The ORIGINS of your alien species

Xenobiology by Abiogenisis

A comment I’ve recently received on an older post of mine (13 Aspects About Aliens You Shouldn’t Ignore) reminded me about the importance of knowing the origin of your alien species when you sit down to write science-fiction. This guy spent a lot of thought on the origin of his aliens, and even though I haven’t read his book, I know he has a much better chance at making it great than someone who basically stuffs a random character in an alien rubber costume and strings some funny words together to give him a “background”.

Meet D’hak’Trezoinkgur, the emperor of Delta Zoinkg, and his mighty fleet of Zoinkgers, all speaking the ancient Zoinkg language. Yeah, no.

Not that I prefer books where the author stops the action to give us lengthy tirades about the evolution of his aliens from the day they crawled out of their protozoic sea, to the moment they conquered half the galaxy. But he ought to know what happened in between, in broad sketches, because if he doesn’t, it will show.

We’re not on a CGI budget, and we don’t have to convince uppity actors to spend ten hours with their faces covered in stinky masks. We’re writers. We own the universe. We can create aliens so alien and so complex, they’ll put Hollywood to shame (okay, that’s quite easily done, nowadays, but you know what I’m sayin’).

Each story has its particular needs and requirements, and we have to pour our creative goodness into that mold and shape an alien species out of it that can stand on its own and come alive. There are a few basic components that are valid for all stories, and ought to be at least spent some thought on, if not exhaustively built in advance.

Biological peculiarities

If your aliens have tentacles for limbs, then FFS don’t make them fly ships with chairs and buttons and steering wheels. Also, if they are tentacled slimy bastards, you must work extra hard to make me believe they would have ever developed a need to use tools in the first place.

Normally, writers start with an image of an awesome alien species, and pile up more and more awesome characteristics on top of them. Then they work backwards from there, to come up with reasons why their aliens are the way they are. (At least, that’s how I work. I don’t start with an amoeba and try to figure out where evolution might take it.) In that deconstruction process, you then come up with yet more awesome traits and quirks, and ultimately end up with a biological freak endowed with terrible abilities and fantastic looks.

But would nature tolerate that complexity? Would it encourage it? Why — what on those aliens’ world calls for it? What’s the evolutionary advantage these aliens have on all other critters of their homeworld? How does their peculiar biology influence the path they took to become galactics? Invest some work in figuring this out on a pragmatic, satisfyingly realistic level, and each time you show us glimpses of your alien world, we’ll buy it without much question because it will feel logical.

Social life

The physical traits of a species influence their social life tremendously. How does marriage look like for a race that has three sexes, instead two? Are they even monogamous? How does childbirth look like if the male carries the fertilized eggs? Is there a hierarchy in the work environment, and what is it based on? Skill or birthright? Are there prejudices against individuals looking a particular way, or suffering from disabilities or mutations? Is there a social elitism or are they egalitarian? And ultimately, how did their social life evolve along the timeline?

Cultural diversity and values

If there’s one thing I always hated about Star Trek, it was the prevalence of monocultures in their universe. I believe the more a species evolves, the less probable monocultures become. Simply put, if a society achieves a certain level of wealth and prosperity, and the worth of individual contributions is recognized (brilliance is treasured, diversity and competition are encouraged for the good of all, etc.), then a diversity of values is inevitable as well. Having an entire planet of billions share similar values and ambitions is unrealistic.

Do your aliens come from the dominant social structure on their homeworld, or a minority? Are they ideological outcasts, or do they represent mainstream values? How does their culture compare to others on their world? How about their language? Their food, clothing and social hierarchy? Do they maybe have a matriarchal social structure, while a rivaling culture on their homeworld is patriarchal? Do they often go to war with one another? Have they reached economical balance? If so, how? What is their attitude toward indigenous aliens, and does that translate into xenophobia?

Oh, I could go on forever asking questions. But you don’t need to go into very deep detail on any of this. A little will do. And a little will generate a lot of interesting ideas and give a lot of depth to your aliens.

