Analyzing Aliens

When writing, or reading best selling science fiction, usually there are aliens. As a writer, this can get really tricky, for if your aliens are really different, i.e. alien, then most likely, your readers won’t understand them or relate to them. This does not make for a good story usually. Your readers need to get engaged and identify with your protagonist, and the characters in your book.

That is the reason I went with the Earth colony idea and threw in variances caused by a different environment, much the same as the wildly popular Darkover Series by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I wanted to write stories that my readers could relate to.

Most of my characters are humanoid because it’s hard to love a slime worm or rancid igrot. Still in Past the Event Horizon just as they rediscover the alien signal, the crew on my spaceship The Seeker discuss what might be out there in space, and what an alien might look like:

Here’s an excerpt:

Idly Joel said, “What do you think they look like?”

Everyone paused.

“Surely someone has a bet?” commented Braden.

“I’ve got money on blobs that float,” answered Glaze. “They live in the ether and inhale methane.”

“Blobs?” Icabar snorted. “That’s ridiculous. You need dexterous digits to build a stargate.” He grinned and flexed his hand. “I’ll take your bet, and I’ll take your money.”

“It’s not a big bet.” Glaze shrugged.

“My money’s on a hive mind and insect-like creatures.” Icabar looked up. “The leader has a big brain and lots of worker bees.”

Solanje shook her head. “Insects stay small on Alysia because they can’t support a heavy exoskeleton under our gravity. No, I think, maybe, something with tentacles and eyes that shoot out on stalks. Something tall and skinny that survives in a light gravity.”

Glaze twirled around. “Tessa thinks they’re living plants with wavy fronds that walk on stalk legs.”

“Geesh, she would think something like that,” commented Icabar. “Just like a botanist.”

“Maybe they’re all hairy with ugly sharp teeth and red eyes,” offered Bashar.

“Putting money on that?” Icabar gave a grin.

Bashar smirked and shook his head.

“What about ghosts?” Joel blurted out. “Ghosts that glow in the dark.”

“I think bird creatures with wings,” chimed in Solanje, flapping her arms.

“Yes, wings,” mumbled Joel.

Braden pursed his lips and thought. “They need digit like hands so they can manipulate materials and build stuff. The need eyes to see and sensory equipment…feet and legs to walk with.”

The crew realized that they were parameters and rules that would dictate what an alien might look like, or  how it might act.

Over the ages, science fiction stories have depicted many kinds of aliens. Once again, I have to reference Veronica Sicoe because when I went to write a blog on aliens, I thought of her “Thirteen rules for aliens” blog. Witty and funny, she has some real thoughtful things to say.  A few examples below, highlighted in bold, are from her, but for the complete blog, go to

Here are just a few of her rules and my comments.

1. Aliens should be alien. The problem I have with this is that it’s like trying to visualize the fifth dimension. One dimension…easy, two dimensions…easy, three dimensions are easy to understand. I live with them every day. Fourth dimension of time, I kinda get, but go past that and my mind starts to turn to jelly, trying to understand what it would look like. Same with an alien. If it’s truly alien, then how can I understand it or even try to write about it? Would my readers even care whether it lives or dies if they can’t understand it.

2. Aliens have their own history. This is totally true. And what fun to construct a culture and history for an alien race. Going wild here.

3. Aliens that are naturally telepathic won’t grasp the concept of language. Interesting. Most likely true, but what if only a select few are telepathic and most others aren’t. Then you have to  have a language for the nontelepaths in the society. If there’s no language for your alien because they are all telepathic, then how on God’s green Earth are you going to write a book? Ommmm. No words.

4. Aliens that can’t hold a tool, won’t invent space ships. Love this one. So if your alien is a blob, or chittering insect, better have flexible mandibles if they are going to go far…like outer space.

5.If aliens have a different body chemistry (and alien means that they do) then they aren’t going to eat human food.  And a corollary to that is that humans won’t be able to eat the alien food. Makes sense, but I bent the rules a little here. So if you have your characters land on an alien planet, they’d better be well supplied or they could starve.

6. If they don’t look human, then they most likely have a different definition of beauty. Silky filaments probably turn on the Jovian worm lord, but for you, me and our reader…ugh. Maybe the males on Cassiopeia don’t appreciate the fine curves of Marilyn Monroe. Heh! Finally. I don’t mind competing with the three-eyed felix from Raegon…unless the judge is the three-eyed male felix.

