Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.44: Alien Characters

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

As writers of speculative fiction we are frequently tasked with writing a species or race of alien people. In this episode we talk about some of the tricks we use to create non-human characters in ways that make them both comprehensible and compelling, and the pitfalls we seek to avoid in the process.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Look up doge-speak. Take those grammar rules and apply them to dialog from one of your characters.

Homework: The Blood Rose Rebellion, by Rosalind Eaves

Thing of the week:Love is Never Still,” by Rachel Swirsky.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Don’t just model your aliens on a human civilization, because context matters! Start with landscape and geography, and create characters from that, or start with characters and figure out what kind of environment would create them. How does the medium you use to portray your alien portray this? How does being alien affect their point of view, their communications? How does their communications affect their lives? Completely alien motivations? Shelter, reproduction, and food drive humans and aliens. But which side of the road do you drive on? Often, even very alien things can be related to something in our society, to make it understandable. What is their motivation? Don’t use the sense of wonder as a bludgeon! If you throw in something confusing, that is a promise to the reader that you will use it, and fulfill the promise. Look for the moment when the alien and the human reach understanding, and let the reader get it, too. After your metamorphosis, you may not even remember your own name!

In the liner notes… )

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Alien Characters.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] And…

[Howard] Everybody was expecting me to be an alien.

[Brandon] Yeah, we all thought you’d say, “I’m Howard,” in Klingon.


[Brandon] Alien characters. So. One of the nice things about kind of having a science fiction/fantasy themed podcast, even if not all of our topics are specifically about that, is we can occasionally dig into something like this. How do you write from the viewpoint of a race who has never existed and is supposed to seem very, very strange to the person experiencing the narrative?

[Mary] So, first of all, let me suggest that you do not base them on a human civilization. Because human civilizations exist with context that is specific to the world around them. The aliens would have grown up in a completely different context. You can certainly take patterns that people go through, but just taking and saying, “These are my…” Like Dune. I mean, Dune are humans. But still, these are my pseudo-Arabic kind of desert people…

[Howard] Yeah, these are my bug people who are all like Roman Centurions.

[Brandon] Well, I’m going to say that’s very natural for us to do, because human creativity is recombining things we haven’t seen. We’re going to suggest that you push a different direction and combine different things.

[Mary] Well, the problem is that if you aren’t thinking about the context, you can go terribly sideways. So what I do say… Suggest is that you first look at… I mean, you can go a couple of different ways. I say first… You can either begin with the kind of landscape and geography, and create the characters from that, or, you can begin with the kind of character that you want and then backfill to the environment that created that.

[Brandon] Okay. So.

[Howard] Ultimately the question that needs to be asked first is how is this alien… What is the medium by which you are going to portray this alien to the person consuming your medium? I get to draw pictures. So I can do things that people who are writing prose can’t do. If all you have is words, then one of the tools that you are going to have to look very closely at is, how does being this kind of alien affect the way their point of view would be described? How does it affect the way they speak, if they are able to speak in the language that your other characters speak? Because as a writer, words of the tool that you have to describe that.

[Dan] That’s where I wanted to go, because that’s how I always start, is with the form of communications specifically. How is this… Because that’s what the character’s going to be doing throughout the story, is communicating in some form. How are they going to do that? So as an example, in the Partials series, the Partials themselves, I gave them a pheromonal communications system. They can speak, but they can also communicate through scents and these other things. That changed absolutely everything about their society, the more I followed the ramifications of that. Of how they would interact with each other, of how the humans would perceive them, of how they would perceive the humans, of all of the problems that would arise when they try to talk to each other and are obviously missing obvious cues. So, starting with that form of communication, for me, is incredibly helpful.

[Brandon] So, let me ask you guys this. How do you write a character whose motivations are completely alien?

[Mary] There are, I think, some motivations that are consistent that you can actually pull into the aliens. That are consistent with humans. I think most creatures will have a priority on shelter, reproduction, and food. And, at a very base level, that is what drives all of us. So you can look at how that then affects the aliens. So I had… I wrote a story called The Bride Replete which was all aliens all the time. I did not have a human viewpoint character, humans just don’t exist. For that, looking at, okay, so if reproduction is important, then how does the… What is this society reproductive structure look like? What does the family unit look like for this? Once you get that, then it becomes much easier to extrapolate based on… Or to convey it in a way that will make sense to a human reader.

[Brandon] Okay. So, but…

[Howard] That’s…

[Brandon] My question. That’s great. My question, though, is how would you write one that didn’t have one of those motivations? Completely alien motivations?

