Most speculative fiction writers have a tendency to include a non-human character or two in their novels these days.
Hard science fiction writers like to throw in a random bug-eyed, slime-dripping menace with which to threaten their heroes. Soft science fiction writers prefer the friendly alien races who act and speak like us, but have some physical differences. Fantasy writers tend to adopt a couple of aloof elves, maybe a few rabid dwarves, a dragon or two, and a cute green-skinned goblin for good measure.
But is there any point to these additions?
Is your central plot driven around your protagonist being chased and terrorized by a rampant alien attack? Perhaps your aliens are there because a slime-dripping critter torturing people would be fun to write. Maybe you wanted your humans to colonize a new world, but needed them to overcome the “vicious natives” first, before making friends and living happily ever after.
In each of the cases above, alien characters are not truly required in order to make the story work. Ask yourself if that attack might not be even more fearful if conducted by people they actually understand. Perhaps that poor critter dripping slime all over your command deck actually expresses pain through its secretory glands - that would take all the fun out of writing a cool goo-dripping creature.
Take a closer look at your own motives for wanting a non-human character in your story. If you suddenly find that it isn’t necessary for an alien to be in your story, then replacing that character with a human counterpart who thinks in an alien way might be more productive.
If the inclusion of non-human characters into your story is simply for the ‘cute’ factor of having someone non-human to play with, then maybe all your characters should be human. If the story itself needs the inclusion of an alien, then make that creature as believable as you can.
By now, you would have spent extensive amounts of time developing and realizing your protagonist’s character. You would be aware of his personality traits, his weaknesses and strengths, his looks, and most importantly, his innermost desires. And, if you’re truly serious about becoming a pro in this profession, you would have done the same background research on your villain too.
But how many writers actually take the time to research their non-human counterparts?
The word “Alien” does not necessarily mean “a creature from outer space”. It can simply mean anything which is perceived as different, or even as coming from another country.
The Oxford Concise Dictionary lists the word “alien” thus:
1: a foreigner, especially one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where they are living
2: an alien plant or animal species
3: a being from another world
1: belonging to a foreign country
2: unfamiliar and distasteful
3: (of a plant or animal species) introduced from another country and later naturalized
4: relating to or denoting beings from other worlds.
Humans in Disguise
Many writers will still describe their non-human characters as being human-like creatures who happen to look a little different.
How many old sci-fi films have you seen where an actor wearing a hideous mask, or pointed ears, or a silver suit, wanders into the shot moaning with his arms stretched out before him? The viewer is supposed to believe that the actor is an alien, simply because he looks different to the perfectly groomed, good looking young hero opposite him.
Perhaps you’ve read one of any number of sci-fi novels where the non-human character walks up to the human hero and greets him in his own language. The insertion of a simple sentence fixes any language barriers (“he activated his universal translator-chip”), and the rest of the story continues without any questions into how the translator device learned a heretofore unknown language.
And then, of course, are the high-fantasy novels, which abound with talking dragons, elves, fairies, dwarves, orcs, goblins, or any manner of fantastical creature for that matter. It is rare for any of those characters to be fully developed as separate species in their own right.
Putting a mask on a human character and labeling it ‘alien’ will weaken your story and likely weaken your credibility as a writer, too.
Creating Alien Characters
Our human culture and physiology arose from our planet of origin’s ecology. Our basic survival instincts were formed according to the surroundings we were raised into. And our speech patterns evolved according to the region we were born into.
Why then, would a writer assume that an alien being, who looks different to the humans around him, would still walk and talk and think the same way, if he was raised in extremely different circumstances.
Here are some tips for understanding the complex composition of your own non-human character.
- What ecology spawned this life-form?
- How hostile is the environment?
- Is the atmosphere conducive to reproduction?
- Do they breath oxygen at all?
- Is the gravity more or less dense than Earth’s?
- What is their economy based upon?
- Is their primary (sun) stable? Brighter than our sun? Cooler than our sun?
- Are their tides drawn violently by more than one moon?
- Is their history sprinkled with violence or oppression?
- Is their culture flavored by their history?
- Are the surrounding environments physically challenging? (e.g. snow-capped alps, excess water/sun, subterranean dwellings etc)
- Has there been time between bouts of survival for creativity to blossom?
Hopefully asking yourself these things will highlight just how different *physically* your non-human character would need to be, but it should also begin to raise questions about the mindset of a race of people raised in conditions unfamiliar to Earth.