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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Inventing Aliens
March 15, 2001


Question:

I have always been fascinated by other planet's cultures and what they might look like due to their evolutionary development. But I have not been able to picture in my head, such creatures as you have produced in your books such as Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. What was your motivation in creating such imaginative beings?

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies:

I don't actually picture them in my head, either! I don't have much visual imagination, or at least don't use it much while coming up with stories.

When I'm inventing aliens, I think of some key difference with human beings, and then extrapolate what kind of society or civilization would result from that difference. It's an easy exercise to do, as long as you don't settle for the first idea that comes to mind.

My motivation in creating imaginative beings is fear of embarrassment <grin>. I know I have to put my aliens out there to be compared with the cool aliens created by the really smart sci-fi writers ...

No, I'm not joking. That's part of what makes sci-fi writers rigorous about their creature-creation. We've read stories by real masters of the field, and we know what's expected of us.

At the same time, we also know that the more deeply we know the rules governing the behavior of aliens, the more ideas we will get about how to use them effectively in a story. So it isn't just fear of shaming ourselves in front of other writers, but also a hunger to find the richest story possibilities, that leads us to try to be resourceful and inventive in our alien-creation.

Even when I deliberately use a cliche, like the hive-mind buglike aliens in Ender's Game, I find that I end up having to invent them just as deeply and thoroughly as the ones I make up from scratch, like the pequeninos in Speaker.

It's all a matter of rigor -- insisting, demanding, that your unconscious mind yield many ideas to choose from. If you care enough, and research enough to understand how societies and biological imperatives interact, you will come up with good aliens -- and have a better chance at coming up with good stories.

-- 15 March 2001


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