Writing Is A Bad Habit: Green Skin, Pointy Ears, Still Human? a.k.a. Depicting Aliens and Nonhumans

It is a common shortcut in writing genre fiction to make nonhuman characters look different, sure, but to be close, if not identical, to human in many of the intangible points.  Emotions, thought processes, and other mental/spiritual/emotional aspects tend to hew close to the human spectrum.  Oh, there may be minor differences, little quibbles here and there, with the occasional notable quirk, but the tendency of many writers is to stay close to the human experience.

In and of itself, this tendency isn’t necessarily bad and it’s certainly not a deal-breaker to me as a reader.  Knowing that the aliens in a piece are perhaps not so alien after all can give nonhuman characters a certain built-in level of relatability, not to mention such situations can offer the author a chance to explore a number of real-world social concerns, such as prejudice and racism, in a fantasy or science-fiction setting.  On top of that, we do tend to write best the things we understand most and most of us are far more familiar with humans than, say, the starfish people of Cyngus XII.

Still, there’s also a point to be made for taking the plunge, to make the effort to make the aliens or fantastical races in a book truly unique species.  The concept of cultural differences isn’t hard for most of us to deal with it as it runs along the lines of something familiar to us (the same political and social differences of different cultures here on Earth), but pushing deeper into trying to create a truly ‘alien’ outlook on the world is something quite hard to accomplish.  It’s one thing to take the human template and tweak it in one direction or another, but to try to wrap your head creatively around something completely different than the human psyche, that’s quite another.

When it is done well, however, it adds incredible depth and an added degree of immersion into the fictional world the author is creating.  Aliens being truly alien represent another mystery for your readers to unlock, and it simply makes more sense to them that something so far removed from our species should have real and possibly quite stark differences in how they think, feel, and react.  The problem lies in the fact that, when done poorly, it can simply be confusing and a waste of authorial time and energy.

Think about it: such a feat does basically add another extensive plot to your book, that being the introduction and exploration of this alien race or races.  Whether you want that or not, you have it, simply because you must explore this race in your book or else your readers will not have a point of reference or relatability with the alien characters you introduce.  Also, there’s the pitfall of introducing something alien, yes, but also uninteresting, at least in a dramatic sense.  If the alieness of a species is going to be part of the plot, it would be wise to weld that exploration of the race deeply into it.  After all, you have to spend the time to establish the race to your human readers!  You might as well spend that time wisely and integrate it into the larger plot, right?

If you’re a genre writer whose next work incorporates nonhuman species, take a moment to consider just how different from humanity they are and whether that level of difference works for your purposes and for your book.  Many approaches are valid, from ‘like us with a different skin color’ to ‘unfathomable cosmic entity’, so you have to tailor your approach to the alien with the needs of your works and the desires of your readers.

Got a thought, question, or input?  Drop a line in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

10 comments

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, stepping out of the box of humanity would be very hard. I’ve never totally managed it myself … I’ve come close at times, I think … but I have seen it done in the past. If nothing else, you can dig into your Lovecraft if you’re a fan of horror and the macabre.

      The trick, as always with writing, is how far to take it, or if you even need to break the ‘nonhuman human’ convention.

  1. Thanks. I’ve been mulling an idea with the aliens a few notches from humans. Contemplating the interactions and cultural differences between a species with four fully integrated genders, and a divergent one with three.

    A space drama I read last fall was overall not very good in its depiction of humans, but its aliens were remarkable, other than the bat-winged snakes. There were sentient blue-trees-draped-in-yellow-mist. Another was a collection of floating and rearranging 3-dimensional geometries.

    1. I’m glad you like the article!

      That sounds like some fascinating stuff! You can even get some ideas of how a multi-gendered culture can work by examining some of Earth’s cultures that have more than two gender identities. While it isn’t identical (I imagine your aliens will have more expansive biological differences between genders), you might still get some inspiration for cultural aspects to consider.

      1. Indeed. My goal is to examine the gender roles of the Western world by exploding them. The 4-gender society will have very strict gender roles that the corresponding genders in the other will not adhere to. I’m using blood typing as a model for the genetics.

  2. It seems the higher your writing on the Mohs scale of science fiction the more alien your aliens will be.
    For example Star Trek, with their pointy eared Vulcans, Romulans, etc., was lower on the Mohs scale then David Brin’s Sundiver (where an alien race lived in the sun as beings of pure energy).

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