Convincing Fictional Species

Map of Gethen

In a post on characterization Connie Jasperson said: ‘If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story.’

Along that line I was very impressed by Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, which features a unique alien species with great characterization.

Writing convincing fictional beings can be hard to pull off. That book is a great example I’d recommend reading – but for now, I have a few thoughts on what Le Guin did well.

Not humans in costume

A species with unique biology or abilities ought to have that play into their psychology and society a little – otherwise they’re just humans in costume. Think about the possible consequences of their traits.

Le Guin’s Gethenians are neither-gendered except for brief periods of ‘kemmer’, completely changing their perspective on gender and introducing Taoist ideas on (non)duality. Some of them see the human protagonist as a pervert in permanent kemmer, like the lesser animals.

Suppose a species has venomous claws: are their children warned not to poison humans, because it’s literally deadly to them (NO TIMMY, EVEN IF THEY’RE SUPER ANNOYING!)? Does the venom have any other uses, legitimate or otherwise?

If a species has a different approach to parenting, how is their society structured following on from that? If they lay countless eggs, a few hatch, and the fledglings are raised in common by society rather than within families, that should produce some major differences to daily life and how they view things.

Avoids homogeneity

When making a species unlike humanity it’s easy to make all Vulcans copies of Spock, all elves Legolas, and so on. Unless the species has a hive-mind, they shouldn’t all have identical beliefs, personalities, and responses to situations. Just because they have features in common which distinguish them from humans doesn’t mean that those are their only features.

Le Guin gives the Gethenians their own personalities, and the two nations shown in the book have distinct cultures. Fictional beings won’t be convincing if they’re only different from humans. They also have to be individuals different from each other – with all the usual points about strong characterization – to really hold attention.

Relates to the environment

Gethen is a winter world without flying animals, so it makes some sense that the inhabitants have their codes of hospitality (since, what if you’re the one out in a blizzard?) and struggle with the concept of flying vehicles. Given the difficulty of travel, they’re more patient with long journeys than the human ambassador.

Consider some physical and cultural traits that could relate logically to where they live. What industries, housing, clothing, combat styles, etc, make sense for them and there? Consider the resources, the climate, the landscape, and how the species will handle that area – and if they go somewhere else, how they may react to the different environment.

4 thoughts on “Convincing Fictional Species

  1. Hello! I like the way you delve into this subject. It is easy to make each culture and species either sound and look the same, or make them cartoonish. This is because we are writing it all down as it emerges out of our brain soup. We don’t notice the problem in our own work because it looks the way we want it to. This is where my writer’s support group really helps me.

    Le Guin’s book, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” is what I think of as a “foundation” book for anyone writing speculative fiction; anyone who is serious about learning the craft.

    I would love to see a story where humans interact with a species that can inadvertently poison them!

    Liked by 1 person

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