Not Just Another Funny Forehead: Creating Alien Characters

All too often, television and films have depicted alien races as either shapeless blobs bent on wholesale destruction or else human actors with wrinkled noses or pointed ears. Alas, printed media have not proved immune to such generic and often salacious depictions. Fortunately, enough science fiction (and fantasy, if elves, talking dragons and the like are “aliens”) authors have either the scientific training or the resourcefulness and imagination to do careful research. Both genres abound in well-crafted intelligent nonhuman species. Much has been written on the topic of “how to design a really alien alien,” and it is one of my favorite convention panel topics.

When I set out to create an alien race for Jaydium, however, I hadn’t participated or listened to many discussions. I had some guidance, but felt mostly on my own.

At that time, aspiring writers were encouraged to use check lists in developing alien races and their cultures. I find check lists singularly unappealing! They remind me of a conversation I overheard while standing in line to register for my first convention: a person was holding forth (quite loudly and in excruciating detail) about a world he had created. My reaction was twofold: first, that I had never and could never design such an intricately-described place; second (which kept me from utter despair about my own writing) there was no story there.

My aliens arose from my writing process. That is, I started with the forward momentum of the story, the characters under stress, the unstable setting, the cascading sequence of events that led inexorably to a climax. Only when I understood the demands of the story did I know what questions to ask. I realized fairly early in the writing process that the mineral jaydium was the result of the destruction of a wonderful civilization, a sort of cataclysmically-metamorphic rock with special properties. I wanted my characters to be faced with a choice of attempting to save that civilization (at the risk of there being no jaydium, and hence no way to get home) or to let the tragic events unfold. This led me to ponder, What kind of civilization? Created by what kind of beings?

Since I loved invertebrate zoology in college, I used the gastropod family as a model. In doing so, I violated a slew of biological realities (including the limits on size of creatures that don’t have skeletons, internal or external, as well as the limiting rate of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange). And yet, what I did worked. No one, not even my professor (to whom I presented a copy) railed at me for scientific idiocy.

Part of the reason, I believe, is that although my gastropoids were far from technically perfect, they formed an integral part of their world. I made them partly-understood, neither completely divorced from the reader’s experience nor too-explained, too-familiar. I’d thought through how their secretions are used as building materials, their aquatic and dry-land functioning, their reproductive biology and its affect on their individual relationships, and their mode of communication.

However — and this is crucial — I didn’t bash the reader over the head with everything I’d worked out. The gastropoids and their culture are experienced through the eyes of our human castaways, who of course are not going to be handed a textbook of alien physiology. As our viewpoint characters interacted with the gastropoids, I gave the reader enough information to understand what is going on, but not an overpowering, indigestible treatise.

Lessons: Respect your own creative process, whether organic or tightly planned. Respect your reader’s intelligence and patience. Cut to the chase.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction professionally since 1982. Her first novel, a space adventure written under her former name, Deborah Wheeler, is now available as an ebook from Book View Cafe Press. Read her latest collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley, the Darkover novel Hastur Lord.

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Not Just Another Funny Forehead: Creating Alien Characters — 6 Comments

  1. second (which kept me from utter despair about my own writing) there was no story there.

    Yes!! All the details are useless without a story in which to use them.

    And what you were saying about violating biological realities–yes, I think if something can be made to adhere to rules within the story, and to seem realistic within the story, then you can violate plenty of rules. As a reader, reading aliens, I like differences to come up naturally–to have some weird everyday feature casually referred to. That gets me thinking about what it would be like to be such an alien, for whom that weird thing would be natural.

  2. When I needed aliens for REVISE THE WORLD, I was driven by plot considerations. My explorers couldn’t just arrive on the alien planet and find it just like home — how boring! It had to be -mysterious-, confusing, difficult. They could not find ET right away. I toyed with a number of ways of hiding ET. My favorite was aliens one inch high; their major metropolis would fit into a football field and be easily overlooked from space. But finally I went with the ever reliable Arsene Dupin, and hid the purloined letter in the most obvious place.

  3. Ha! Yes. I remember back when I’d visit my grandparents as a kid, I always wanted to watch Sci-Fi shows instead of the soaps Gran favoured. She nailed it on the head when she started resignedly sighing, “Oh, it’s the funny head again.”

    I get how TV shows could slap some prosthetics and make-up on a an actor, get wardrobe to knowck up something flowy, or glittery, or flowy and glittery, and have a humanoid alien. No need for books to limit themselves this way. But, as you say, there’s no need to deluge the reader with complex biological details either.

    They are supposed to be alien, after all.

  4. Yes, weird and unexpected and wonderful!

    I loved what Andre Norton did with her “Forerunners” in the early books, but was deeply disappointed when she brought them onstage (instead of evoked through mysterious ruins) and they turned out to be just like everyone else.

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