Writing advice blog: Writing aliens

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash

One of the trickiest but most interesting aspects of writing fiction, I find, is writing alien characters. How do you show your reader the differences between the alien culture and ours? While it’s only in science fiction that you might find yourself writing actual alien characters, this is a challenge you’ll face as a writer every time your writing is set anywhere outside your home culture in the present day.

Human narrator

One obvious way of exploring how an alien (not here and now) culture is different from ours is to have a narrator whose job it is to do that. Ursula Le Guin, for example, does this in short stories structured around the anthropologist in space: stories made up of reports of a particular civilisation. As you’d expect from Le Guin, these are often fascinating, but of course, not all plots lend themselves to having a handy anthropologist around to comment on the nature of the society. So, what other options do you have?

Outside character

You can have an outsider character, who plays the role of Le Guin’s anthropologists, but without making it explicit that that’s what they’re doing. An example where this is done very well is Tom Holt, Olympiad, (2000). This is the story of the first Olympic Games, in 776BC, and Holt does a great job of getting across how profoundly alien eighth-century BC Greek culture would have been to us.

He does this by making the viewpoint character a Phoenician merchant, visiting Elis, in Greece, on a trading trip, who has to listen to his hosts telling him the story of the Games. The Phoenician is basically us, the modern readers, noticing all the ways in which the Greek characters are different. Here he is, for example, in the first chapter, thinking about all the things he likes about the Greeks:

‘Best of all, in his opinion, was the way they seemed to believe that the feelings and emotions they experienced weren’t part of them at all, but acts of intervention by unpredictable and incomprehensible gods – who else but a Greek could yell at you and threaten you with a knife, and a moment later inform you with a disarming smile that Anger had stolen his heart for a moment there, but it was all right now, she’d gone?’ (p.6)

Stand-in translator

Tom Holt’s is an effective device, but it also isn’t a very accurate portrayal of what an eighth-century BC Phoenician would really have been like. The method here works well if your plot enables you to have a character from our culture, or someone to stand in for that, to translate the alien culture for us. This raises the question of how you manage if you need to deal with more than one alien.

One of the best examples I know of how to do this is in Alfred Duggan, The Lady For Ransom, (1953). Duggan is an unfashionable novelist now, and his portrayals, or avoidance of having to portray, female characters leave much to be desired, but he’s one of the best historical novelists I know at getting a genuine feel for the characters and culture of a different place and period.

The Lady For Ransom purports to be an account by a Frankish soldier turned monk, Roger fitz Odo, of his experiences fighting in Turkey in the mid-eleventh century, written in 1096 so that the knights about to go off on the First Crusade know what to expect when they get to Constantinople. ‘They ride through Roumania as allies,’ Roger says, ‘and it would be a pity if they offended their hosts through ignorance’ (p.7).

This framing enables Duggan to have Roger do a lot of explaining about Byzantine attitudes, history and customs, but Duggan manages to do this in a way that gets over how different Roger’s culture also is from our own. Here, for example, is Roger explaining Byzantine table manners:

‘Even the Romans were enjoying themselves, for they do not habitually feast like Franks and to them the party was a rare treat; though they made a complicated business of their eating, for each held a small pronged instrument in his left hand and used it to transfer small portions of meat to his mouth, never touching the food with his fingers. You can’t really enjoy a meal if you eat in this finicky fashion; for one thing you can’t get your mouth properly full; but undoubtedly it is a very courteous custom’ (p.29).

Here he is reflecting on the benefits and drawbacks of the professional army:

‘So Roman sergeants get into the habit of obeying orders… But though they never do less than their duty, they never do anything more. A hostile champion may ride down the line shouting insults, and no Roman will offer to take him on; if the officers are killed the men retire, in good order, towards the nearest wine-casks;… The regulations of the Emperor have made fighting a task, instead of the thrilling pastime it should be; as a task it is performed reluctantly, and a wise man stops when he has done his stint’ (p.34).

Observed and observing

The examples above might make it seem as if Duggan is simply reversing the technique Tom Holt uses and having the Byzantines, as modern stand-ins, the observed rather than the observing party. Duggan avoids this trap though by making sure we understand how different the Byzantines also are from modern societies, albeit in different ways from Roger’s Frankish culture. Here, for example, Roger is describing eunuchs in Constantinople:

‘The officers also described another class of these half-men; of very high birth and considerable fortune they dwell in fine houses in the great city, amusing themselves by writing poetry and painting pictures. It is their high birth which is the cause of their disability, for they are inconvenient and ambitious relatives of the Emperor, or dangerous heirs of a former Imperial house. When I said it seemed harsh to mutilate a man for no crime, just because he was the son of a too noble father, they answered that on the contrary it proved the Imperial government was extremely merciful; in other countries pretenders to the throne suffered death, not a minor amputation which fitted them very well for a career in letters or the arts’ (p.36).

This passage is always something of a shock to me, as you get a real sense of the alienness of both the Byzantines and the Franks. Having the one alien culture commenting on the other enables Duggan here to show us the realities of both. I don’t find I warm to either, but at no point in The Lady For Ransom do I feel I’m reading about characters from 1953. They’re convincingly closer to 1053 and for that alone, it’s worth studying if you want to improve your writing of aliens.

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