Building a truly alien alien.
Sometimes all we want to do is to write about people. Maybe humans with a funny hairdo and some odd quirks, or animals with human brains that speak and perceive like we do, but fundamentally just people that you or I can relate to. Can empathise with.
But sometimes that isn’t enough. As Worldbuilders sometimes we need to try and find something new. That search for the truly alien is a flawed one. We can’t really make an alien race that doesn’t make sense to us. All we can do is figure out the race then leave whoever is being immersed in our world in the dark as to it’s properties. Remember all the horrifying alien races that turned out to be like us all along? The writers knew that they were like us from the very beginning. The world was built around people with quirks (perhaps serious quirks), but people nonetheless.
That said, some races have traits so bizarre, so inhuman that their ‘peopleness’ makes them all the stranger. Psychic aliens that look so like people you’d think they were the same, stars that can talk to people in dreams, planets that communicate using fungus. These creatures are so similar mentally but so completely different physically that their similarities become interesting.
Some of the most terrifying villains are those that never have any ‘peopleness’ revealed. That stay forever alien, even when you understand their natures. Creatures that don’t bargain or empathise, but live only for their next meal, or mate, or concept that we don’t truly understand. Some of the best heroes are the ones that are nothing like us, that can shape shift or are actually space station AIs, but which still retain a fundamental humanity.
So how can we, as world builders, make fantastically alien races?
The first thing to do is forget any concept of story or plot. If you try to fit a race into a plot line it will automatically take on traits you need it to have, like a conscience or a human-exploitable weakness. As soon as that happens your race will be defined by the trait that you (a person) gave it. So forget the plot for a while. Just try to build a race.
Now there are multiple ways we can approach this.
1: Make the race essentially human, but with one trait expanded out of all proportion
2: Give the race a fantastic physical trait, but human behaviours
3: Give the race a set of behaviours that are alien
The first three are organised in terms of difficulty to the worldbuilder, and while they’re useful, they’ll never be truly alien, just fantastic.
1: People with serious quirks.
Your most common aliens, and also very simple to create. Take a person or creature and magnify one particular trait of that creature until it is it’s defining feature. Greed, tallness, hive mentality, brute strength, ability to empathise, number of knees, it really doesn’t matter. What matters in order to make this kind of race alien is that you have to then think through the implications of your choice. You can’t just say ‘this race is ten times stronger than humans’ and leave it at that. You must follow that trait through. How does that strength affect their social structure, general health, architecture? Do they fight more or less? Can their skin take the pressure of holding up that much weight easily, and what ramifications would that have if someone tried to stab them? Are their houses hewn from whole trees and boulders rather than bricks? The alien-ness in this method of race creation comes not from the trait that you magnify, but from it’s repercussions.
2: A fantastic physical trait
This is distinct from number 1 in that number 1’s creatures are basically humans. They breath an atmosphere, they have limbs and skin. The creatures in this category aren’t like that. Here you have the sentient gas clouds, the swarm consciousnesses, the creatures that exist in a different set of dimensions to us. These creatures are alien not because of what they are, but how they are. They can be, for all intents and purposes, people. They can share the same views as humanity, value the same traits, but they are fundamentally alien because they don’t interact with the world in any way similarly to us.
The trick here is figuring out how they do interact with the world, and more importantly how that differs from us. How does a swamp dwelling cluster of worms make a sculpture? How does it communicate within itself? Working out the answers to those questions will help you work out why this creature is alien, even though it eventually winds up being a person with a different viewpoint. In some ways you don’t have to try as hard to make this race alien. As long as the fantastic trait is fantastic enough the alien behaviours will fall out of it. Possibly literally in the case of the swamp worm cluster.
3: Not thinking like a human.
