Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part III)
Posted by erikthereddest
Sorry for the delay, folks! Welcome back for another Science Fiction Problems! I gave some brain-storming ideas for writing alien cultures last week, and today I’ll be giving some tips on writing the background for your aliens’ lives, the ecology of their homeworld.
This can feel like an unnecessary step, but having a fully fleshed-out world will add a lot to the inner consistency of your story, and without it, your setting may feel less believable. Drawing again from that ever-useful idea of evolution, we can figure out what sort of flora and fauna might live in the world you’ve crafted for your sentient species.
The Problem of Plants
Don’t worry, no one expects you to come up with a whole new species of space-dandelion and explain why exactly it’s not like Earth’s dandelions, however, something either needs to be different about your world’s plant life, or else it needs to have a reason for being similar.
If the plants that grow on the planet are basically exactly the same as those that grow on earth, why is that?
- Is the planet actually Earth, with new inhabitants? This could be an interesting way to make your reader wonder and guess about the similarities.
- Or, is it an earth-type planet with a similar atmosphere and other conditions, so that plants very much like (but not) earth’s grow there? Any visitors familiar with Earth would likely feel at home there and perhaps be confused by the similarity unless someone explained why (giving you an opportunity for a neat little explanation yourself).
- Maybe these plants were ‘seeded’ from earth as a terra-forming project? Did it fail? Succeed? Did someone else come and take over later?
In any case, foreign characters and readers alike should know what is the same and what is different so that they can get a feel for the background. This shouldn’t be overly focused on and should be handled very carefully, or else we’ll have another information dump on our hands. You can implicitly hint at similarities by having characters take things for granted, such as examining an decorative blue shrub and noting its “odd color” (making it a different color than is usual, which the reader would assume is green).
Now, if your planet is indeed completely different, you should find the best answer to the survival problems of your
world. Depending on the conditions of your environment, the plants will either adapt or cease to exist, both things you should account for in your writing.
- High winds? Deep roots and low profiles could help plants from getting pulled out of the ground or being ripped up in storms
- Depleted soil? Carnivorous plants! Often growing in bogs and wastelands, plants such as the venus flytrap, the sundew plant, and the pitcher-plant grow in places most plants couldn’t survive, and in fact only grow their prey-catching leaf structures when growing in mineral-weak soils. Otherwise, they’re just normal plants!
- Low light conditions? Plants that do not rely on photosynthesis typically have dull colors due to a lack of light-absorbing pigments, so the flora on such a planet shouldn’t typically be very colorful. You could have other reasons for the plants to have color, sure, but just keep in mind the various ways plants use color (enticing animals to eat their fruit, warning of poisonousness, attracting pollinating insects, etc.)
Obviously, the more extreme the environment, the more difficult it is for plant life to survive. If you have boiling lakes of lead, it isn’t likely that you’ll have a christmas tree growing anywhere (unless that’s one REALLY flame-retardant tree… that likes poisonous atmospheres and acid-rain… you get the idea.)
Our Friends, the Animals
For anyone who remembers high school biology, life on earth is organized into orders and hierarchies of predator and prey in the wild, from the fiercest wild cat in the jungle down to the little rabbit grazing in the clover patch. It should work similarly in your created world, with certain species of plant-eating animals being preyed upon by carnivorous creatures, if there are any. An ecology could reasonably exist with only plant life, only plants and omnivours, and plants, herbivores, and carnivores, but it could not work normally with just herbivores or just carnivours.
Obviously, plant-eaters need plants to eat, but carnivours could eat eachother, right? Well, the carnivores in our world require a great many things in their diet that they only get because the herbivores eat plants containing them. Carnivores could conceivably evolve so as not to require nutrients contained in plants, but you would need some reason for that- perhaps the predators actually contain within them a photosynthetic algae or other plant organism that synthesizes what tje host needs? You can have omnivores (animals that eat both plants and other animals, like bears and humans), but they typically have to have access to a wide variety of food options to be able to survive.
I’m being simplistic about this, but you only need so much to satisfy the non-hard-science crowd (which is a good deal
larger than the niche that likes only hard science fiction anyway). Once you’ve determined the relative structure of the workings of your alien world, you can come up with some unique ideas about the animals themselves.
- Are the animals similar to your sentient species? Even we have monkeys that seem similar to us, however, most of earth’s creatures look nothing like humans. Depending on how diverse your creatures are, they may have similar features that tie them to the world. For an example, notice the neural-link structures on the creatures of Peter Jackson’s Avatar movie.
- Are there flying creatures? Swimming ones? Climbing ones? What sort of movement would most benefit the animals in this world the most?
- What is the gravity like? If the gravity is very heavy on your world, tall creatures with thin bones and structures could not exist. Something low, wide, and heavy could conceivably counter this problem, or else something that has enough buoyancy to resist it, with pockets of light gas.
For other ideas, look at our own world. What part or parts of Earth most closely represent your planet, at least in the most basic sense? Look at the kinds of animals that live and thrive there, and you can get away with devising equivalent animals as long as you take the other factors of your planet into consideration.
Well, I think that’s enough for one week. Next time I’ll cover technologies, and how to make them different across different races. Until then, what are some of interesting alien creatures you’ve seen in science fiction? Leave me a comment 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 13, 2011, in Cliches, Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged animals, carnivorous plants, ecology, fauna, floura, food chain, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, pitcher plant, planet, plants, science fantasy, science fiction, sundew, venus flytrap, World Building, world creation, writing science fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.