Aliens have to talk. I mean, if they don’t say a few words to the people, they’re just page-dressing. Okay, sometimes even if they do say a few words, they’re still page-dressing. Let’s face it, we writers often write about aliens the same way we’d write about different cultural groups right here on Earth.
There’s a very good reason for that. The only aliens most of us have met, so far, are the ones on our own planet. And some of those are plenty … alien. If you hung out with the people I hang out with, you’d see what I mean. We’re just plain odd. Writers. Musicians. Filkers, for pity’s sake! Science fiction fen. Heck, we even have our own language.
So will “real” aliens.
Aliens occupy a rather unique place in SF literature. They are us and not us at the same time. We use aliens as plot devices to say things about the human condition. Sometimes that means they sound pretty much like us with small nuances. For example, they have different swear words (see Padawan’s Journal #22: Slang). A human might say “darn” while a Twi’lek says “frang,” for example. Other than that, they may sound pretty much alike.
It’s when we use the alien’s alienness as a foil for the human’s familiarity that he or she becomes a real character. Then the voice is different. Then you can read a passage without dialogue tags and know when the alien is speaking.
Take Chewbacca for example. Chewie was the first alien in the Star Wars Universe that had extended dialogues. We didn’t understand a word he said, ‘cause Wookiees don’t, for the most part speak Basic. They speak Shyriiwook and the orps (other races of people) just have to learn the lingo. But they understood Basic, so we understood Chewie because Han Solo understood him and acted as a sort of interpreter. I always thought that was pretty clever, because Han never actually repeats what Chewie says (“What’s that you say, boy? Luke’s fallen into the gravity well?”) He simply responds to it so that we understand what the Wookiee is warbling about in context. This is as true in the novels I’ve read that feature Chewbacca and Han Solo as it is of the movies.
Another vivid example of when it works to have aliens simply speak their own language is the dialogue between Jabba the Hutt and his aide-de-camp in Return of the Jedi. In the movie, we get subtitles, but even if we didn’t, the dialogue is easy to follow because of the vocal inflections of the speakers and the visual cues. The writer of a novel does not have the same aural and visual tools, so in a book, that scene would be far less nuanced and probably use a lot of parentheses.
Then there’s Yoda, who does speak Basic, but with a sentence syntax that is markedly different than a human’s. It’s like someone speaking English with French or Russian syntax and it makes Yoda’s dialogue instantly recognizable and worthy of adorning tee-shirts everywhere. (“Judge me by my size, do you?” is something my vertically challenged teenaged daughter should have tattooed somewhere on her formidable person.)
In writing the novel known as HOLOSTAR (aka SHADOW GAMES), I’m characterizing an alien using his speech mannerisms and his physical attributes as part of his alienness. My goal is for you, the Reader, to be able to recognize his dialogue simply by the way he delivers his lines and the subtle physical gestures that go with them on occasion.
Er, no, I’m not going to tell you what sort of alien he is. That would create a security leak and I’d have to scramble the storm-troopers. But I will tell you that I’m making use of nature and nurture to make him a fully-realized alien … and that this guy’s got a lot to work with. He has a couple of interesting physical attributes that I want to work into characterization, and his species also has evolved some traits that, for a writer, can be extremely useful … and extremely tricky to use. His education and training also plays into what he says and how he says it, and I need to consider that, as well, as I write his dialogue.
All of the above make writing dialogue for the alien challenging even if they’ve evolved the voice boxes and oral apparatus to be able to produce speech. A race that evolved to live in underground caves like the Sullustans will react differently to being on a desert planet like Tattooine than someone whose species evolved in the trees of Kashyyyk. The languages would also evolve to have different epithets, different ways of expressing basic concepts such as good and evil, bravery and cowardice, love and hate. Consider the Togrutans, who center themselves spiritually via a connection between their bare feet and the planet’s surface. While humans might speak of “being in heaven” or having “sky-high expectations” a Togrutan or Sullustan might talk about “returning to the earth” or having “cavernous expectations.”
It all depends on where and how they were raised … and tracking down that information can be a daunting task.
Next time: The Great Pool of Knowledge or What the Writer Didn’t Know
Browse Maya’s fiction on her bookshelf.