Whether you’re writing from a cat’s perspective or a being from Chiron Beta Prime, it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving the non-human very human motivations. While I’ve shared notes from pros on this topic before, let’s return.
SFF is filled with entities that are fundamentally not like humans in the way they think, feel, and perceive the world. How does one write what one cannot understand? Must supernatural or alien beings have some recognizable human characteristics? Our authors reveal the ways in which they bring alien psychology and motivations to life and discuss the best examples from film and literature.
The panel was presented at ChiCon8, otherwise known as WorldCon 80. The panelists for the titular panel were Caroline M. Yoachim, Catherynne M. Valente, and Kevin Wabaunsee, moderated by Derek Kunsken.
What is “Alien”?
Before we can answer that, what is human? On the cellular level, humans are actually entire ecosystems, and the balance of gut bacteria and skin mites influence our actions a lot more than most of us are comfortable with.
We can take inspiration from the beings on earth — from the strange, to the everyday, to the extremophile organisms living beside hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.
While storytellers could describe an alien being as simply “a hyper-intelligent shade of blue”, the completely alien is hard for readers to grasp and probably harder to write. Even with our tales of Eldergods, we want at least the tiniest inkling of understanding for ourselves and readers of those characters.
Either our stories will be about how the aliens affect humans, the aliens alone, or we need a way for the aliens to communicate with humans.
Considerations for Developing Your Aliens
1 – Contemplate how biology influences needs
- With hive creatures, a large majority are often asexual, what are their motivations?
- Mating rituals
- Sexual dimorphism
- Births: do they birth in large numbers to let a few survive to adulthood, or do they care for a few select young?
- Different creatures have different lifespans
- Jellyfish/sea kelp/fungi – How would they relate to humanity? They’re not hunters or gatherers, they wait for something to die, “crawl” in, and find a home/dinner combined.
- Fungus has a massive impact on our world
- Fun fact: there’s a fungus that lives on cicadas, eats their buts, and produces meth… that birds then eat!
- Trees help convert CO2, more than they need for themselves to help their ecosystem, not just themselves or their symbiotes
- Generational effects of trauma have been found to affect our descendants’ microbiomes
2 – To the alien, they’re the normal one.
- But recognize that describing everything the humans do as judgey and “how weird!” has become a trope.
- When writing your alien, treat them like magic — not with hand-waving deux-ex-machina, but in that you give the premise, and then keep it internally consistent.
3. Make their cultures as diverse as human ones
- A whole planet won’t believe one way (unless they’re a hive mind).
- Have dissidents, rebels, and traditionalists in conflict. In different places, there should be multiple-belief sets and religions.
4. Most stories only need two layers of answers
Readers ask:“Why do the aliens do THING?”
Author: “Because of REASON.”
Reader: “But why?”
Author: “OTHER REASON.”
(NOTE: For stories being submitted to Analog, try for 3-4 layers.)
5. Explore how seemingly related phenomenons often aren’t
Humans and animals often create rituals, based on linking a desired (or undesired) outcome, with actions they took. Sometimes they’re actually linked, but sometimes, there are forces beyond our narrow view influencing things
- Cathryn Valente told of her 4-year-old dancing for the bird outside the window.
Media Examples and Recommendations
- Star Trek had the problem of “rubber-headed humans” — (insufficiently diverse)
- Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time have fundamentally different thoughts and assumptions
- Ken Liu‘s Timekeeper’s Symphony and 3 Body Problem trilogy
- Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy and Blood Child
- Iain M. Banks
- Charlie Stross’s Neptune’s Brood
- Robert L Forward’s Dragon’s Egg has multiple generations of the alien for a single human hour
- David Brin’s Uplift series
- Hal Clement Heavy Planet duology
Do you have any favorite alien portrayals? Any disappointments that stuck with you?
Let us know what we should emulate and what we should try to avoid!