Anyone can write
a book - but it takes something special to create
Lee Masterson's step-by-step guide can show you
Creating Believable Aliens
by Tina Morgan
telescope, the Voyager probe, DNA and the study of
genetics have all changed the way we view our world.
Computers have given us the ability to research at the
speed of light and the average person has access to
greater knowledge than has ever been possible in the
history of mankind.
These things are also reflected in the stories we write.
No longer can a science fiction writer create a
goo-dripping alien just because a story line requires an
adversary from another planet to drop in on our
unsuspecting world. The average reader is not going to
buy into the B-rate movies of old. It takes more than an
actor in a rubber mask for them to suspend their
disbelief and enjoy a story or novel.
Bringing an alien species into a novel requires a bit of
planning and thought on the part of the writer.
Can life exist on other planets?
Research into other planets and solar systems leads
scientists to believe that humanoid life forms are not
likely to exist elsewhere but that there may be a vast
variety of life that we have yet to consider. Some of
earth's most wondrous creatures can be found in the most
extreme conditions. Tubeworms live in the ocean's depths
at pressures and temperatures previously believed to be
uninhabitable. Bacteria have been found living in the
extreme heat of geyser water deep in the ocean and in
Yellowstone National Park. Aliens such as these may exist
even in our own galaxy.
But how exciting is that? Our intrepid space explorers
find tubeworms. It makes having a galactic battle a bit
However, that tiny bit of doubt that keeps scientists
from saying for 100% certainty that humanoid life forms
do not exist elsewhere in the universe gives the writer a
tiny margin of chance to play with and many writers will
explore those options.
How do you create a believable alien?
One of the inconsistencies that always bothers me about
science fiction movies is the type of aliens we see
piloting spacecraft that humans can pilot as well.
Independence Day is one of my favorite movies, but I have
to wonder how the aliens with their claw-like hands use
the joystick type controls that Will Smith used to fly
their spacecraft back to the mother ship? I also wonder
how these aliens use tools and forge metal.
Many creatures in Star Wars and Star Trek have left me
with the same questions. Men In Black was a delightfully
fun movie, but how could some of those gelatinous
creatures build a space ship and make contact with other
planets? Our opposable thumb gives us advantages that
tentacled aliens don't have.
Take a careful look at the physical attributes you want
to bestow upon your aliens. Are you creating a race that
can exist in the environment you've designed? Is it
believable that your race has evolved to the level of
technology you need to make your plot work? Why is your
race exploring/traveling in space? Is space travel that
easy for them? What do they expect to find and how long
are they willing to look for it? What brings them into
contact with the other planets in your book? (The evil
aliens following a radio signal back to earth is getting
Sex and reproduction are other issues not to be
overlooked. Many science fiction writers want to allow
their species to inter-breed but the odds against this
happening are astronomical. Some writers try to explain
it by having the embryos genetically engineered. However,
unless having bi-species offspring is crucial to your
story, I would recommend not doing it. It stretches the
realm of believability a bit thin.
Another issue is the number of creatures it takes to
reproduce. Three sexes have often been discussed and used
in science fiction stories. Natural selection, evolution,
creationism, however you view the creation of the
universe, using three sexes goes against the odds. Say
you have M, F, and D sexes. What happens when F finds a D
and needs an M to reproduce? How quickly can F find an M
before D finds an F and M combination looking for a D?
Slowing down the reproductive cycle diminishes a species'
chance of survival.
I did find the television show; Alien Nation handled this
issue quite well and in a very believable manner. The
aliens were a slave race that had been genetically
engineered by their masters. In order to
control breeding, the masters had created a third sex
(basically male) that was required for the females to
become pregnant. The Tenctonese turned this genetic
tampering into part of their culture and closely guarded
the secret when they came to earth. This worked because
their masters had consciously engineered the
vulnerability into them. It was not a random chance of
fate or evolution.
Imagine if an alien species was expected to thrive in
extreme winter climates, or in heavy gravity situations.
Physically, they would have adapted over generations to
"suit" the environment around them.
Mentally, they would have needed to develop self-defense
mechanisms and beliefs.
The force that creates your aliens will play a role in
determining the outcome. Gods or master species can
create characteristics that nature, evolution or fate
Learning a bit about an "alien" culture may
give important clues to how and why an alien developed
the physical and cultural attributes they have. For
example: Humans have a long history of self-destruction
and violence, usually demonstrated by war. This has
shaped our culture and belief systems.
However, the extended periods of peace time between wars
also gave our cultures time to develop and expand art and
literature the "peace-time" advances of
What purpose do aliens serve in your story?
While the phrase "politically correct" makes
many people cringe, the idea has caused us to look more
closely at the stereotypes we assign to the alien races
we use in our writing. The violent Klingons and Romulans
of the original Star Trek series have undergone a
metamorphosis as the series has progressed into
the 21st century. No longer are readers willing to
blindly accept the "evil transgressors" of
early science fiction. No race on earth fits a
cookie-cutter image and neither should those in your
Novels are often more fun when a character steps outside
their cultural upbringing to "see" the other
side of an issue. With careful character development and
plotting, this can create a very believable plot twist.
--If you are looking for an evil, goo-dripping alien to
terrorize the planet, make certain they're believable and
there is a good reason for them to be here.
--Give them physical attributes that make sense.
Feathered wings don't work well in deep water and
flippers don't work on land.
--Bacteria and viri can exist in conditions previously
thought impossible and are the most plentiful type of
--Creating weirdness just to be unusual does not add
quality to your writing. It draws attention to the
mechanics of your world building and does little to
entice your reader to continue reading.
For more information about creating alien creatures and
life on other planets, visit these links.
(An extra thank you goes to Lee Masterson for her
thoughtful suggestions on this article.)
Copyright Tina Morgan. All rights reserved
Tina Morgan is the
Managing Editor of Fiction Factor - an online
magazine for fiction writers. She is also a contributing
author for the book "The Complete Guide to Fantasy", available
from Dragon Moon Press.