I love building aliens. I love what writer types call ‘world building’ in general. Building strange creatures and settings is an exercise in raw imagination. To me, making stuff like this up, as the title suggests, is play.
The catch, of course, to making up good aliens is that your reader needs to be able to get some idea of what you’re describing. Some authors (and screenwriters) have gone the route of letting you fill in all the blanks with your own imagination, a la Lovecraft‘s ‘indescribable horrors’. Sometimes that works, and I’ve enjoyed reading stories where the author went that route. Its just not the route I personally take in most instances.
One way to describe an alien is to use comparisons to things your readers may have seen. I’m going this route with a story currently in process, working title The Landfill Down By The Pumphouse:
“What stood on the other side—take a lizard. A big one, like a Monitor or a Komodo Dragon. Cut off the legs and run a fringe of large black millipede legs down each side in their place, continuing all the way down the tail to the tip. Now heat the neck—think of it as plastic—and grip the head hard with pliers and pull it upward about two feet, the neck stretching like taffy. The black millipede legs continue right up this neck, but they’re longer now. About in the middle are five pairs that are even longer than those. Each of those ten splits in two at the tip, then splits in two again. The head, smashed flat and wide by your pliers, has a fine fringe of smaller millipede legs along the jawbone and covering the upper and lower lips. There are no nostrils where you’d expect. Move them to the nape of the neck, behind the skull. Now realize that all those little legs waving about incessantly on the face have tiny blue eyes at their tips, like a scallop’s eyes. There’s no face like you’d expect a face to look. No obvious place to keep a brain. Now stain the whole thing a deep maroon color verging on mahogany. Swirl threads of bright crimson through it, like Dali’s version of woodgrain.
And now you understand why I screamed. ”
(The above excerpt is copyright 2013 S. A. Barton, and all that good jazz.)
For a story that is probably going to end up somewhere around four to six thousand words, that’s a pretty long description. But I think it’s worth it, and hopefully not just because it was fun to design the alien in my head and I want you to see it too. Describing alien things in terms of familiar things has a weakness—you’re describing familiar things, not alien things. If you go the route I went here, it’s probably a good idea to shoot for a fairly weird combination so the overall impression is of alien-ness and not too familiar, as in, ‘oh, the aliens look like housecats. Cool.’
At the end of the day, it’s all up to you as a writer, or as a reader, to decide if you like it or not.
- Alien (journalread.wordpress.com)
- UK councillor claims to have fathered alien child (sott.net)
- World-Building In Fiction (highfantasyaddict.wordpress.com)
- On Exposition and Setup… (clemtaylor.wordpress.com)