Writing Excuses 14.6: Fantasy and Science Fiction Races
Key points: Worldbuilding fantasy and science fiction races. [Avoid the pitfall of othering your alien races, coding them using characteristics of Earth races and people. See the May 26 episode coming up on Writing the Other.] Realize that to an alien, e.g. Sgt. Schlock, everyone else is an alien. Your aliens need to function as people that can tell the story. You may take shortcuts or compromises. Think about “How does this alien see the world differently than other people, and is that important to the story?” They need to feel alien, but not incomprehensible and not just some aspect of humanity. Remember, to aliens, humanity is all one race. How do you make your aliens relatable to the readers? Your protagonist can try to figure it out and react to it. Explain what is important to the alien, and then show them trying to achieve that goal or overcome that obstacle. That process is easy to relate to. When is a horse a horse, and when is it a zyloplick? (a.k.a. Don’t call a rabbit a smeerp.) Treat your races as full cultures, and treat your not-a-horse the same way. Think about the consequences of the differences. Let us taste grass, and experience a sense of wonder with the wind in our nostrils. Force yourself to not let your races be one note. Beware of coming up with races to fill a role in your story, and then not putting in the work to fill out their culture. “How is this going to change the way they interact?” You need to know the rules and the reasons behind them, to make them feel like real people, but you don’t need to dump all that information on the readers.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Fantasy and Science Fiction Races.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] And I’m Mahtab.
[Brandon] We are going to be talking about worldbuilding fantasy and science fiction races. Before we dive into this episode, I wanted to bring up a potential pitfall in dealing with this. That is, very naturally, as you write, you are going to other your alien races. In so doing, by making them different from yourself, you are probably going to start to naturally code them by giving them characteristics that are very similar to Earth races and Earth people. You can see this famously in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy about the Star Wars, where he takes the person who is the merchant and he codes this person by the way he speaks and the way he looks as Jewish. This is dangerous, and it is something you’re going to naturally do. Because of the biases you have, because of the world we live in. We have an entire episode coming up in May, on May 26, where we talk about this. Dan and Tempest talk about Writing the Other and kind of a giving permission… Giving yourself permission to do this, even though you will probably get it wrong sometimes. We think it is important to be trying to reach and stretch.
[Dan] Exactly. It is more important… Obviously, you need to do it right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Put in the work, do your effort, we’ve got a huge slate of Writing the Other podcasts this season and we’ll let those episodes cover this. Right now, we’re going to move on and just talk about cool fantasy and science fiction races.
[Brandon] Yep. So, taking that huge can of worms and setting it to the side as a real issue that you should be thinking about and researching about, we’re going to turn slightly the other direction and just talk about building fantasy and science fiction races. I kind of want to put you on the spot, Howard.
[Howard] That’s just fine.
[Brandon] Because I love…
[Brandon] Your science fiction races. This is something you are really, really good at.
[Howard] I am…
[Howard] Flattered and terrified. A large part of this grows out of the realization early on that calling… For anybody to call Sgt. Schlock, the amorphous… The carbosilicate amorph… Anybody calling him an alien is… Well, they are alien to him. There are other aliens. At one point, I made the joke where some… “Schlock, don’t you have any alien superpowers?” He’s like, “You guys are all aliens. Do you have any alien superpowers?” That’s the easy version of that joke, and I never get to tell it again. What I had to wrap my head around is that I need all these aliens to function as people that can tell the story in a way that I don’t have to use a lot of words, because I’m a cartoonist.
[Howard] I have to take some shortcuts. I have to give them all eyebrows. The Uniocs, the guys with the great big one eye, have two eyebrows. Why? Because I need two eyebrows.
[Howard] They don’t need two eyebrows. I do. So there are compromises that I have made. But fundamentally what I am trying to do every time I introduce an alien… My first thought is not, “What cool superpowers does this alien have?” It is, “How does this alien see the world differently than other people, and is that important to the story?” As I’ve been working on prose, Dragons of Damaxuri, which is… It was my nano project in 2018, and I didn’t finish it, because it needs more than 50,000 words…
[Howard] I didn’t get to 50,000. It needs more than 28,000 words. But that book, every time I mentioned an alien, I realized I don’t have any pictures to work with. I have to give the reader enough so that when we mention that this is an alien, when they do something, they feel alien without feeling incomprehensible and without feeling like I’ve just mapped them onto some aspect of humanity. Fundamentally, with the alien races, from that standpoint, humanity is all one race.
