So, back in that poll I did lo these many months ago, heartofmarkness asked about creating alien races/worlds and keeping them alien—not making them so anthropomorphic they lose that edge of alienness. And thinking about that produced this. “This” is once again more an essay-like collection of tips and advice which might work. Alienness, like humor, is so often subjective that I’d hesitate to say, “This will make a character seem inhuman/a world different from Earth every time and to every reader.”
1) Use a viewpoint character who will notice the differences.
This comes to mind first because I currently have the opposite problem: a viewpoint character whose (unspoken) motto is, “Nothing is strange to me,” and so, whenever there is a chance that something could strike her as alien, she adapts to it instead. It’s very vexing.
What makes someone more likely to notice the alien?
- Perceptiveness. It could be visual; if she’s someone who notices small details of clothing or eye color, she might start noticing that these leaves have a different shape, or that that “human” over there is wearing clothing like nothing she’s seen before. Or she could identify people by their voices first, and thus notice when there are strange harmonics in the way someone is speaking to her. Obviously, if you’ve given your created race a means to disguise such telltale signs, this one won’t work.
- Self-consciousness. If she wants to blend in, be normal, she’ll probably notice who or what stands out.
- Fastidiousness. Is she used to having everything just so? She could easily glimpse something that’s supposed to be a particular way in her neatly ordered surroundings and which instead sticks out like a sore thumb.
- Inflexibility. Transport her into a strange place, and she puts up her mental shields instead of trying to adapt—and she’ll be less inclined to do something like rationalize “minor” strange things away, because they won’t be minor to her.
- Non-analogical thinking. If she doesn’t tend to make analogies between the strange and the familiar and think “X is like Y,” then she’ll be more prone to accept what this is as she sees it, instead of thinking, “A UFO is like a weather balloon,” and thus turning the UFO intoa weather balloon.
Yes, this pretty much assumes a human viewpoint character.
2) Don’t assume “everybody does that” motives.
Some examples of motives so naturalized that most inhuman species still show up with them, yet don’t have to possess them:
- The desire to avoid death of the individual. (The sole big exception to this is a species with a hive mind, and then, of course, they’re usually presented as faceless enemies)
- The desire to “progress.”
- The fear of death.
- Belief in a supernatural realm of existence beyond the body.
- The desire to create art.
- The sex drive.
- The desire to protect children. (Again, not having this desire, or killing human children, tends to move the species at once into the realm of evil—and, in fact, to give them what’s actually quite a recognizable desire: the immoral love of torture and murder. And yet plenty of animal species do not defend their children, and are neither immoral nor evil).
- Division of labor.
- Gender roles—or, for that matter, genders at all.
If a created species doesn’t have one of these, they often realize their lack and are bitter about it, like elves who steal musicians because they have no ability to create art themselves (Pratchett), or gender-neuter aliens who commit crimes because they want and cannot have children (Bujold). I think that brings them closer to human, rather than setting them further apart. Studying animal behavior without a sentimental eye might be a good practice here. Or attempting to write in a headspace where it’s the desire to create art or children that’s foreign, not something natural and not something longed for.
Difficult? Oh, yes. But I think it’s one of the best ways to do the distancing effect of total unhumanity. Not only does it sever a link between this created species and humans, but it helps to create a world where humans are not the model species who’s achieved everything that the others would like to have. This is rarely stated openly, but it’s there nonetheless, and it makes me grind my teeth as much as a world where it’s the elves who’ve achieved everything desirable, or dragons.
3) For a world, try a non-patterned one.
There are a lot of patterns in our world that human beings tend to rely on, and most of those are replicated within most fantasy worlds: the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of day and night, directions like west and north that don’t switch on a whim, dimensions of length and height and width, mathematics, scientific theories (or constant and consistent magical laws), genetic inheritance, typical cultural behavior patterns.
Confront human viewpoint characters with chaos, where they can rely on nothing, and they may literally go crazy. At the very least, they’ll need to do some quick adaptive thinking. It would, admittedly, be incredibly difficult to set a traditional narrative story in such a world. “Chaotic” worlds usually discover some pattern in the heart of them at last. Chaotic elves can still be hurt by iron or bound with their names, for example. Or an incredibly complicated set of rules for behavior exists, or a very long cycle of seasons, but eventually the order underlying the rules can be perceived, and the seasons swing around again.
Now imagine no order of that kind at all. This is a world where anything can happen, and does, but those aren’t just happy or lucky coincidences for the heroes as might happen in a world where the author hasn’t sufficiently defined the rules of magic. “Anything” includes nasty surprises, character death for no reason and equally unlikely character resurrection, etc.
Such a messy world would probably make a better sidebar to the main story than the focus of the whole thing. But in that capacity, it could work very well.
4) Try molding many disparate new elements into a whole rather than finding reasons for human mythology.
I do like stories where it turns out there’s a “reason”—a species-inherent reason, rather than the exact one humans have thought up—for something like dragons sleeping on gold, or rowan wood guarding against evil, or unicorns deciding to purify wells poisoned by serpents. However, in that case, what the humans believe still turns out to be true; it’s the why that changes.
To create a species that has its own feel, try picking up elements that aren’t a common part of mythology. Then bind them together with non-obvious connections.
Um. That sounds very vague.
