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.

Vampires, Lovers and Other Strangers (by Andrew Scott Hall)

I’ve known Andrew online for several years now, and find his blog, Laughing in Purgatory quite entertaining for both it’s humorous and its more serious content.
This book, his first release, is almost all about the Undead, the Leeches, the Nosferatu, in different settings and genre styles — almost all about — save the final story.
It’s good, with a varied mix of styles; Death Zone, a historical fantasy in iron-age Germany; Mr Z, a film-noir style tale of revenge; a story of failed romance between the Accursed in The Breakup and it’s surprising outcome.
There’s the urban fantasy tales Vampire Woes, and Knight Master. There too is Last Love, of a date gone horribly, horribly wrong.
My favorite of these is the last story, The Discipline of Forever, which stands out to me as a radical shift in gears, a story worthy of the original Lovecraft Circle in subject and tone as a twist on the theme of a mother’s love for her son.
Near the last part, there’s a preview of material for Andrew’s upcoming book, Redneck Vampires versus College Students, and afterward, a good selection of vampire related media links to click on.
This book is fun, and made a wonderful read in the wee hours of a fine dark morning. I give it five stars, and five tentacles up too. Ia! Ia!