Making Aliens Believable

28 Oct

Starfish aliens, rubber-forehead aliens, or intelligent gerbils? Sci-fi writers are always faced with the problem of making aliens believable. Usually, this is passed off because the aliens are in the background. But what if your main character is an alien? How do you create an entire believable culture?

This was the challenge that my friend Edward Stasheff, known to my readers as frequent poster “Editor Ed,” when faced when he went to write his story. This was a collaboration with me and a group of other writers in the “Tech Infantry” play-by-email game that we played… gosh, ten years ago? Yeesh.

Anyway, we had a group of really good writers, and Ed thought, “I did a good job with this story – why don’t I publish it?” So he edited the heck out of it (because you have to explain the universe) and gave me co-author credit (because I did write some of it) and that became Predatory Practices.

So in that universe, the K’Nes were a floating cat-like species that was known for being incredible merchants but not the best fighters. Ed decided to take this race – which no one else had bothered to expand on – and really developed it well. He started with the merchant angle and extended it. What if all the cats were hyper-capitalists? Imagine government run as a business. In this case, he had a character that was part of a clan that was also a business. He also asked, “What happens to cats who aren’t good at business? Or who aren’t part of a clan?”

At the same time, he took his part of this massive space opera and really shifted it to become the cause of his character’s species. While he’s trying to save the universe, he’s also trying to woo his mate, and figure out who’s out to stop him – it made for some great subplots.

Plus there was the “floating” thing – he had to address the physiology we had established. Why do they float? What does that mean in terms of military tactics? How would that affect their architecture?

At the same time he was addressing these questions to make the K’Nes culture believable, Ed had to keep it connectable with the readers. The capitalism he talks about are terms that readers could understand. Although the wooing was done in terms of contractual obligations, it was still romance.

All in all, I think it turned out great and I really encourage everyone to read Predatory Practices. It is a great balance of sci-fi, humor, great world-building, wonderful characters, and a great romping adventure. Check it out!

What do you think are the main obstacles that you as the reader face to believing that an alternate world works? What are some of the things that would make you stop reading a book? Let me know in the comments below!

One Response to “Making Aliens Believable”

  1. SirNolen October 28, 2020 at 8:28 pm #

    I get turned off by contradictory details in imaginary worlds. If the author couldn’t take the time to iron out the wrinkles in their world-building, I see that as a sign for the quality of the book overall.

    I make exceptions for comedies, though. If the universe of “Futurama” or “Red Dwarf” isn’t 100% consistent, I’ll give them a pass so long as it’s funny.

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