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|Creating Believable Aliens
by Tina Morgan
The Hubble telescope, the Voyager probe, DNA and the study of genetics have all changed the way we view our world. Computers have given us the ability to research at the speed of light and the average person has access to greater knowledge than has ever been possible in the history of mankind.
These things are also reflected in the stories we write.
No longer can a science fiction writer create a goo-dripping alien just because a story line requires an adversary from another planet to drop in on our unsuspecting world. The average reader is not going to buy into the B-rate movies of old. It takes more than an actor in a rubber mask for them to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a story or novel.
Bringing an alien species into a novel requires a bit of planning and thought on the part of the writer.
1) Can life exist on other planets?
Research into other planets and solar systems leads scientists to believe that humanoid life forms are not likely to exist elsewhere but that there may be a vast variety of life that we have yet to consider. Some of earth's most wondrous creatures can be found in the most extreme conditions. Tubeworms live in the ocean's depths at pressures and temperatures previously believed to be uninhabitable. Bacteria have been found living in the extreme heat of geyser water deep in the ocean and in Yellowstone National Park. Aliens such as these may exist even in our own galaxy.
But how exciting is that? Our intrepid space explorers find tubeworms. It makes having a galactic battle a bit more difficult.
However, that tiny bit of doubt that keeps scientists from saying for 100% certainty that humanoid life forms do not exist elsewhere in the universe gives the writer a tiny margin of chance to play with and many writers will explore those options.
2) How do you create a believable alien?
One of the inconsistencies that always bothers me about science fiction movies is the type of aliens we see piloting spacecraft that humans can pilot as well. Independence Day is one of my favorite movies, but I have to wonder how the aliens with their claw-like hands use the joystick type controls that Will Smith used to fly their spacecraft back to the mother ship? I also wonder how these aliens use tools and forge metal.
Many creatures in Star Wars and Star Trek have left me with the same questions. Men In Black was a delightfully fun movie, but how could some of those gelatinous creatures build a space ship and make contact with other planets? Our opposable thumb gives us advantages that tentacled aliens don't have.
Take a careful look at the physical attributes you want to bestow upon your aliens. Are you creating a race that can exist in the environment you've designed? Is it believable that your race has evolved to the level of technology you need to make your plot work? Why is your race exploring/traveling in space? Is space travel that easy for them? What do they expect to find and how long are they willing to look for it? What brings them into contact with the other planets in your book? (The evil aliens following a radio signal back to earth is getting quite clichéd.)
Making little aliens:
Sex and reproduction are other issues not to be overlooked. Many science fiction writers want to allow their species to inter-breed but the odds against this happening are astronomical. Some writers try to explain it by having the embryos genetically engineered. However, unless having bi-species offspring is crucial to your story, I would recommend not doing it. It stretches the realm of believability a bit thin.
Another issue is the number of creatures it takes to reproduce. Three sexes have often been discussed and used in science fiction stories. Natural selection, evolution, creationism, however you view the creation of the universe, using three sexes goes against the odds. Say you have M, F, and D sexes. What happens when F finds a D and needs an M to reproduce? How quickly can F find an M before D finds an F and M combination looking for a D? Slowing down the reproductive cycle diminishes a species' chance of survival.
I did find the television show; Alien Nation handled this issue quite well and in a very believable manner. The aliens were a slave race that had been genetically engineered by their masters. In order to
control breeding, the masters had created a third sex (basically male) that was required for the females to become pregnant. The Tenctonese turned this genetic tampering into part of their culture and closely guarded the secret when they came to earth. This worked because their masters had consciously engineered the vulnerability into them. It was not a random chance of fate or evolution.
Imagine if an alien species was expected to thrive in extreme winter climates, or in heavy gravity situations. Physically, they would have adapted over generations to "suit" the environment around them.
Mentally, they would have needed to develop self-defense mechanisms and beliefs.
The force that creates your aliens will play a role in determining the outcome. Gods or master species can create characteristics that nature, evolution or fate would not.
Learning a bit about an "alien" culture may give important clues to how and why an alien developed the physical and cultural attributes they have. For example: Humans have a long history of self-destruction and violence, usually demonstrated by war. This has shaped our culture and belief systems.
However, the extended periods of peace time between wars also gave our cultures time to develop and expand art and literature the "peace-time" advances of society.
3) What purpose do aliens serve in your story?
While the phrase "politically correct" makes many people cringe, the idea has caused us to look more closely at the stereotypes we assign to the alien races we use in our writing. The violent Klingons and Romulans of the original Star Trek series have undergone a metamorphosis as the series has progressed into
the 21st century. No longer are readers willing to blindly accept the "evil transgressors" of early science fiction. No race on earth fits a cookie-cutter image and neither should those in your stories.
Novels are often more fun when a character steps outside their cultural upbringing to "see" the other side of an issue. With careful character development and plotting, this can create a very believable plot twist.
Tips to remember:
If you are looking for an evil, goo-dripping alien to terrorize the planet, make certain they're believable and there is a good reason for them to be here.
Give them physical attributes that make sense. Feathered wings don't work well in deep water and flippers don't work on land.
Bacteria and virii can exist in conditions previously thought impossible and are the most plentiful type of life forms.
Creating weirdness just to be unusual does not add quality to your writing. It draws attention to the mechanics of your world building and does little to entice your reader to continue reading.
For more information about creating alien creatures and life on other planets, visit these links.
(An extra thank you goes to Lee Masterson for her thoughtful suggestions on this article.)
© Copyright 2002-2003 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved
Morgan is the Managing Editor of Fiction Factor - an online
magazine for fiction writers. She is also a contributing
author for the book "The Complete Guide to Fantasy", available
from Dragon Moon Press.
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