[Howard] People of color, people of… Whatever. We’re all one race.
[Mahtab] Howard, that’s something very interesting that you mentioned, because you said you need the two eyebrows, especially because you have to show them. Now, that just makes me think about what if I just wanted to make an alien a blob of… An amoebic substance? But then, how would I make them relatable to the readers? Like, it’s kind of a… Two sides of the coin. You want to make an alien not like a human being. He could have three or four arms, they could have five legs, but you have a head, you have a body, so that the readers can relate to it. But if you did not, and if you just had it made into a blob, then how do you show expression or… Well, it won’t be illustrated, but… That’s what I always wonder. What if I wanted to make something so weird that no one’s ever seen it before, but then how do they relate to it?
[Howard] The trick that I’m using in Dragons of Damaxuri… And it’s comedy. So I can freewheel a little bit. My point of view character is an artificial intelligence who has a physical avatar body, and who wants to fit in and wants to understand people and recognizes that everybody has a body language. So periodically an alien will do something with its ears, or it will take the two eyes on stalks and look at each other. Which I took from Larry Niven. But any alien with eyes on stalks is going to do that. Lou, the protagonist, she either knows what it means or she doesn’t know what it means or she’s guessing. She knows that it’s important. So as I’m describing these things, these are becoming people who feel things and who do things that mean things. Our protagonist is trying to figure it out and trying to react to it.
[Dan] An author who did very alien aliens very well was Ursula K Le Guin. One of the things that she did in several of her stories and books was… She would present these incredibly bizarre things that we almost don’t know how to relate to them, but she would explain what was important to them, and then we would watch them try to achieve that goal or overcome that obstacle. That process is incredibly relatable. So even though we don’t necessarily understand who they are or where they’re coming from, we know what it’s like to try to get something that you want. We know what it’s like to lose something that you love. So those aspects can still come out.
[Mahtab] Yeah. I think that’s a good point.
[Brandon] Next week, we’ll delve into this a little bit more…
[Howard] How weird is too weird.
[Brandon] Because our topic is how weird is too weird. But I did want to talk about this idea a little bit, about… Like, for instance, one thing in my writing group that a friend of mine always will point out is he hates it in books when they use something that’s not a horse to be a horse.
[Brandon] Now, personally, I kind of like that, right? But where do you guys fall on this? When do you just call a horse a horse, when do you call a horse a zyloplick, which is what they ride on this planet, and in all ways it is a horse, except it’s got scales.
[Dan] Well, see, for me, that comes down to a lot of the same issues of… Not just animals, but the races themselves. I remember, in our old writing class with Dave Wolverton, one of the things he said about kind of the standard Tolkien-esque fantasy is that what we said at the beginning, elves and dwarves and orcs and stuff, are really just kind of Earth cultures super-otherized. How much more interesting is it to just treat them as full cultures? So they’re not just every dwarf is Gimli and has a Scottish accent and an axe, but maybe they like really spicy food. Maybe they have all these other massive facets to their culture that real cultures have that fantasy cultures sometimes don’t because they’re based on stereotypes. So with the horse, it’s the same thing. If the horse doesn’t do anything different than a normal horse, just call it a horse. But if it has scales, does that mean it’s also a lizard? Does that mean that it’s cold-blooded and you have to have a completely different kind of stable? Like, there’s a lot of interesting roads you can go down if you want to look at that kind of stuff.
[Howard] The movie Avatar…
[Mahtab] That’s just… Yes.
[Howard] The horses…
[Howard] Except it wasn’t a horse because… Because…
[Dan] You plugged yourself into it.
[Howard] You plugged yourself into it. The place where, for me, that fell short was I wanted him to be experiencing some of what the horse is experiencing, because now it’s not a horse. Now, he’s got the wind in his nostrils, and I’m going to taste grass. This is so… Now, there’s a reason for that connection to… Now it’s got sense of wonder for me.
[Brandon] Book of the week this week is Dragon’s Blood by Jane Yolen. Grand Master of SFWA, Jane Yolen, one of my favorite writers of all time. I recently reread this book to do a piece on it for Tor.com. I love this book. It was one of the very first fantasy books I ever read as a kid, and a lot of the stuff in this book went completely over my head.