Psychology

All of the things I mentioned so far have profound, long-lasting effects on an individual’s psychological makeup. Our aptitudes, health, looks and the way others regard and judge us based upon these, largely determine our self-esteem, our ambitions in life and our fears. The way we tick is a result of the way we adapted to our world (and our ancestors before us), and the degree by which we can adapt the world to us.

So before you go and make your aliens prone to something, afraid of something or craving something for themselves, spend some time understanding why they are the way they are, and what makes each of them an individual. What was their childhood like? What were their relationships so far? What are their hobbies and favorite distractions? What are their vices and flaws? Did they fulfill any of their dreams, or are they frustrated?

I have investigated most of these avenues when I created my aliens, and quite a few more that arose while I was trying to answer some of these questions. The “work” (read giddy, geeky fun) I invested depended on what I needed to know to shape my aliens’ behavior in an internally consistent manner. For some, I spent more time developing interesting biological aspects, for others, I focused more on the psychological aspects. YMMV.

Your story will dictate what you need to develop. And it will show you where and how much you need to include into the actual narrative. Listen to your story, and listen to your gut. And when in doubt, listen to your beta readers. Or, you know, come back here and pester me with questions. 😉

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          This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.          

   In 2012, my O post was — Opposition

27 Replies to “The ORIGINS of your alien species”

  1. All very good points and absolutely valid. I sure that once we actually find life beyond our little blue marble we will be surprised at the sheer diversity that the universe create. For the diversity of species here is immense we have barely scratch the surface. I have one thing to add, and I feel you have eluded to it but have not mentioned. That is that, as least here on our blue marble, life forms follows function and environment drives form. A dolphin is a spectacular example of this, as it like all water born mammals, have first came from the sea to land, then returned to the sea and over generations of time have evolved into a very efficient life form. I have found that if I know my alien’s environment and its influences on the planet’s species, then building aliens comes easier. Like you mentioned though, I often have an idea of what I want my aliens to look like before I begin to their description down.

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    1. In movies, yes, always. In books — there are exceptions. Like Hamilton’s Immotiles in Pandora’s Star, Niven’s Moties in The Mote In God’s Eye, or Butler’s ooloi in Lilith’s Brood.

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  2. I think this rings true with any fictional character. They don’t exist in a vacuum and an author needs to flesh them out so they make sense and have the ability to be friends, enemies or the next door neighbor for the reader.

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  3. I get inside the skin of all m characters, through their voices, which I hear quite clearly. I then take the time to figure out all about them, and most of them fill me in, willingly.

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  4. Very good points. Makes perfect sense to me that to fit into the story the reader wants to know something about the creature, why it’s there and if it fits.

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  5. This was an awesome post. I don’t write sci-fi…yet…but would love to some day soon because I love it when it’s well done. Too many sci-fi’s also make their aliens humanoid but with one quirky thing, like 2 sets of reproductive organs. Why on earth (or Zenoid) would that happen? Like you said, what would be the biological imperative for such. Just as the laws of physics seem to be universal, I suspect Darwinism, self-preservation, etc. are also probably universal so we expect the aliens to make sense according to those fundamentals.

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  6. I have always wondered about the Zerg from Starcraft. Understandably they have soldiers that fight to win a war, but what do they do when they are not fighting, or rather, what would they do when there is no war to fight? Is there another side to the Zerg we haven’t seen, or is this all there is. (I haven’t played the new sequel, so I don’t know if this is addressed).

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    1. Sadly, I have no clue about the Zerg. Haven’t played Starcraft. I don’t like strategy games all that much. I prefer survival/horror and adventure games, ideally third person.

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  7. Wow, I suppose it’s even harder to create a background for an alien because, I suppose, you can make it whatever you want! That must be both the good news and the bad news.

    Love you bio, especially this line, “Okay, fine, my parents called me the ‘devil child’, but that’s like, days ago.” You had me there and I’m a new fan.

