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Aliens and Faeries: Non-Human
Characters Acting Badly
writers of speculative fiction 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 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
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
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"
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.
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
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.
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.
ecology spawned this life-form?
hostile is the environment?
the atmosphere conducive to reproduction?
they breath oxygen at all?
the gravity more or less dense than Earth's?
is their economy based upon?
their primary (sun) stable? Brighter than our
sun? Cooler than our sun?
their tides drawn violently by more than one
their history sprinkled with violence or
their culture flavored by their history?
their surrounding environments physically
challenging? (e.g. snow-capped alps, excess water/sun,
subterranean dwellings etc)
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.
Copyright 2001-2004 Lee Masterson
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