[Brandon] But it was my first boy and his dragon story. Which, there are a lot of classic kid and dragon stories, but this one is wonderful. It’s about a young man who is a slave, who works for a wealthy man who owns dragons that fight in pits. They’re basically cockfights with dragons. As a kid, this was just awesome. Reading it as an adult, I’m like, “Wow, this is… This is really uncomfortable.”
[Brandon] In ways she obviously wanted it to be. Because these are inten… Intelligent creatures that they are raising to fight, and the young man, his way to get freedom is he’s going to steal an egg, which in this culture, you’re kind of allowed to do. They won’t really talk about it, but if someone is… Like, grabs an egg and raises it themselves, they all kind of think that’s a cool thing, and you can get away with it if you can actually make it happen. Which very rarely would it ever happen. He has the dream of doing this, and he actually gets an egg, a young dragon, and starts raising it. But the story is about how he’s going to have to raise it to go fight to the death for him to have a chance at freedom, and his growing bond with it as he realizes it really is intelligent. A beautiful story. Kind of a brutal story. Both whimsical and realistic at the same time. Which is really an interesting mix, but Jane is very good at that. So I recommend Dragon’s Blood to you. If you’ve never read it, it’s a wonderful book.
[Brandon] I want to bring us back to this concept that Dan was talking about. Because I find one of the things that is most difficult, but most satisfying, about worldbuilding races is forcing myself to not let my races be one note. This is really… It takes a lot of work. Because very naturally, and I think this is partially for shorthand reasons, it’s also for bias reasons, but it’s also… It’s very natural for us to go and watch a movie and the movie has only an hour and a half to show us something, so it shows us this fantasy race, and it’s like, “These are humans, but they have no emotions.” Or, “These are humans, but they don’t get metaphor.” That works really well as a cool shorthand in a film. But as we are writing and we have more time to spend on these races and cultures, I think it’s really important to make them more than one note. How do you do this? It is really, I think, very difficult.
[Mahtab] I think Ursula Guin did that in The Left Hand of Darkness when she did the andro… Yuck, I can’t even figure that word, but androgynous races. I think that was a really cool way to deal with… Not making them male or female or… Just exploring that entirely different way of doing it and the relationship between Estravan and Genly Ai, who came in… I thought that was very cool. So, just to take away the gender and do it in that way, I thought that was pretty well done.
[Brandon] Yeah. Left Hand of Darkness is a masterwork in how to do this right.
[Dan] I suspect that some of the problems that we have in kind of making our fantasy and science fiction races feel rounded, is because we come up with them to fill a role in our story first. Then we realize it’s too much work to also give them all of this cultural baggage that is very different and very nonhuman. So we’re just like, “Well, they’re… It’s just a Wookie. He’s just like the quiet mechanic who never talks and is very hairy.” So if you force yourself to do it, to actually go in and say, “Well, how is this going to change the way they interact?” This is something Howard has recently done with the… I can’t remember the names of any of the aliens. But there’s the ones with four arms.
[Howard] The Fobottr.
[Dan] Yes. You kind of recently… I don’t know if ret-conned is the right word, but you defined more solidly how they interact and the way that they require groups… I just thought that was really interesting, because all of a sudden, they were more interesting and they were distinctly different from the humans.
[Howard] Part of what I did…
[Dan] In a measurable way.
[Howard] Part of what I did when I designed them and when I designed their culture, I gave them a history that involved a diaspora… Diaspora? I don’t know how to say that word. I know how to read that word. They were scattered. They have traveling merchant clans, warrior clans, whatever. Their culture is not monoculture. Sometimes when they connect with people of their own kind who have done a better job of preserving their original culture, there is conflict. Your naming conventions are all wrong. Why… None of that made it into the story, but all of that made it into my notes. What it let me do, and it’s a silly thing… What it let me do was have characters whose names didn’t fit the pattern of everybody else. I knew that there was a rule behind it. I knew it fit.
[Dan] Well, I think maybe the big lesson for the rea… For our listeners, then, is reading the comic, it’s not a treatise on Fobottr… How do you say it? Culture.
[Dan] But I could tell very clearly the strip at which oh, Howard’s changed the way this… He’s defined this culture all of a sudden. They feel like real people. Even though you’re not going out of your way to dump all the information on us.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and wrap it up here. Mahtab, you were going to give us some homework?
[Mahtab] Yes. Take one major historical incident that occurred on Earth and set it in space, with an alien race or races.
[Brandon] Awesome. I’m very curious to hear what you guys… Or read what you guys come up with. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.