whatever fiction you’re writing. Remember: aliens will have evolved in a different set of selective pressures than humans, and this will be true of variant humans as well. This fact will shape their minds and societies as it shapes their bodies. Build them accordingly, but try to avoid stereotyping them (My, I wonder whose first mate and engineer that Wookie is?). This hold even if the aliens have a hive-mind, as there will probably be a functional division of labor in the species.
  • Unless for historical or other good reasons, like prior contact with humans in the setting, avoid having the aliens automatically know human languages. I highly recommend inventing the alien’s own language, at least a few useful phrases at start. It’s not only a good exercise, but fun as well. I’m currently designing the language of my own alien humans, the Kai’Siri, and it’s a blast!
  • Don’t give them too much in the way of  weird powers. Not only is this bad from a role-playing perspective, as it unbalances the species in play and relegates them to mostly non-player character status, and without limits it’s boring to readers. the alien tech should not be too rubber-sciencey and not over-explained — Remember: A good explanation is better than no explanation, but none at all is better than a contrived and implausible explanation. The Holtzman effect in Dune is a good example of a rubber-science plot device that was not over-explained nor implausibly so.
  • Aside from weird powers, avoid an otherwise implausible biology for your species, unless you are writing Weird Tale fiction where impossible Things That Must Not Be Named™ have good reason to exist in the story (It’s horror, after all.). Even in Lovecraft’s own fiction, like At The Mountains of Madness, the Old Ones were given reasonably plausible (using the known science of the time) traits and were relatively well thought out. They did, after all, make it into Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials! [an update] Also bear in mind that most alien species will not be able to breed with humans unless human variants themselves, and even that will be iffy with extreme deviations from the norm.

Conclusion: These are a few key things to bear in mind in creating aliens, and their use ought to take some of the headache out of the process. I hope this answers your questions, and if not, I can always write follow-up posts on this, one of my favorite topics.

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3 thoughts on “Gods of Terra | Aliens in Fiction: How Not to Design Them”

  1. I think these are really excellent suggestions. I have evolved an alien race over a number of years. They are the basis for a novel which has been on the backburner ever since I got heavily into writing non-fiction. But now I want to get back to it.

    I think I have matched all your suggestions, but will review the Mersins, as my aliens are called for reasons which make sense in the book. I haven’t spent time with them for a few years and having just completed the manuscript for my next non-fiction, I can now revisit their world.

    I found two books very useful back when I was working on this novel. Do you know either or both of them and have an opinion?

    The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe by George Ochoa.

    Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Crawford Kilian.

    If only there were a lot more hours in the day!

    Lynne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lynne. I’ll have to check out those books as I’ve yet to read them. I have gotten a little inspiration for aliens from GURPS Space and GURPS Uplift from Steve Jackson Games, and have been making them for years from my background in role playing using a variety of games, including Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG, when I was running an 1890s-based campaign during the late 1990s. Then I discovered the Internet, and it all went downhill from there 😉 .

      Liked by 1 person

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