How to Write Biology in Science Fiction, Part 3: Making Aliens and Fantastic Beasts

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

daylight environment forest green

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.

nature hand animal glass

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.

photo of head bust print artwork

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.

pen writing gold ink

10 thoughts on “How to Write Biology in Science Fiction, Part 3: Making Aliens and Fantastic Beasts

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Haha, yay! I do think my forte is science, but that’s probably because I’ve spent so much of my life on it. My theory is if I’m going to write something, I need to write something that would require *me* to be its writer. Like I wouldn’t write something set in Northern Nevada – oh shit, wait, my most recent novel is set in northern Nevada… hoooooly crap what have you done?!

  1. Alexander Elliott says:

    Perhaps I have been too lazy! My “aliens” are all based on earth creatures or combinations of them. I know as a reader, I find it difficult to enjoy a story where the alien entity is radically different than humans and I spend too much time trying to figure them out.

    One exception would be the Oankali in Octavia Butler’s “Dawn”, the first book in her Xenogenesis trilogy. Wonderful series!!

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I thought the Vingah were pretty good. I think where you really excelled was in how you designed their architecture. Just exploring their world and what they had done was my favorite part of Expedition. Because I bought it as an ebook, I didn’t see the picture on the front and take it in until after I was finished, and I imagined the Vingah as more alien than I think you’d intended. At the same time, drawing in the familiarity from an earth species can make a book so much easier to read when you have more you want to explore.

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