[Howard] Coming up with the motivation is often difficult. Let me describe the motivation that we don’t think of as alien, but which probably looks pretty alien if you pull away all of the indicators. That is, I want to be on the left-hand side on the freeway. So I can go faster. There is this tendency that we want to be on the left. Why? Because there’s these rules of the road that have nothing to do with our biology. If you have an alien, who as part of their socialization, they want their eye line to be lower than yours. The way that this interaction is going to take place… Why do they keep getting on the ground? Why are they lying down? Why does… Why do these things keep happening? Why is the physical positioning changing in ways that… If there are human characters, they don’t understand.

[Mary] But see… The wanting to be on the left side absolutely does have to do with our biology, because it’s a holdover from that’s the side that your sword was on. Because most people were right-handed.

[Howard] Well, except in England and South Africa, it’s exactly reversed.

[Brandon] I’m going to cap this one. I think the point that perhaps is salient here is even in your description of that, you can find something to relate in our society that you can tie it to. Is that the idea? Take something that seems completely un-relatable at the beginning, but over time, kind of relate it to something that the reader’s going to understand?

[Mary] I guess… What I… My point was… Is that if you’re talking about an alien that has a completely alien motivation, that, for me, that motivation is still going to be rooted in one of those three things at some point going back to it. You can use that as the line with which to communicate it to the reader. So, if my alien motivation is needing to be on the… Needing to have the lower eye level, well, why does that exist? Is it… Is that a shelter strategy? Is that a reproduction strategy? Is that a food strategy? Where does that come from? Then, that informs a lot of the… Why they make those choices, even if it’s a holdover.

[Brandon] I think that’s very cool. Of course, it makes me, as a writer, want to say, I want to find something that’s not related to…


[Mary] Absolutely.

[Brandon] A challenge. When we hear that. All right. I think that’s where I’m going. But I want to… But, yeah. I think that this is one way…

[Howard] I’m interested… Oh, go ahead, Dan.

[Dan] So, I’m thinking of two example specifically, and both of them hinge around the idea of how that motivation is presented. The first one is kind of a cheat. In the movie Arrival, because you’re not actually getting a viewpoint from the aliens, the entire story really hinges around, “Well, what is their motivation in the first place?” So they can have something that is incredibly alien, and the humans are all just trying to figure it out. Are they benevolent? Well, why would aliens be benevolent? It’s hard for some people to even conceive of that. One of the other examples I’m thinking of was actually a piece of War Machine fiction written from the point of view of an incredibly basically evil race of people. What made it so well done is that the entire story was written from within that moral framework. So, when all the viewpoints you were getting took as granted that these are the principles by which obviously we should all be living our lives, then it started to make an incredible kind of internal sense.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] One of the examples that I like to look at is from the second of James P. Hogan’s Giants novels. There’s a… The planetary ecology… They evolved in such a way that nothing could eat anything else except plants. All of the animals developed the we are toxic strategy to where evolutionarily, it becomes so expensive to try and be something that ate other animals that it was a planet full of vegetarians. The artwork that they created… I say the artwork. Actual pictures of the world made no sense to us because it looked like a children’s book because it was so brightly colored. So this is one of those cases where something that we would expect as a given… I mean, whether or not that’s actually practical. Something that we would expect as a given had been ripped out and all of these aliens were now suddenly very, very alien. War? Eating meat? Completely… Completely not part of their psychology.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, you’re going to tell us about Blood Rose Rebellion?

[Dan] Blood Rose Rebellion. Which, for the most part, does not actually have any real alien characters in it. It’s by Rosalind Eaves. It’s historical fantasy. It starts in a version of 1800s London where magic is real, and is purely the domain of the upper class. Our main character is a teenage debutante who’s ready to come out into society and can’t because she does not have magic. So the parents are embarrassed and they end up shipping her off to Budapest to live with Grandma, where polite society won’t know that they have this non-magical daughter. Then she gets involved with one of Hungary’s many rebellions. It is one of the most beautifully written YA anythings that I have ever read.

[Brandon] Awesome.

[Dan] Incredibly cool. For… To hit our topic a little bit, there are some weird magical creatures that keep kind of slipping into our world. Although we don’t get to know them well, they’re really just fascinating and gorgeously described.

[Brandon] Now we also… When we were brainstorming for this, we wanted to promote this book because we love it. Because we thought it was awesome. But we… Mary came up with a story that the rest of us hadn’t heard of that…

[Mary] Yes.

[Brandon] If you want to read something really alien.

[Mary] This is Love Is Never Still by Rachel Swirsky. It’s available at Uncanny Magazine. So if you just go there and type in Love Is Never Still, it’ll pop right up. This is the Pygmalion story. So the sculptor who creates Galatea, the sculpture, and comes to life. It’s told from like 20 different viewpoints, including Summer the season.

