If you’ve read much of my two long-fiction stories or several of my short stories, you’d see that one of my greatest skills and interests is in non-human characters and narrators. This guide will help you think about new creatures and come up with a creative monster, friend, or decoration in your next work.
Sci-Fi Creatures: Inspired by Evolution
Even if you don’t go into depth about the evolution of your organism, it can be helpful to go through these steps to determine both physical traits as well as psychological. We’ll focus on intelligent creatures first.
Step 1: Build an Ecosystem
Luckily, this isn’t the same as building a planet! Think about the planet Earth – only a few biomes match that of the desirable human living condition. All the others that we have dominated came about because we used technology to force them into obedience. The only thing you need to do is determine what sort of environment your creature first appeared in.
Is it a sandy desert? If so, you may want to have your creature have eyes built for sandstorms, with long lashes and transparent second lids. You may want it to have methods to recycle water within its own system.
Is it a swamp? Your creature likely needs to be capable of remaining underwater for some time, perhaps living primarily in the muck. It needs to be fair at swimming if it is to remain competitive for food.
Whatever your biome, you can study existing creatures in an analogous one on Earth. If you have a weather pattern not present on Earth (i.e. constant hurricane), you can come up with adaptations to fit. Figure out what every creature in that region needs to have for survival.
Step 2: Determine Placement on the Food Chain
Once you know where your creature will live, it’s helpful to determine what further adaptations it will need for survival.
On Earth, it is uncommon for purely prey animals to be very intelligent. However, we can think of the horse as a prey animal that has shown quite an array of cognitive skill – it’s not impossible to imagine a prey animal that has evolved intelligence. How would that change the animal from a human’s life experience? How would intelligent prey act, even long after they’ve stopped the predators from eating them?
Step 3: Create a Physical Appearance
Now that you know enough about what your creature needs to survive, you can outfit them with adaptations suited to that end. If they’re a predator, you might want to give them claws or teeth. You might, similarly to humans, want to give them the ability to throw weapons at range.
The picture below is of a gecko, which uses amazing surface area to volume ratios and Van der Waals interactions to have ‘sticky’ fingers. This nigh-alien ability and natural adaptation could inspire you to create something equally wild.
One of the most important things you’ll have to do is decide what kind of covering they’ll have. On Earth, it’s common to choose between skin, hair/fur, scales, coral, chitin, or cellulosic outer shells. Humans easily develop ideas based off outer covering. I’ve found it hard to come up with completely alien coverings, but I have thought of a few.
Step 4: Come Up with a Psychology
If intelligent, the creature will have some psychological nuances to make them inhuman. Like I said earlier, determining rank on the food chain will cause a big difference, but so will their group mentality, their willingness to live in proximity, and other social qualities.
Though I hate the James Cameron movie Avatar, one of the things his blue cats do is use the psychic link to speak with each other and the nature around them. This means their connection to the planet Pandora is tighter than we can imagine as humans, and their impassioned defense is fueled by a psychological depth we can’t easily understand. While them movie didn’t take full advantage of this, it is an accessible example.
Otherwise, read Ancillary Justice and the Imperial Radch trilogy. The psychology of the AI’s and the Presger will show you the way of things.
Step 5: Write It
When I start writing about the aliens and magical creatures I imagine, that’s when all of the above comes together. It’s when I realize I’ve left holes that need to be filled, when I can make the thing truly come to life.
If you’ve invented an alien or otherworldly creature, let me know in the comments! I’d love to read about or see images of what you’ve invented.