Imagine that a certain kind of dragons have a connection to iron. They also have immense humility, because they’re hatched from the egg with a sense of their own ignorance, rather than lots of inherent knowledge. They also spend vast periods of time in hibernation, so have an effectively broken existence awake, but can reach out in dreams—which allow them to find each other and speak more easily than they can awake, since awake they can’t make a sound, and their visual and olfactory means of communication are limited by distance. They also can endure the cold, pressure, and lack of air in deep space, as well as extremes of heat and gravity, and since they know about space junk and would rather not have their planet destroyed, they will fly out in groups and turn aside things like meteorites when they come too close to home.
Now, what is it like to be a being of whom all these things are true? It will be hard to forge connections on the surface, or see all the implications, but write from within them and I think you’ll start finding connections. These dragons are sentient. They’ll know what these things are like. Assuming they’re also a pattern-building species, they’ll create their own connections simply by living. And from this will emerge a “feeling,” an atmosphere, an ambience.
I do think that human mythology can still be used as a springboard to achieve that ambience. The difference from the stories I mentioned before is not to make those things humans think are important keystones of the whole species. For example, perhaps it’s true that dragons sleep on gold after all, but that’s only a tiny, tiny part of their biological cycle, and you could even take all the gold in the world away and it wouldn’t affect them. The iron, on the other hand…
5) Set them free.
This applies to both worlds and species, really. As I mentioned in point 2, the nonhuman is usually placed in an integral relationship with humanity. Humanity is affecting them negatively—poisoning them, making them sicken, hunting them, cutting down their forests. Or their existence is bound up with humanity; this leads to stories where, say, unicorns and fairies are dying because no one believes in them anymore. Or there are lovely and delicate magical places that are dying because no one visits them anymore, or people visit them and don’t care. Or the humans have things that the other species envies or covets. In extreme cases, usually with crossover fantasy, the magical world has to steal a hero/ine from Earth because it’s simply incapable of producing its own. (That kind of story, where the author emphasizes the protagonist’s superiority to everyone in the fantasy world, I do dislike, for the same reason I dislike every narrative that is written for the sake of a perfect, beloved character and not for the sake of the story).
So one step on the road to alienness is to create a species or a place that humans cannot affect. To take a very simple example: a forest that will not burn, the trees of which the humans cannot cut with axes, which they cannot enter or drive their domestic animals into, which has a self-contained ecosystem that takes no damage from any pollution or cutting or damming done in the world outside it. Humans are powerless there.
In most fantasy stories, this would be an occasion for a loophole to emerge, like the one hero/ine who can enter the forest because he/she is beloved of its creatures, or a mystical law that can be transgressed, after which the forest is vulnerable. Now imagine that, no, this doesn’t happen. No matter what humans do, they cannot touch this place. It is beyond their domination. It is unconscious of their existence, or conscious of them as having exactly as much importance as any other animal or plant species beyond its boundaries. It has nothing to do with them at all.
Quite a challenge, I think, especially because there is probably no wild place now on Earth untouched by humanity in one way or another.
Now, a magical species that cannot be collared or controlled, poisoned or ruled, by humanity, and which covets nothing we have—and has no desire, in turn, to collar or conquer, poison or control, us. They might well present themselves as a challenge; I could see a whole story woven out of the crazy desire to conquer them, because there are some people who will think that anything beyond human control is inherently harmful. (Witness the fear of earthquakes, windstorms, volcanoes, disease, famine, and accidents, and the way that many people cope is—ignoring them). But the story enacted a hundred thousand thousand times, in history and in historical fiction and in science fiction and fantasy too, is that humans eventually win out, or console themselves with the idea that the triumph is not worth winning. I think horror might be the only genre that does include confrontations with That Which Cannot Be Conquered, and in that case, of course, there are usually survivors, or That Which Cannot Be Conquered is evil, is a monster wanting to destroy humans, not just inhuman.
But a fantasy story which succumbed neither to trampling the inhuman nor to having it trample the humans could be fascinating to write and read.
6) Abandon species loyalty.
This is advice for turning a human character inhuman. If a human character sojourns in Faerie, he or she usually begins to long for a way back home. If a human explorer lands on an alien planet, it usually gets compared unfavorably to the home planet (sometimes Earth). If the human is fighting aliens, the aliens can’t be allowed to triumph. Loyalty to humanity is paramount for humans in most science fiction or fantasy stories. Sometimes they do slip and fall, but they usually realize the truth in the end. If they don’t, then they’re evil, or crazed. Or—this is the less common variant—the traitor is right, but that’s because she’s found the familiar at the heart of the alien, such as realizing that these aliens are really gentle and benevolent types, and thus she’s more in touch with what it really means to be human than her opponents are. (Of course, an alien or elf or other inhuman who does sympathize with the human cause is welcomed and celebrated as a right-thinker.)
And if that’s not true? If the story is written from the perspective of a human character who does become one with the inhuman, to the extent of abandoning her loyalty to her species, and not doing so because she’s attracted solely to recognizable, familiar traits like compassion or the desire to protect children?
That’s an interesting challenge. I keep thinking I’ve seen it done, but I can’t recall an example off the top of my head.
I did plan to write a rant at some stage about making fantasy less anthropocentric, but this seems to cover half the points I would have raised there.