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Inspiration for Alien Characters in Science Fiction

by Aurora Springer


Science fiction readers and writers love aliens. In order to create alien characters, a writer must describe the physical appearance, behavior, method of communication, and possibly the society of the aliens. We must extrapolate from what we know about humans and other living organisms on Earth. Here, I aim to inspire writers with ideas from the perspective of a scientist with a life-long interest in the diversity of life on our planet.

First, what are aliens? In science fiction, aliens are the inhabitants of other planets. They may, or may not, be intelligent. I believe life exists on other planets. In my opinion, the majority of alien lifeforms is likely to be microbial like bacteria on Earth. Microbes are robust and versatile. Different types can survive in a variety of extreme environments, including deep sea hydrothermal vents, Antarctica, underground and inside humans. Bacteria can exchange genetic material and communicate with chemicals. Has anybody used microbes as “characters” in their stories?

Little green men”, or human-like aliens are common in science fiction. Humanoid characters have a head, two arms and two legs. Humanoids predominate in video media, partly because they are easier to describe. Consider Dr. Who: even the exterminating Daleks are mutant humans in a robotic shell. I have mutated or genetically engineered humans in my stories.

Animal-like aliens are also common. Felines are popular, such as the lion-like Hani of C.J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey’s Hrubbans, and the Kzinti of Larry Niven.

Mythological Dragons are clearly related to reptiles and fall into the category of animal-like aliens. I have dragons and other alien reptiles inhabiting the Planet Sythos in my series, Grand Masters’ Galaxy.

We can move from vertebrates to invertebrate animals. Giant insects make vicious opponents, although they might be friendly. Adrian Tchaikovsky endows humans with insect characteristics in the Apt series, which is more fantasy than science fiction. I had fun with human colonists on the planet of giant arthropods in A Tale of Two Colonies. Insects resemble us in structure. They have one head with two eyes and a mouth, and three pairs of limbs on their bodies. Can we go beyond animals with this body structure?

One early example of non-humanoid aliens is described in the War of the Worlds (1897) by HG Wells. Piers Anthony in his Cluster series imagined a variety of non-humanoid sentient aliens. He used the unifying theme of aura as a means of communication and exchange of minds into different bodies. In Thousandstar (1980), a humanoid woman falls in love with an alien resembling a giant amoeba (my description).

Consider the myriad varieties of animals living in the sea. Many are spineless invertebrate animals such as jellyfish, sea cucumbers, and squid. Squid and octopuses may be highly intelligent. They can manipulate objects with their arms and exhibit familiar behavior like playing. Their “brains” are distributed throughout their bodies and they communicate by changing color. How would you talk with an octopus?

What about plants? Carnivorous plant-like aliens include the walking plants with lethal stings from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). One of the characters in my Grand Masters’ Galaxy is a planetoid shaped like a giant flower with three pink petals, short stem and trailing roots. I named this character, Amarylla, to help readers visualize her. Amarylla communicates by rustling her leaves, folding or opening her petals like an umbrella, and by emitting scents. In fact, plants, fungi and microbes manufacture chemicals for communication and defense. Adding odors in your scenes is a great way to evoke emotional responses in your readers.

If we move beyond life on Earth, aliens might be entities of gas or pure energy. Sir Fred Hoyle, the eminent English astronomer, was a stubborn opponent of the Big Bang theory. His 1957 novel, The Black Cloud, explores the idea of an intelligent interstellar cloud. The key problem for the human characters was discovering the cloud was intelligent and devising a means of communication. Aliens of pure energy may be completely oblivious of us.

I hope some of these weird life forms will inspire you to create unique and believable aliens in your stories.


You can check out Aurora’s books here.