This is possibly the hardest thing to do with a race. It’s very hard to not think like a human (after all, we’re used to it). These races tend to make the best villains as they’re so difficult to empathise with, but the truly alien requires at least a few thought patterns that don’t make sense to us. This set of aliens can appear totally human. In fact, if you want them to they can be human, just with a set of values and ways of looking at the world that make them incomprehensible. Imagine a cult that only ever goes outside in darkness and will torture and kill anybody who has ‘seen the light’. Pretty hard to deal with people like that. The easiest way I’ve found to come up with this kind of race is to envisage behaviours that don’t make sense at all, then try to rationalise them. Perhaps the cultists are trying to limit the spread of a disease that feeds on sunlight…
The sentence above is an example of the danger with this kind of alien race. If you can rationalise a behaviour it either needs changing or expanding, otherwise it’s a rational behaviour and hence not alien. If the cultists are trying to prevent the spread of a disease then they’re just people with misguided goals. They can be reasoned with and shown that the disease is long gone. It needs to go a step further; to go past the point of rational behaviour and into a mania in order to be alien. At that point you may as well throw away the rationalisation, or turn it into a historical footnote. Those cultists will not (and more fundamentally cannot) interact with your protagonists in any way except trying to kill them. If you take them prisoner they will try to gnaw their own wrists open before the sun gets to them. If the sun does get to them they go mad and either become catatonic or suffer massive brain failure. These people are not people, because their mentality and behaviour differs massively from your own and can’t be changed. It’s an interesting exercise to try and make alien races that are biologically human but whose instincts and thought patterns are radically different, and can lead to some truly fantastic (and often terrifying) consequences.
Combining number 2 and number 3 is a pretty good way to make an alien race seem truly alien. If you couple an ancient AI with some seemingly bizarre overriding goals you can create a hugely alien antagonist. A society of N dimensional beings with a disregard for all things material is a powerful enemy. A swarm of creatures driven by a desire for heat becomes a disturbing environmental threat. As long as their physical properties aren’t anthropomorphised and their mental traits aren’t somehow made more human they will remain fairly alien, but will still have one human trait left: They were designed by you.
Which is where we come to randomisation!
The aim is simple: remove as much of the human element of design as possible. With alien races this is best done early on, as randomising fine detail like the number of limbs isn’t too important. The exact method of randomisation is up to you. You might want to jot down multiple ideas, then randomly select some. In this case I find it’s best to jot down multiple ideas for physical and mental traits in different lists, regardless of whether or not they fit with each other, then randomly select from each for a final pair. For example:
List 1: Swarm, Individual, N Dimensional Thing, Gaseous, Hive Mind, Temporally Disjointed, Mysterious force
List 2: Solar System, Planet, Continent, Island, City, Human, Insect
List 3: Asexual, Polyamorous, Vicious, Unconcerned, Greedy, Chatterbox, Introvert
List 4: Material Wealth, Monkeys, Mating, Exploration, Art, Conquest, Interpretive Dance
Using these lists can create some combinations that you might struggle to wrap together, for example a continent sized swarm of polyamorous creatures that exists purely for interpretive dance. DO NOT DISCARD ANYTHING YOU GET. If it doesn’t make sense to you that’s OK. It doesn’t have to make sense. You have to think through the ramifications and how such a thing might have arisen. A swarm of randy alien insects that can devour a whole world’s food supplies but look beautiful from orbit? Even trying to make an alien race work will give you a flavour of how you can take certain elements on into perhaps more human races. Or maybe you’ll come up with a truly original and alien idea. of course, these ideas were made by you in the first place, so you’re bound to have already thought of some things that might be less than alien.
Another way (a way I try from time to time) to create alien races is to make a list of random adjectives (using a search engine to look for ‘random adjective generator’ works quite well) and a list of random nouns. The adjectives form traits of the race, the nouns form goals. For example:
Adjectives: typical mad weak electronic desperate
Nouns: player entertainment sympathy preparation hall
Combining the random adjectives together will help put together a physical form for your race. In this case perhaps an alien intelligence comprising seemingly chaotic electrical signals bound in a well structured but incredibly fragile silicon matrix. The goals create the truly alien element. This being wants to hear noise. It treats it as a form of soothing balm, and expects that silences are merely preparations for the next noises to occur. Everything, to this being, is simply a method of getting to the next noise, the more harmonious the better. It’s motivations past that are unclear.
These two examples are not particularly well fleshed out, but provide an example of randomisation methods that can be used to help build something that’s truly out of this world.
Now all that has to be done is finding a plot line that includes a really strong bloke, a clump of swamp worms, some heliophobic cultists, a world of balletic locusts and a musically obsessed crystal.
Perhaps a little humanity isn’t so bad after all.