L-R: Skyler White, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Jessica Reisman, Robert Sawyer, and Martha Wells (moderator) on a panel on writing nonhuman characters.
Where do all these writers start building their alien races? Or, to answer Martha Wells question, "When you create nonhuman species and consider technical aspects, what do you start with?"
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Nonhuman characters come from a voice that I hear that is clearly nonhuman. I hear one sentence, and from there I move on to building a world around a voice. Especially because I'm a pantser."
Jessica Reisman. It comes from being an outsider.
Robert Sawyer. I'm a hard SF writer, so I start with billions of years of evolution, and think, how would such a creature have evolved? Niven once asked, how did someone like Pierson's Puppeteer (aliens that appear in Larry Niven's novels) would have evolved this body plan? Did it have a marine ancestor, and if it didn't, where did this body plan come from?
For writers who want to create their aliens on a solid evolutionary foundation, Robert Sawyer recommends Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish". This book explains how all the human anatomy evolved from our fish ancestors from billions of year ago.
Whether that's really necessary is debatable. Martha Wells, for example, says that the Puppeteers in Ringworld are so convincing that she never asked myself where they came from. If a character is internally consistent and feels realistic, she does not wonder how they could have evolved.
The most enlightening part of this and similar panels is an advice what not to do when writing aliens, as well as recommendations of books where aliens were well-written.
Cliches and mental shortcuts to avoid when writing aliens
Skyler White. If I never read another story where the conflict revolves around intergalactic religious warfare, [it won't be soon enough]. If a civilization has very advanced science, religious wars should have fallen by the wayside. I don't buy that they'll be still sticking to atavistic religions at that time.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. I avoid aliens that communicate exactly like humans. Story of Your Life (a novella by Ted Chiang on which the movie "Arrival" was based -- E.) is a perfect example of a story that avoids that. But then there's a question of how you write characters that are alien, but are understandable to humans.
Robert Sawyer. When you take one characteristic that we all have as a mix, and make it the only characteristic of an alien race. [There are plenty of examples in Star Trek.] E. g. a super-rational Vulcan. Or a pure aggressiveness and struggle for honor like Klingons. We all have a mixture of analyticalness and aggressiveness and struggle for honor. It is very boring when an alien has that one pure characteristtic and nothing else.
Martha Wells. What bothered me about the old school Star Trek was complete lack of any distinct culture. You'll have aliens who are in a nuclear family with heterosexual relationships. No different from us. And oddly, we still have readers these days that expect it.
Books with well-written aliens
Robert Sawyer. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Mote in God's Eye. All that Larry was bad at, like economics and politics and religion, Jerry was good at. He was well-rounded and brought those things to the table. The Moties in Mote in God's Eye were really creepy and very well done.
Skyler White. Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi. My 9-year-old son said, "Mom, I read Fuzzy Nation. I know what sorrow is." He didn't connect to the science of that book, but he connected emotionally with the characters.
Jessica Reisman. Watership Down was one of my favorite books and it inspired me to write my first short story. I also liked C. J. Cherryh Foreigner books very much. C. J. Cherryh Pride of Chanur has very interesting aliens, and a human in the alien civilization, that a ship crew finds, but he can't communicate with them.
And more recently the Raksura books [by Martha Wells].
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle. I love a good story about a non human character trapped in a human's body. That story was so sad and so beautiful. Also, Ursula LeGuin Left Hand of Darkness.
Mentions from the audience:
Janet Kagan Hellspark.
N. K. Jemisin story in Wired, The Evaluators: To Trade With Aliens, You Must Adapt