[Brandon] The season has a viewpoint?

[Mary] Yeah. The pedestal that she stands on has a viewpoint. She has a viewpoint while she’s still a piece of marble. The hearth god’s hammer has a viewpoint. It’s just… It’s amazingly complex and varied and just a great example of this alien viewpoint thing.

[Brandon] Awesome.

[Dan] And where can people find that?

[Mary] Uncanny Magazine.

[Brandon] Awesome.

[Mary] Dot com.

[Brandon] So, one of the things that I see happening when using alien characters is the writer’s specifically choosing one aspect of their culture that is just going to confuse the reader intentionally. I kind of thought of this as using a sense of wonder as a bludgeon.


[Brandon] Something that you’re not even going to make your story about or explain. It’s just look at how bizarre this is. Have you ever done that? Is… Like what are the advantages of that? As a writer, I would think… Because everyone’s just staring at me as they think… I think the danger would be when you put something like that in a story, you’re going to assume that it’s going to take like a Left Hand of Darkness turn or something like that. The thing that is at first confusing or different is eventually going to become a major story point or character motive or things like this.

[Howard] It’s a promise. It’s a promise to the reader when you open with that. You gotta have a reason for it. I don’t know what promise necessarily you’re making, but if your story’s going to be a success, the reader at the end has to feel like you’ve fulfilled on that promise. I don’t like doing it that way. I think I’ve done it before. Where I’ve just drawn something weird because I thought weird would be fun. Mostly it was annoying, and I realized I haven’t justified this in a way that’s entertaining me.

[Mary] I think it does depend on how it’s positioned in the story. If it’s positioned in a way that you’re making the reader go, “Why is that?” And then you bring it up again, and they’re still going, “Why is that?” They’re going to feel like that’s a promise. If you just bring it up once and it’s a piece of tonal color and it’s like in mid-paragraph, so in a position of non-importance, they’re probably just going to accept it and move on. So I do think it depends on a little bit of that.

[Howard] One of my favorite alien cultures of my own is the Oafa, who are the hydrogen bag… That look like blimps. Their language, once they’ve learned Gal-Standard, their language is full of wind metaphors and flavor metaphors. Boy, did I have to go to the thesaurus to pull this stuff up. But, as I was writing dialogue between the cultural liaison and the multi-million-year-old librarian, at one point the Oafa librarian says to the liaison, “You’ve been breathing the air of the poets,” because she has made a wind metaphor that works. That moment, when you have a character moment like that, where the alien and the human have come to an understanding, and the reader gets it, the reader feels awesome. That’s what I was aiming for. Not sense of wonder, but just sense of being included, sense of being part of that relationship.

[Mary] I had a story in which my characters… The species was based on kind of like the lifecycle of a butterfly. So they spend an incredibly long time as a caterpillar, and then they transform, and then they’re this beautiful, beautiful creature. So in this society, the young, the larva state, is the state that gets all the work done. Because when they go through the transformation, metamorphosis, when they come out on the other side, their memories are totally scrambled. So the adult state is your retirement. Because of that, they have built this whole system around memory and have hired documentarians to come in and document their life so when they come out of the cocoon, they can try to remember things. So one of the things that I was playing with in the beginning of the story is that question of why are you documenting things? Then realizing, “Oh, this is what’s at stake.” That you will come out and not know your own family.

[Brandon] Wow. Sounds cool. What’s the name of this story?

[Mary] I can’t remember the name of my own story.


[Brandon] That’s funny, because [garbled]

[Dan] So go out, readers…

[Mary]’s Well, I wrote down the name of the other one, The Bride Replete. But I forgot I had… I forgot about this one. Yeah, the Bride Replete was basically what happened… I know…

[Brandon] We’ll put it in the liner notes.

[Mary] I’ll put it in.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our homework. Howard, you had homework for us?

[Howard] Yes. As I said at the beginning of the episode, the tool that you have is a writer in order to convey alienness is words. Most frequently, that is going to come up in the way someone speaks. If you are familiar with doge-speak, which is the Shiba Inu meme…

[Dan] Which you might know as doggy speak…

[Howard] Doggy speak.

[Dan] Because there are competing pronunciations.

[Howard] Take that language. You can look up grammar rules for that language. It’s recognizable, even without a picture of a dog under it. Take the rules of that language, and take dialogue from one of your characters and turn it into that. An example here, and I’m just going to read two lines of it, of someone having done this to Shakespeare. What light? So breaks. Such East! Very sun. Wow, Juliet.


[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.