I’m in the preparatory stages of writing a sourcebook called Species Shock, for really weird non-rubber forehead aliens. It’s going to include a dozen or so species, covering evolutionary history, present culture, psychology, value systems, language… On and on. A lot of stuff.
And that’s just the second part of the book, a grab-and-go section. But the other part of the book is a how-to guide that will be the theory to the second section’s in-practice. It’ll go over things like the different kinds of intelligence that exist, how to justify humanoid aliens if you really absolutely have to (but please don’t), cultural universals, and so on.
If all goes well, it won’t do badly as a companion to Robert Freitas’ Xenology, which you should totally check out right now and I mean right now, because this article will totally wait for you.
So as I’m in the process of putting my notes together, I thought it might be nice to gloss over a few ideas in this column. We’re not going to get too in-depth, though.
- Don’t forget to study
And by that, I mean that there are a few other things that I think are relevant and worth reading. The first is Freitas’ Xenology, which I’ve already linked to and just did again.
Second, there’s a page that I wrote on TV Tropes several years ago which covered some of this ground. You should check that out too: ”So You Want To Design An Alien Mind”.
Finally, if you haven’t been with me since the beginning then it might be worth mentioning an earlier article of mine from this column: “Blue and orange morality for fun and… profit????”
- Don’t forget to talk about humans
In every profile featured in Species Shock, there are going to be two sections called Conflict and (more-or-less positive) Relationships. No species is going to be so nice and fantastically hippie’d that they won’t ever have strong disagreements with humans, which they won’t be able to settle with just a trip to the ballgame and a talk over beers. They may not react with physical violence (though they may, and the profiles will discuss the possibilities) but there will be situations in which they will desire to exert their will contrary to the wishes of humankind.
These don’t necessarily have to be over resources or anything, mind. I’ve got a species who may potentially come into conflict with humans over the fact that they act as brood parasites toward their own kind.
On the flip side, I don’t have any interest in designing species that can only have conflicts with humans in every conceivable universe. So I’m going to think about what each species might want from, and be able to give to, humankind, and how they might relate to our species on a more peaceful, symbiotic basis.
- But don’t forget that they’re aliens
Some species will share psychological traits with humans. Any similarities to human psychology will often serve only to make the differences more jarring and, insofar as they may be unexpected and/or downplayed, dangerous.
They have different value systems. They have different mental concepts and maybe even different logic and truth systems. They definitely have different languages, and almost certainly they don’t communicate exactly like people do, with the same range of noises produced in the same manner (in fact, one of the default assumptions I’m making in the book’s profiles is that nobody can pronounce each other’s languages properly).
- Don’t forget about cultural universals
Cultural universals are elements of culture that can be found in all human cultures. Here’s a sample list. As part of making sure that your aliens are truly alien, you should take the time to decide which universals the aliens do and don’t share with us.
Robert Freitas goes over cultural universals too, including a sample list of cultural universals for a hypothetical alien species.
And don’t make humans the center of the universe either. If you have multiple alien species then you should come up with some cultural universals that are shared by some of the aliens but not by humans.
- Don’t forget to make your aliens individuals
There will be rough cultural outlines, basic assumptions, stuff like that, common to each species profile. But I don’t want to make any of these species into a planet of hats, and one section of the profile will be geared to that end.
Let’s say that for some reason I were writing up Klingons for Species Shock. They kind of go against everything that the book stands for (indeed, you wouldn’t be totally off the mark in saying that they’re the reason that the book is being written) but whatever.
Klingons are pretty hardcore about honor and being warriors and stuff like that. So this section of the profile would give a few different examples of Klingon warriors, showing that there are multiple interpretations of their codes and honor systems and such. It will also describe, say, Klingon scientists, Klingon taxi drivers, and, oh, let’s say Klingon farmers, and discuss how each of these occupations applies the common Klingon ideas to their lives.
- Don’t forget to set them in context
Your aliens did not arise out of the nether of the never-never. They have an evolutionary history, and even if they exterminated all other life on their planet there was other life there once upon a time. So take the time to get an idea of how they got from single celled organisms to where they are now. Figure out some of the places where their path diverged with other species. And above all, figure out what some of the species were that they are or at least were contemporary with.
You should be able to give a few decent paragraphs of what their world’s wildlife is like, and by having an outline of their world’s evolutionary history it should make sense.
Your turn: What else do you think is worth keeping in mind when writing up aliens?
R. Donald James Gauvreau works an assortment of odd jobs, most involving batteries. He has recently finished a guide to comparative mythology for worldbuilders, available herefor free. He also maintains a blog at White Marble Block, where he regularly posts story ideas and free fiction, and writes The Culture Column, an RPG.net column with cultures ready for you to drop into your setting.