For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on the world building for a new project. The new shiny is a space opera and I’ve been having fun creating a couple of different alien species, and that’s what I want to talk about this week.
Now I didn’t call this post “ALIENS!!!” or something like that, because this is will move seamlessly between Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
Again, this is world building, so you’re not going to show more than 5-10% of that iceberg (at least I hope so) but you’ve got to know much more than you’re going to reveal.
One of the main things that you’re going to have to figure out is what your Otherworldly Folk look like. Do they look human? Are they taller? Shorter? Same number of limbs? In the same places? What about Facial features? How many eyes do they have and where are they?
All of this might seem pretty obvious, but it will influence just about every decision you make after that.
Lets take a look at one of the alien races that I created: The Tellurians.
Here’s a bit of a description:
“You don’t want to do this, Jax.”
Mai Yin-Zao looked past the blaster barrel pointed at her face and locked eyes with the Tellurian holding the gun on her.
Jax was built like a tree, his skin brown and deeply wrinkled. It was also thick enough to turn a blade and had no give to it whatsoever. Muscle wrapped about his limbs, resembling vines. He should have made noise when he moved, creaking like the trees outside of Mai’s family’s home on Bao-Oquendo, but he was silent as he shifted a second blaster at her partner, Flynn Weyland.
Jax’s arms were long, and ended in a tangle of twig-like fingers that would have been able to touch the dirty street if they weren’t holding a weapon on her. His eyes were red with a deep brown pupil at the center. Behind it, a viscous fluid roiled. It made Mai a little queasy.
The corners of Jax’s eyes wrinkled and a nearly invisible gash in his face split open in a grin, revealing hundreds of sharp teeth. Despite their appearance, Telurians were strictly carnivorous.
So what do we have? Jax is somewhere in the neighborhood of human height. He looks like he’s got bark for skin and he’s got an external musculature structure. He’s also got really long arms. Why? Because he can’t bend at the waist very far.
That little physiological difference had a HUGE impact on the Tellurians.
For starters, they can’t bend, so they spend their entire lives standing. That means no chairs anywhere in their culture or architecture. There are no beds. Everything is built from a perspective where one is on their feet.
That doesn’t mean much when you’re coming over to dinner, but what if you’re staying the night? Maybe you’re in a car, or a boat, or a space ship that’s under attack and dodging and wheeling to escape. The average human isn’t going to be comfortable.
No chairs or sitting means that I also need to be aware that a Tellurian would never say something like “Have a seat.” or “Take a load off.” or “Get off your ass.”
Anything in my vocabulary that would refer to sitting, laying down, etc. has to be off limits when a Tellurian is speaking, or thinking, etc. There’s no cultural equivalence.
And that’s all from one physical detail. Remember that scene from “The Fellowship of the Ring” movie when Merry comes to the table with an ~enormous~ mug and proclaims “This, my friend, is a Pint!” It takes something that we’re all aware of and uses it to emphasize a specific difference to make the idea of hobbits appear more real in this world.
Regardless of whether you’re writing Fantasy or Science Fiction, if you’re not writing about humans, you’ll need to be thinking about details like that. I almost typed “Little things” there and changed my mind, because they are anything but little.
In addition to that, you’ve got to be aware of “Bigger Picture” things. What does this race use for currency and what do they call it? Do they get along with the other races in the story? Why or why not? What do they call some of the basic social structures that you or I use every day? What kind of religions are there? What about the food? You can get a lot of mileage out of a single meal. What do they use for slang or curse words? Coming up with different ways to cuss a blue streak is a joy.
You could side-step some of that by introducing “Universal” elements: Language, currency, etc. But I would recommend against leaning too heavily on that. Some of those cultural influences will seep in, and they should. That’s what makes the different races seem real. Compare and contrast them, especially when some lack of cultural knowledge causes problems for your main character. Maybe a social gaffe causes some embarrassment, maybe it creates an enemy, maybe it threatens an alliance.
A word of caution:
It is VERY easy to fall into the trap of world-building too much. Yes, knowing your Otherworldly Folk is important. You want to be able to pass yourself off as a native, but don’t let that get in the way of the actual writing, which is what all of this work supports.
There isn’t an easy way to tell when you’re overbuilding, because you never know what elements are going to turn out to be useful to your work. For me, I’ve noticed that my capacity to become distracted from the work increases when I’m reaching the “Enough is Enough” point. Might be it works that way for you.
So go out there and make up some wonderfully Otherworldly Folk. You never know what you’re going to find.
Time: 1:34 Pm (ish)
Music: In this Moment – Call Me