Creating and Writing Aliens and Other Intelligent Beings

Anonymous asked you:

I’m wondering if there is a certain way to portray aliens? Should I go into detail about the appearance or science behind the creature? What would make this kind of book more interesting? Showing the humanity behind the sentient being from a far away land? Thank you!

That depends. Are these aliens intelligent? Or just sentient? Humans are intelligent and sentient beings. Dogs, while being smart, are just sentient. Other than that, there really is no right way to portray aliens since they can be almost anything you can think of.

SENTIENT BEINGS:

Portraying a sentient being would be just like portraying any other animal. Aliens are just species that don’t live on our planet. You don’t have to go into detail about this creature, but you can if you want.

How many limbs do these aliens have? Are they bipedal (meaning they can walk on two feet)? How many digits on their hands and feet do they have? Are any of these vestigial or opposable? Are they arboreal (live in trees) or terrestrial? Or aquatic? How does that affect their appearance? Are they nocturnal? If yes, they will probably have large eyes and tiny bodies.

Is there sexual dimorphism (obvious physical differences between males and females other than genitalia)? If there are distinguished physical traits, what are they? How do they play a role in mating practices? Is one physical trait favored over the other? How? How do these aliens mate? What is the gestation period? How many are typically born at one time? Do the babies stay with the parents due to nurture being a part of life? Or do they rely more on instinct?

Are there other similar species? Are these aliens almost extinct or are they over populated? Where are they on the food chain? How do they escape predators? How do they catch prey? How do they react to other species? To humans? Are they empathetic toward other sentient beings? Or are they more sympathetic?

INTELLIGENT BEINGS:

Creating intelligent beings is a little trickier. To have an intelligent being, you need two things:

  1. Some form of communication
  2. Culture

Communication or Language:

Without language, there is no culture. All beings capable of language will create culture. This does not mean beings capable of mimicking language can create culture. They must have the ability to create it on their own and to give meaning to certain sounds and gestures.

  • Phonetic Language: All languages start out as sounds. Beings capable of language give meaning to these sounds and thus language is created.
  • Body Language: Simple gestures (like signs for peace) are language because they hold symbolic meaning that are used for communication. Most, if not all, cultures will have signs that hold symbolic meaning. These can be anything from a handshake to a pat on the head to how close a person stands to another person when speaking.
  • Written Language: Written language is not necessary. It’s only been around for about 5,000 years and many cultures have excellent and accurate oral histories that go back thousands of years. However, written language is found in more complex (larger, sedentary, etc.) societies.

Culture:

Just a quick note about culture: a social group or society is not the same as culture. Many species live in groups and work together, like ants, but they do not have culture. My world building consideration posts are mostly about culture.

Appearance:

Intelligent aliens will probably be homininae, especially if they’re the ones doing the traveling. They’ll be able to create and use tools when having opposable thumbs and will be able to use those tools if they are bipedal (walking on two hind legs).

If these beings do not have fur, their skin pigment will depend on region. If their planet is based on Earth’s position, atmosphere, and ecosystem, it’ll be something like this:

  • Skin: Will be lighter in regions where ultraviolet rays from the sun are weaker. Will be darker in more intense regions to protect the skin from the sun.
  • Nose Shape: In humid areas, noses will be wider. In dry areas (deserts) or cold areas, the nose will be thinner.
  • Body Shape: Many species, not just humans, in hotter climates tend to have longer limbs and thinner bodies to let off heat while species in colder climates tend to have shorter limbs and broader, stockier bodies to conserve heat.
  • Eyes: Like I said above, nocturnal species tend to have larger eyes and larger pupils to allow more light in for sight.

However, it takes tens of thousands of years for a species to evolve like that (depending on how fast they reproduce and other factors). The native people of the Americas actually have lighter skin, in some regions, than expected because our species hasn’t been in that region very long.

Of course, you can do whatever you want since you’re probably writing science fiction. They can be flying mermaids or fish monkeys or something akin to the aliens in Lilo and Stitch.

If you want an example of a book that focuses on an alien species, I would suggest Speaker for the Dead. It’s part of the Enderverse, but it can stand alone and you don’t have to read Ender’s Game to understand all of it.

As for making books that deal with aliens interesting, you have to make the aliens interesting. But you also have to make everything else interesting to have an interesting story, mainly the characters.

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