Designing Alien Cultures Part 3

Welcome to the third and final installment on designing alien cultures featuring my own take on the process.

First my thanks go to Jaleta Clegg and Barry Kirwan for writing the first two posts in this series.  I'm intrigued by both their approaches, and also happy to find that my own is something of a mix of both.
If you missed part 1 and part 2 I highly recommend you give them a read.

When I design aliens for my stories I tend to take an "everything at once" approach.  I start with the biology (I'm a biologist by training) and build the culture up around it.  There are a few key questions I like to ask myself as I go along:

1. What is their home world like?
-Cultural features are a result of environment in many cases.  Deserts tend to lend themselves to nomadic or oasis based cultures that are likely to have attitudes about resources different from those cultures of other areas.  Jungles can support a sedentary population much easier than a desert can.  -Most planets in the "habitable zone" of a star will not have a planet-wide environment, but I try to think about what the dominant culture on a planet will be and then spice it up with some features arising from different parts of the planet.

2. Does the species have any unique biological features that would influence their culture?
-A species that flies is not going to build homes on the ground.  Even an advanced species with wings should tend to put their cities, dwellings, etc. up on cliffs or build them on high stilts, etc. where their biology says they'd be comfortable.
-A species like the Savorchans from my book, Blood Siren, sense their environment using sonar instead of light.  In designing their culture I had to keep out any influences that might have been visually based. E.g. they do not dress up in flashy clothing.  They also can change their shapes to a degree, so restrictive clothing was out as well.

3. How does the species' history, religion, etc. influence the culture of the present?
-Even if a species no longer follows the culture of its past, that culture going to have an influence on the present.  Just think of how many buildings in the West are based on ancient Greek and Roman designs.  I draw up a brief history for every species I make using broad strokes.  E.g. Species B has a history of violent, religious conflict, so the dominant culture will be aggressive and have zealous tendencies.
-In Blood Siren, the Relaen species destroyed their home world through over development.   The survivors now live in space, refusing to settle another world and repeat the cycle.  Their culture is based on regret for their past, and determination not to repeat it.
-We say "God bless you" in the West because of the ancient belief that a sneeze is one's soul trying to escape the body.  It isn't said in the East at all.  When I lived in Japan I had to get used to the quiet when I sneezed.  When designing alien cultures, it can really bring a species to life to throw in a feature that seems to make no sense, but is actually based in some feature of the past.

After I've got a solid sketch of how a species' culture looks I then make a few decisions on how it influences their decision making process and write them down as a guide for when my point of view characters encounter these aliens.  Like Barry Kirwan wrote in his post, the less you actually show your audience, the more alien a species is going to appear.  This step is critical in setting how the aliens will "feel" in the story.  The more like us they are, the more easily the reader will associate with them.

Going hand-in-hand with this is the decision about how strange a world I want my characters living in.  A story that shows a lot of alien "screen time" is going to be less familiar than one where humans are the focus.  Though it should be noted that the more time "on screen" you give your aliens, the more familiar they will become.  Think about how the Klingons of Star Trek were viewed before they were a regular feature.

In designing the Blood Siren series, I decided I wanted to make book one more familiar and "homey" for the reader before introducing the rest of the galaxy.  I want my readers to get nice and comfortable before they venture forth into the rest of my universe.  I decided to go with a human-centered story, and evolve it slowly over time to have a broader focus.  Book 2 introduces more alien cultures than book one did, and book three will have a broader scope than its predecessor as well.

I hope you, the reader enjoy it.

Also, please don't forget to check out Jaleta Clegg's Fall of the Altarian Empire series, Barry Kirwan's Eden series, and my own Blood Siren series!

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  1. Great post, Mike. And a very interesting topic. I'd love to hear other author's methods for creating alien species/cultures.


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