Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part III)

This is the first part in a series. Follow the links for the different parts: IIIIV

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

Carnivorous plants! Venus flytraps don’t have to just be green, you know.

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

Here’s a basic relationship

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 erikthereddest

I'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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Good advice. Your world’s ecology must be plausible for your world to be believable. So no large herbivores living in deserts! (George Lucas, are you listening?). No planets devoid of plant life but having breathable oxygen atmospheres! (Gene Roddenberry? Oh, you’ve already been straightened out by a higher authority than me.)

    It is a testament to the stories skewered above that they are attractive even with such normally cred-killing bloopers. But Erik is right–you probably won’t be that lucky if you don’t think your world through better than that.

    • Yeah, I admit that I never really thought about the banthas in Star Wars before you mentioned it- I guess they might survive like camels do or something, but it does seem odd. The point of all this is that it not only makes your world feel much more credible if you show the reader how deep it is, but having a well-developed world helps you write in it. You might think that you can get away with making it up as you go (and to a degree, that’s more or less true), but you will miss many opportunities to reveal something interesting about your world and the people that live in it because you won’t have them in mind as you write.

  2. I was fascinated by the necro – somethings (I haven’t read the book for a long while) in the Helliconia series by Brian Aldiss.

  3. I’ve recently been obsessed with Brian Sanderson’s works. In both his Mistborn trilogy and his (completely awesome) new series, the Stormlight Archive, he creates worlds complete with an unique ecology. Without being heavy-handed, he manages to make these worlds essential to the plot of his books. It’s really . . . . impressive. I can’t think of a better example of how focusing on seemingly small details can change the feel of your entire work for the better.

    • Exactly! It’s only as necessary as you want it to be, but you always benefit from knowing how your world works regardless of your intentions. I’ll have to look that series up, I haven’t heard of it.

  4. Probably the best world ever from an ecologically thought-out standpoint is Herbert’s original Dune.

  5. Just a minor correction: an ecosystem with only plants probably won’t last long (in a geological scale). Plants consume CO2 and produce O2, of course, which on earth is balanced againt animals which consume O2 and produce CO2. If you have only plants (either an uninhabited world or the homeworld of a sapient plant race), you’d better have another source of CO2. Now, while life isn’t the only process that can turn CO2 into O2, you’d have to have a LOT of the other processes (like wildfires, or certain other chemica processes.

    Beyond that, I’d strongly encourage people to think through consistency in design in their ecosystems. While you say that humans don’t really look like much else on earth, there is a certain consistency of design behind all mammals, and ultimately all animals. We all basically go or the body with appendages form, and all mammals generally have 2 pairs of appendages (arms and legs) with a head and often a tail. We all have the same basic hip-joint structure (even dolphins and whales if you look at the skeletons). This is one thing that really bugged me about Avatar (one of several). EVERY animal on-screen has 6 appendages, usually two-pair of whatever the top appendage is. Even the birds have them. This matches Earth quite well, as all vertibrates seem to have two pairs. The only thing that doesn’t have 6 appendages is the native Navi. They only have 4, like people. Why?

    • Hey Colin, thanks for commenting! I am using the term “plantlife” in a broader (and perhaps not strictly scientific) sense here, so as to include fungi or an organism that appears plantlike but may not technically be (hence the section about a low-light planet). For the sake of simplicity, I sometimes simplify such categories and technicalities. As for the CO2/O2 exchange problem, volcanic vents and other natural events also produce CO2, which (if I remember correctly) is the basis for one of the explanations of how our own atmosphere came to be, from an evolutionist standpoint. You still have to figure out what happens to all that Oxygen (FIRE EVERYWHERE!), or to account for how much plantlife and volcanic activity there is, but there you have a pretty good start for an idea for an alien planet. Thanks for pointing that out, that wasn’t a point I had thought through all the way.

      That’s a very interesting point about the “consistency of design”, as you called it. While there is something to be said as to whether similarity indicates relation in a debate of the origin of life, you are right that there is a general consistency within biology. In the Avatar world, there are similar structures (those neural coupler-things practically everything has), but you’re right that in all of it, the Navi are very different. Even the other mammal-like creatures, such as the giant lizard-cat things, are very different in their basic structures. While it worked on the big screen, it wouldn’t have worked quite so well on the page, as I seem to be constantly pointing out. I would guess that the Navi probably only have 4 limbs because the studio wanted them to be more relateable to the audience.

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction Problems: Writing Aliens (Part IV) « While We're Paused

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