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.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 18:34 — 12.8MB)
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7 thoughts on “13.44: Alien Characters”
A writing friend of mine told me about this podcast over the summer. I started listening in July. I finally finished binge-listening to the backlog last week (just before NaNoWriMo started). This is my first week as an up-to-date listener.
First, thank you for your excellent advice, for sharing your experience, providing encouragement, and giving voice to such a great variety of ideas, styles, and authors. This podcast is an absolute treasure for those with fiction-writing ambitions.
Second, thank you all for exploring this week’s topic. I’ve been tackling these concepts for my NaNoWriMo project (about a demon that’s summoned by a variety of conjurors throughout history), and this ‘cast helped me feel confident about the decisions I’ve made.
You are awesome human-people.
The foursome from the past, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, tried contacting the aliens this week, and reported on their travels into the outer limits. Which comes first, the character or the context? What does being alien do, the talk, the walk, the eye line, and more? Is the hierarchy of needs something that aliens love, too? And what happens when you hit your reader with an alien? Lots of great ideas, in the transcript available in the archives and over here:
Here it is again – please feel free to delete the other one. I tried but couldn’t find an option to.
Great discussion guys! However, I think when discussing “alien” characters it may be first important to talk about what makes us “human.” I mean, if an alien species has the same inherent needs – food, shelter, reproduction – are we more just talking cultural differences?
I ask as someone working with their own “alien” culture. My novel, The Dreamcatchers, focuses a lot around a race called the Nefiri and, while they’re not human, I tried to make them relatable by giving them a similar emotional spectrum. Where I sought to drive the difference was a completely unique religious structure to reflect the bizarre environment in which they lived.
But even here I’m wondering if this is still cultural difference? Since our tendency as humans is to anthropomorphize everything (down to seeing faces in clouds and tree bark), are we too bound in human understanding to properly develop a truly “alien” race? Is writing aliens just a sci-fi extension of writing “the other” in our society?
I’d be interested to know your thoughts if you have time to respond. Anyway, thanks again!
I think if you go too far into the alien you run the risk of making your story opaque to the reader. Certainly some writers have done this, but generally only in short experimental pieces rather than novels.
Even the incredibly alien cheela from Robert L. Forward’s novel Dragon’s Egg ultimately do have parallels with humans when it comes to character and social interaction, even to the point of developing a religion that is completely understandable to us (complete with all the political ramifications our religions have had).
I see that sort of thing as a way to talk about the human condition without directly commenting on our societies. The cheela are sesame seed-sized intelligent blobs who live on the surface of a neutron star. Their lives are lived at an accelerated pace due to the extreme gravity — I forget the ratio, but it’s something like a thousand times faster than us. They don’t need shelter, but they do need food, and ultimately they organize into a society which fights wars and all of that stuff. All of that makes it easier to see the differences and commonalities between us.
I don’t think you need to use the trifecta of food/shelter/reproduction to create aliens. In many ways that’s as limiting as saying “insect aliens are Roman centurions”.
For instance, in Becky Chambers’ novel Record of a Spaceborn Few one of the characters is aquatic, along the lines of an octopus. His species didn’t need shelter and, because their reproductive strategy is likewise similar to octopi, they don’t have a relationship with their offspring the way we do. It’s an interesting way to look at how humans behave by ostensibly peering into this alien’s world.
I really liked that Howard brought up Hogan’s Giants trilogy, as that was an interesting look at human behavior, too, by merely changing that one thing. An entire planet of herbivores approaches life completely differently from how predators and prey do. They even have records of visiting Earth in the distant past, and their universal reaction to how life progressed here was utter horror. They called it “the Nightmare Planet.” From their point of view it was.
Some other interesting aliens to check out:
The tines from Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. They are communal and create a gestalt intelligence. Individuals are no smarter than animals, but get them into a pack of 4-6 and they have the intelligence of a human being. It’s fascinating on a number of levels, not the least because if a pack member dies their collective IQ decreases until they replace the lost individual. However, bringing in a new member can change the personality of the gestalt, because each singular creature has its own distinct personality. Vinge explores the concept thoroughly and it’s amazing.
The cheela from Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg. They are intelligent sesame seed-sized creatures who live on a neutron star. They don’t need shelter and their reproduction is bizarre, but despite that they share commonalities with humans that allow Forward to contrast and compare without directly commenting on it.
The aliens in Mary Doris Russell’s Sparrow, where the predators have evolved to look like their prey, and both species are intelligent. It’s as if wolves looked like sheep, but they developed a civilization with the wolves in charge. Russell uses this to examine all sorts of human behavior and history, from colonialism to apartheid to religious missionary activity, on and on.
Dan, what was the name of the War Machine piece of fiction written from the perspective of an evil race? Because it sounds very interesting and I’d love to check it out.
One example I like of unusual motivations is the Replicators in Stargate. It does kind of fit in Mary’s trifecta because it’s reproduction and food (they “eat” metals to make more Replicators), but they do it in a very different way, and they don’t have a lot of the usual motivations living beings have, like fear or self-preservation. For instance, they’ll board a ship and start eating the walls and replicating, but not kill the people on board. They’re very destructive, but their goal isn’t to destroy other species. It’s just to replicate.
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