There are seven more interesting rules for aliens that Veronica outlines that every author should think about when inventing aliens and an alien world. Maybe aliens aren’t visiting us because their worlds are so different, and our environment would kill them.  Oh remember, War of the Worlds. A very clever book.

So, my aliens have very human characteristics because I wanted my readers to relate and thought it would be fun to create a whole new world and see what human descendants would do there…much like Marion Zimmer Bradley did.

One of the reasons I decided to highlight her series this week is because of Deborah J. Ross. She was asked to co-author a trilogy with Bradley that takes place during the Age of Chaos. Marion had gotten very ill, but could dictate and talk, so they would sit and discuss plot and characters for the trilogy. After Bradley’s death, Deborah wrote more in the Darkover Universe: Lord Hasteur , A Flame in Hali and in the modern era, The Alton Gift and Zandran’s Forge.

Deborah Ross went to Portland State University and attended Orycon, where I got to meet her not long ago. She personally signed her novel The Fall of Neskaya for me and is a charming, delightful person. So I wanted to introduce her to my readers.

Since there are a lot novels written by Bradley and also several co-authored by others, so it becomes a daunting task to take on Darkover completely. Start with Darkover:  First Contact ,  Ages of Chaos and Ross’s Fall of Neskaya and Zandru’s Forge. That should get you started. You can take it from there.

Not only does the series have stories of great male and female relationships, but Bradley has a strong feminist bias that she reveals in her Renunciate characters. Her female characters are strong and well defined. On Darkover, the Chierys are elusive, indigenous, humanoid creatures that affect the crashed spaceship of humans and imbue a select few with Laran. Laran brings about various special powers in the humans, among which telepathy, weather control, remote viewing are a few. Those with laran form towers where they are trained to use their talent and develop a network of communication with other towers.

My Alysian humans also take on special powers brought on by an alien crystal.

Bradley intertwines local politics, and later after centuries, the lost  Darkover colony is discovered by Earthlings, causing  an interesting conflict of native inhabitant and invading humans. How the two struggle to co-exist makes for fun reading.

I recommend the series. Each book can be read on its own for the most part, but you’ll probably want to read on and immerse yourself in a whole new world…with a touch of the alien lingering in the ambience.

What do you think an alien should look like?


Filed under alien life forms, Aliens in Science Fiction, Best selling science fiction, Classic science fiction, Cons, first contact, science fiction, Science Fiction book review, science fiction series, Science fiction world building

3 responses to “Analyzing Aliens

  1. Thank you very much for the mention & linkage, Sheron! 🙂 Aliens are definitely the most interesting aspect of science-fiction for me due to the endless speculative potential.

    The best way to make alien aliens understandable and potentially relatable to readers is, in my opinion, to focus on the human emotional aspect of the relationship. We relate to all sorts of inhuman creatures very successfully already, such as our pets and utility animals, and we even become strongly attached to inanimate objects like family jewelry and smartphones. The reason for all of these apparently strange emotional relationships is the exact same reason we have relationships with other humans: we never really bond to them, we bond to what they represent for us.

    To have human characters (and readers) relate to and become emotionally attached to a really alien alien, the creature need not have human traits, but it needs to represent something important to the characters.

    Similarly, readers do not have to relate to aliens as if they wanted to live in their skins throughout the story. They only need to develop feelings for the aliens, and curiosity, fear, guardedness, fascination, indignation, repulsion, etc. are all strong feelings, and very much desirable in fiction.

    I find aliens in fiction like spice in foods, one could argue against the necessity of them, but it’s no doubt that they make science-fiction a whole lot more enjoyable and savory.


    • Veronica, excellent points. Thank you for your comments.

      One of the reasons I like science fiction is because of aliens. They are the spice in a scifi story and stretch the imagination and cause endless speculation.

      Figuring out what an alien would look like, how it would think and move, based on its environment is a fun puzzle.

      I particularly liked your comment that “it needs to represent something important to the characters.” That makes sense,…but I fell off my chair laughing when you mentioned a strong emotional attachment to an iphone. I left without mine the other day and thought the world would fall apart. Thankfully, I made it back home without missing anything or having a major incident. How strange that for years I was able to cope without it.


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