This article was originally posted on Veronica Sicoe’s blog, and is re-posted here with permission.
A comment I’ve recently received on an older post of mine (13 Aspects About Aliens You Shouldn’t Ignore) reminded me about the importance of knowing the origin of your alien species when you sit down to write science-fiction. This guy spent a lot of thought on the origin of his aliens, and even though I haven’t read his book, I know he has a much better chance at making it great than someone who basically stuffs a random character in an alien rubber costume and strings some funny words together to give him a “background”.
Meet D’hak’Trezoinkgur, the emperor of Delta Zoinkg, and his mighty fleet of Zoinkgers, all speaking the ancient Zoinkg language. Yeah, no.
Not that I prefer books where the author stops the action to give us lengthy tirades about the evolution of his aliens from the day they crawled out of their protozoic sea, to the moment they conquered half the galaxy. But he ought to know what happened in between, in broad sketches, because if he doesn’t, it will show.
We’re not on a CGI budget, and we don’t have to convince uppity actors to spend ten hours with their faces covered in stinky masks. We’re writers. We own the universe. We can create aliens so alien and so complex, they’ll put Hollywood to shame (okay, that’s quite easily done, nowadays, but you know what I’m sayin’).
Each story has its particular needs and requirements, and we have to pour our creative goodness into that mold and shape an alien species out of it that can stand on its own and come alive. There are a few basic components that are valid for all stories, and ought to be at least spent some thought on, if not exhaustively built in advance.
If your aliens have tentacles for limbs, then FFS don’t make them fly ships with chairs and buttons and steering wheels. Also, if they are tentacled slimy bastards, you must work extra hard to make me believe they would have ever developed a need to use tools in the first place.
Normally, writers start with an image of an awesome alien species, and pile up more and more awesome characteristics on top of them. Then they work backwards from there, to come up with reasons why their aliens are the way they are. (At least, that’s how I work. I don’t start with an amoeba and try to figure out where evolution might take it.) In that deconstruction process, you then come up with yet more awesome traits and quirks, and ultimately end up with a biological freak endowed with terrible abilities and fantastic looks.
But would nature tolerate that complexity? Would it encourage it? Why — what on those aliens’ world calls for it? What’s the evolutionary advantage these aliens have on all other critters of their homeworld? How does their peculiar biology influence the path they took to become galactics? Invest some work in figuring this out on a pragmatic, satisfyingly realistic level, and each time you show us glimpses of your alien world, we’ll buy it without much question because it will feel logical.
The physical traits of a species influence their social life tremendously. How does marriage look like for a race that has three sexes, instead two? Are they even monogamous? How does childbirth look like if the male carries the fertilized eggs? Is there a hierarchy in the work environment, and what is it based on? Skill or birthright? Are there prejudices against individuals looking a particular way, or suffering from disabilities or mutations? Is there a social elitism or are they egalitarian? And ultimately, how did their social life evolve along the timeline?
Cultural diversity and values
If there’s one thing I always hated about Star Trek, it was the prevalence of monocultures in their universe. I believe the more a species evolves, the less probable monocultures become. Simply put, if a society achieves a certain level of wealth and prosperity, and the worth of individual contributions is recognized (brilliance is treasured, diversity and competition are encouraged for the good of all, etc.), then a diversity of values is inevitable as well. Having an entire planet of billions share similar values and ambitions is unrealistic.
Do your aliens come from the dominant social structure on their homeworld, or a minority? Are they ideological outcasts, or do they represent mainstream values? How does their culture compare to others on their world? How about their language? Their food, clothing and social hierarchy? Do they maybe have a matriarchal social structure, while a rivaling culture on their homeworld is patriarchal? Do they often go to war with one another? Have they reached economical balance? If so, how? What is their attitude toward indigenous aliens, and does that translate into xenophobia?
Oh, I could go on forever asking questions. But you don’t need to go into very deep detail on any of this. A little will do. And a little will generate a lot of interesting ideas and give a lot of depth to your aliens.
All of the things I mentioned so far have profound, long-lasting effects on an individual’s psychological makeup. Our aptitudes, health, looks and the way others regard and judge us based upon these, largely determine our self-esteem, our ambitions in life and our fears. The way we tick is a result of the way we adapted to our world (and our ancestors before us), and the degree by which we can adapt the world to us.
So before you go and make your aliens prone to something, afraid of something or craving something for themselves, spend some time understanding why they are the way they are, and what makes each of them an individual. What was their childhood like? What were their relationships so far? What are their hobbies and favorite distractions? What are their vices and flaws? Did they fulfill any of their dreams, or are they frustrated?
I have investigated most of these avenues when I created my aliens, and quite a few more that arose while I was trying to answer some of these questions. The “work” (read giddy, geeky fun) I invested depended on what I needed to know to shape my aliens’ behavior in an internally consistent manner. For some, I spent more time developing interesting biological aspects, for others, I focused more on the psychological aspects. YMMV.
Your story will dictate what you need to develop. And it will show you where and how much you need to include into the actual narrative. Listen to your story, and listen to your gut. And when in doubt, listen to your beta readers. Or, you know, come back here and pester me with questions.
This article was written by Veronica Sicoe, a science fiction writer who blogs at www.veronicasicoe.com.
Artwork by Alex Ries aka Abiogenesis. We;ve featured some more of Alex’s work in this Inpiration Gallery.