Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part II)
Posted by erikthereddest
Welcome back for another Science Fiction Problems! This week I’ll be continuing my series on writing aliens, helping you come up with a society for the creatures you designed last week. While some of the problems are linked to considerations of last week’s post, there are still many new challenges involved in creating unique and interesting alien cultures beyond the creatures’ survival equipment. But first, I’d like to talk about one thing you should avoid:
Monocultures: Writing Aliens the Lazy Way
We’ve all seen them, in mainstream science fiction, in movies, in TV shows (lookin’ at you, Star Trek), and practically anywhere aliens are involved. Somehow, by the time the story’s intrepid explorers come across the alien planet, not only are the inhabitants far more advanced technologically and socially, but they seem to have unified into one big amorphous mega-culture, with seemingly no differences or variations to shake it all up. Apparently Earth is the only planet where the people can’t just get along.
These are Monocultures- singular, clean and unvaried societies that do not change across the entirety of a population. There is exactly one way to greet a stranger, one religion to speak of (perhaps two If the story revolves around warring factions), and one type of 6-foot blue-skinned intelligent life-form on the whole planet. It doesn’t have to be peaceful and utopian, as this is just as common with warring worlds, and is not dependant on technology. These cultures often feel tired and one-dimensional, and somehow inherently unrealistic.
The reason these simply don’t feel right is because intelligent beings, no matter how cohesive and unified (if they have individual personality and will), are not going to be exactly the same in any large sample, let alone across the entire race. Groups of individuals will inevitably develop different languages as they split and migrate, developing different foods, clothing, and customs as different resources are available geographically, and different biological adaptations, depending on the species’ genetic flexibility. We see this in our world, and there is no reason to think that it would not occur in another, at least in varying degrees.
This is not all to say that you must intricately detail every movement of every group of every people group of your alien world (although your understanding of it would inevitably profit from this exercise), but there at least needs to be an implication in your story that there is in fact diversity so that it allows for differences.
Keeping this problem in mind, here are some questions to think through when you are devising your own cultures:
Culture as an Extension of Biology
Many animals in nature have plumage or colorful bodies to attract mates, and various other anatomical aspects that affect their social behavior. Evolutionary theory typically takes this and applies it to Human society, drawing comparison between our own seemingly instinctively-developed social structures and how they relate to our development and cultural environments across cultures. In writing a culture for your aliens, you can think likewise for practical results:
- If your aliens are huge and burly, is physical strength important in their society? (Do they value it above all, or is it simply a matter of personal pride? Is it reserved for those who actually need physical strength, or is it integral to everything your aliens do in normal life?
- What is considered beautiful in this culture? Are the aliens particularly vain about appearances, or is it only a certain part of their population, perhaps the aristocratic classes or particular cultures of the world?
- Is there anything about the alien’s unusual appearance that defines a part of their society? Look back on all of the decisions you made about the aliens’ biology- what sort of behaviors might have developed as a part of survival instincts that would have come from life in the world you have created for them?
Aside from the aliens’ appearance and external features, the alien cultures would be heavily affected by the nature of the individual’s person and place in the world:
- Are the aliens of individual minds? Do they share a will across many people and share thoughts and personalities as in a kind of telepathy or hive-mind?
- Are they particularly individualistic, or are they a sort of group-oriented creature, like a wolf or grazing animal?
- Are they more intellectually or physically oriented? Do they tend towards philosophical motivations or simple survival or vices?
- Do the aliens perceive the world any differently than we do? (Do they not have eyes, for instance, or maybe only perceive vibrations? Do they not hear, and only rely on sight? These aspects would affect the culture’s value systems, and dictate a lot of how their customs and behaviorisms work.
Analogous Aspects From our Own World
You can ask questions like these to get a start on your cultures, but you can only get so far on evolution-based approaches if you want a deep and complex world for your characters to live in. The next line of consideration deals with ideas within our own culture, which you can naturally extrapolate into other non-human worlds. Readers will naturally assume that certain common problems will be similarly faced in an alien society, and so expect to see them answered, or otherwise explained away. Here are some considerations that we also deal with in our own lives:
- Are they geared toward religion, natural science, or some combination of both? Do they regard beliefs as some small part of their past, or a definitive aspect of their being? How much of the population believes in this same way? Is it more or less across the board, or are there divisions?
- How do the aliens deal with war? Are their militaries keen and brutal, or careful and surgical? Is their military service based on volunteer, or do they all have a mandatory term of service? Do they value life? What distinction do they make between civilians and militants?
- How do the aliens deal with crime and justice? Are criminals innocent until proven guilty, and given other similar rights as American Law? Feel free to base this on systems in our own world, but don’t make any distinct culture’s too close to the real world, or else readers will begin to draw comparisons.
- What does the overall social structure look like? Are there many kingdoms among different people groups? Are they tribal (regardless of technological advancement)? Democratic? Oligarchic? Theocratic?
- Avoid the Monoculture trap, but if you do want to create a more or less homogeneous culture, have a reason for it! Was there a conquest that stamped out opposing thought? Was there some huge political movement that overwhelmed the competing ideas? Drastic, important changes in the world’s history would have to be involved for a planet to contain mostly the same beliefs or customs across a population.
These are only a small sampling of the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you design your alien culture, and the important thing to remember is that while you only truly need to develop what you actually intend to present to your readers, a deeper understanding of your world’s intricate parts will drastically affect the overall believability of your world, and benefit your writing. Again, keep questioning your ideas and keep your hand off the cliché shelf, and you will eventually come up with something very unique and interesting to work with.
Alright, that’s enough for now! Next week I’ll get into designing a believable ecology for your world, and then I’ll cap this all off with a discussion of differentiating technologies across different races.
Until then, what are some interesting alien cultures you’ve come across? Let me know in the comments below!
About erikthereddestI'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.
Posted on April 6, 2011, in Cliches, Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, Star Trek, Story, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged aliens, culture, evolution, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, science fantasy, science fiction, science fiction problems, society, world creation, writing science fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.