    Visiting via A to Z from Pass the Sour Cream. Co-Author (with my sons) of The Secret of Kite Hill.

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    1. Ha ha, thanks, Bradley. Glad you like my blog too. I really enjoyed yours, you have a fresh voice and outlook on things. Always great to find that, regardless of the topic. 🙂

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  8. This is the first time I’ve left a comment on any website (FB excluded). This topic interests me immensely, as I am entering the first stage of writing my second novel. It will, of course, be an alien sci-fi story, mostly of the more horrific elements, as well as an observation of science against religion and what sort of impact the discovery or revealing of extraterrestrial life would have upon all cultists and their theoligies. I do agree with many of the points made here, except for one. Now, I can’t tell if it’s ignorance, laziness, or just plain overlooking the fact that we have actually observed the octopus (a creature, as you know, with tentacles) opening a pickle jar. Go ahead, look it up, it’s really quite an amazing video. The relevancy implied here, why can’t a creature without fingers and thumbs like ours grip a steering wheel or push a button, let alone build these devices? You mention that our search for life amongst the stars is hindered by our ability to identify life given the various laws of physics, science of motion, chemical composure and what all, but you seem to have committed an error that would make your pondering disreputable, or rather, less noteworthy. May I add, then. Who is to say say that our way of seeing the universe is the right way? Is law? What if the laws of the various sciences that apply to us and life on earth and beyond (in the observable universe, that is) are even laws at all? What if, to some other species out there, the laws enforced upon them are erratic and entirely different to those we believe inescapable here in our lovely little galaxy and neighbors? Food for fodder. This is speculative fiction, no? (P.S. Pardon any typos. I am posting from my “mind-of-its-own” phone).

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    1. Also, I don’t at all mean to sound insulting. It’s just that this topic tickles me. And I firmly believe there is already foreign life among us and pray for the day that this is made clear to the massed who are asses. I agree with you on many things you’ve posted. Especially that the coming of alien life into ours would change history (duh), society, and all our means of interaction. I also believe that people are too simple-minded to see that there already is, more or less, strong evidence, if not the closest thing to proof any science has ever eencountered concerning biological space travel, which would mean that any invasion is not only plausible, here or elsewhere,(hostile or not), but has already occurred before. I’m talking about tardigrades. Or, better known as the Water Bear.

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    2. Hi Bryce. Thanks for commenting!

      “[…] why can’t a creature without fingers and thumbs like ours grip a steering wheel or push a button, let alone build these devices.”

      I never said tentacled aliens could not operate devices. Tentacles are marvelous appendices, and far more dexterous than our hands. And that’s just the thing. Steering wheels and buttons (like I mentioned above) were designed by us, for out fingers. Aliens without hands like ours would not design their technology the way we do. Their tools (from the most primitive to the most advanced) would not look even remotely like ours, because tentacles are superior in flexibility and maleability to our bony, limited hands. What I implied in my post was that the needs of these creatures are very different than ours, so it’s sloppy worldbuilding to have their technology resembles ours and have buttons (that require to be pressed by a solid appendix, i.e. a bony finger) instead of, say, levers or hoops that are easier grasped and operated by tentacles. We design technology for usability, and so would they.

      As to the laws of physics, whether or not they would be different in a foreign, exotic, and as of yet unobservable region of space, from the ones we extrapolated from the observable universe, is an entirely philosophical question, not a scientific one. They are called “laws” of physics because much more erudite minds than ours have concluded and proven beyond doubt that they always apply to physical space. Erratic laws are not laws at all, but freak phenomena. Any consistent world where life develops and thrives, even a fictional one, requires stability of physical laws. At least IMO.

      Whether or not panspermia can be regarded as “invasion” is a very interesting topic in itself. Perhaps I will write a post about that in the future. 🙂

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  9. I’ve been reading all your alien-related blogs, they’ve truly helped me to reanalize certain traits of my alien species. Your site has inspired me to create a blog myself, diving into my alien species along with its planet. Thank you, for your wonderful advise on creating an extra terrestrial civilization.

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