Science fiction is filled with encounters with intelligent alien species, and yet many of them still feel distinctly human. I think that’s because we tend to project ourselves on our environment. After all, we find faces in the knots and grain patterns of a piece of wood, we anthropomorphize animals, and we describe machines using gender specific pronouns. It makes sense then that we would also impose human traits on our alien characters.
However, alien-ness should be more than a matter of skin dye, cosmetic contacts, and prosthetics. If we as writers truly want to write alien characters, we need to ensure that we consider their thought patterns, motivations, and perceptions. One writer that I feel has done this very well is Jack Campbell.
Campbell’s world is a mix of military SF and space opera. At the series commencement, humanity has become a space faring race and has already colonized many stars local to our branch of the Milky Way. As humans are wont to do, various star systems have formed interstellar political units that war with one another and vie for territory. While it at first appears that there are no aliens in Campbell’s books, it is later revealed that a group of human-occupied stars actually abuts the territory of a hostile race of aliens codenamed the “Enigma race.”
At first, I was skeptical about Campbell’s aliens as he seemed to be heavily relying on the mysterious, hostile alien trope. However, as the story continued and he revealed more about the Enigmas, it began to make more sense. The Enigma race is characterized by their obsessive need for privacy. They’d rather commit mass suicide by blowing up their ships than allow humans to get a glimpse at them and their technology. It also makes perfect sense then why they are so hostile towards their ever-curious human neighbors. Our very natures are directly opposed to their primary motivation!
Campbell goes on to introduce his characters and readers to two more alien species, the hostile Kicks and the friendly Dancers. Being a prey species that has risen to dominance, the Kicks are suicidally aggressive towards any species they view as a potential predator. On the other hand, the Dancers are master engineers and are obsessed with finding and honoring patterns. While each of the four races - human, Enigma, Kick, and Dancer - significantly vary from one another physically, they also are distinctly different in their motivations and perceptions of the universe. I respect how diligent Campbell is in ensuring that each species’ actions and reactions are consistent with their guiding motivations.
As writers, we rely on empathy to form a bond between our reader and the story we are telling. It’s one of our greatest assets. However, this tendency to find connection can also be a trap. Sometimes we want to intentionally make our alien characters distinctly non-human. However, we can’t rely on physical differences. We must ensure that they are also alien in their thoughts, behaviors, and motivations.