Just like worldbuilding is a classic science fiction / fantasy convention panel topic, creating believable aliens (for your SF/F story) is another classic. Two main tasks that lay before a speculative fiction writer when creating an alien species are (1) how to make them different enough from humans to be interesting, and (2) how to make them relatable? These goals can be at odds with each other, which is what makes this topic so rich.
Whether your goal is to make the aliens “feel” alien or relatable to the reader, our panelists think that you can achieve that with just some small details. Mainly, if an alien relates to the environment the way a human would, the reader starts thinking of it as human.
Elizabeth Moon. Let’s say somebody came into your home. It looks like a sphere, but it can speak English. It says it’s beautiful, it sits down on the couch and says aaah, it’s comfortable here. You bring it something to eat, and it likes it. Pretty soon you’ll start thinking about it as a person.
Other panelists shared their own experiences with other cultures on Earth to illustrate how an outsider can appear like a native to the members of a culture. One panelist said that she learned to cook Indian food and hosted an Indian dinner at her house. She wore a salvar kameez, and she went even deeper into the character, so to speak, by learning “how close to stand, the gestures”. Despite her being a blue-eyed blonde, halfway through the dinner an Indian woman asked her: “you’re not Pakistani?” The panelist replied, “I’m from Texas.” The Indian woman said, “oh, I thought you were Kashmiri, they’re all fair.”
The cultural appropriation undertones in this story are a bit cringe-worthy, but, if true, it nonetheless illustrates how our minds fill in the whole picture from small details, and how just a few right details can help us to perceive an alien as one of us.
Julie Czerneda (left) and Elizabeth Moon
As to how make an alien come across as alien — here, again, it having different sensory perceptions goes a long way. Elizabeth Moon has first-hand experience of that, because she has a son with autism. If a person is not comfortable in your house, if it’s too cold, or too bright, or too dim, or if the texture hurts him/her, you are likely to perceive that person as not quite human. “Many autistic people believe they are not human, because their sensory reactions are so different,” she adds.
If you want to make an alien really strange to readers, you change their sensory reactions. Their taste is different, their sound is different. They see in a different range. They are comfortable in a different temperature. You start to ask yourself, if they are like that, how do they experience reality?
Other ways of making aliens different involve taking away cultural concepts that seem fundamental to us.
Julie Czerneda. I want to deal with (I assume she means “write about” — E.) species that don’t have geography and don’t measure distance, except as distances between their own kind. The sun rises and sets where the other group lies. Geography doesn’t matter, because if we’re not there, who cares?
You have to be amazingly careful about your language. You can’t say, it’s 2 hours away. You have to say, it’s this close to that person. But you don’t want to make it clunky to the reader.
Regarding what language idioms an alien species would use, a discussion breaks out on whether a species that doesn’t have eyes should not use seeing-based expressions. Somebody argues that you can still say, “they were looking at you”. They just weren’t using eyes.
Brad Foster. A blind person would still communicate in the visual sense, because they have integrated themselves in a world of seeing people.
(That’s something I’ve witnessed in real life. But a blind person in a world of seeing people is different than a species that, as a whole, does not have vision. Seeing-based metaphors would be indeed hard to justify in such a setting. — E.)
Below: author Beverly Hale and artist Brad Foster
As another example of drawing inspiration from alienness from our own history, Beverly Hale turns to the Middle Ages. “During the Middle Ages people in armor would have fights in the middle of your cabbage patch. They didn’t know who you were, you didn’t know who they were. You were not even a blip on their radar. The farmers didn’t know who were those groups that trampled their farmland, what their politics were. That seems so alien to me.”
And here is what shortcuts NOT to take while building an alien race.
Beverly Hale. In the space operas [we conclude that] we have now met an alien race, because we’ve met one person. I thought, this is insane. At the same time, there are 5 people on the spaceship, and they are all radically different. But the aliens are all the same. It is almost like a racist thing. I’m gonna assume they are all that way, and they don’t have individuality.
More closing advice
Brad Foster. Put visual things on your desk, pictures of cities, or deserts, or something, so that you would remember to describe the visuals as you write, to describe the background.
Elizabeth Moon. You can take little kids’ plastic animals, cut them apart and put them together in a different way. (Perhaps to invent a variety of alien body shapes? — E.)
Beverly Hale advises writers to remember that people are going to go to the bathroom, they are going to sweat, they are going to stink. And when they sleep on the ground, there are going to be rocks and twigs.
Brad Foster. As you go through your day, think: when I walk in there, what would an alien do as he walks into this? What would an alien see or feel?