Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Alien Culture

Planning an alien culture requires thought about the components of various earth cultures. Actually, it requires the author to choose an earth culture that will be close to what he or she envisions the alien culture will be.

As much as we would like to believe we have original thoughts, it would truly be difficult to conceive a totally alien culture. And if it was that different from earth cultures, how would earthlings communicate? How would we find common ground? Even now, we find it nearly impossible to find common ground between earth cultures.

As strange as it may sound, I usually first decide what the physical environment will be like. Is it a desert? Or a rain forest? Or an island paradise with hidden serpents? That physical environment will ultimately determine what is valued by that culture. Water? Land? Sea life?

What do the inhabitants eat? How is it obtained? Are they hunters or farmers? Or an odd combination? Maybe they eat food manufactured by overseers. Maybe they're vegetarians.

What is the technology level? If they are a peaceful society, how is that peace maintained? What does their justice system look like? If they are a warrior society, what type of weaponry do they have?

What about the family composition? It is a patrilineal society or a matrilineal society? Are the family units nuclear or extended?

In historical novels--particularly romances--there is a hallmark authors strive to pass when they write. They strive to write a book that is more than a wallpaper setting. The same is true for novels set in an alien setting. It cannot just be a story with some alien names and a couple of alien costumes, yet set in a background with earth values and technology.

The author has to plan on full immersion in their alien culture. If they are going to have earth values, then they must account for that in some way. Who is to say that aliens would practice monogamy or even have such a concept? Would they be limited to one spouse? Or would they even have a concept of commitment? Perhaps they would have a culture that more closely resembled that of a house cat.

What do their shelters look like? Or do they even need shelters? Perhaps they have no concept of privacy.

Do they make music? Do they create art? Do they have a written language? Do they have such abstract concepts as time and afterlife? Simple everyday phrases such as "just a minute" and "time is of the essence" might not work in dialogue in that case. If their concepts do include time, how do they mark time?

The process I've just illustrated is usually called world building. The best novels set on other worlds have extensive world building. The story (boy meet girl--or whatever it might be) could take place in almost any setting. What will make it different is how detailed the setting is and how the characters confront and deal with that setting.

That's my take on world building. What do you think? How would your planning be different?



  1. The effort you put in exhausts me

  2. Uh-oh, I forsee more of something along the lines of the Great Acorn Experiment!!

    Actually, you reminded me of the planning I went through for one of my books. I had a Peace Corps officer stationed in Kenya, but made up my own tribal customs, rules, hiarchy, etc. Long since abandoned this one...BUT...it might fit, should I ever decide to create another world, instead of basing it in Africa.

    Thank you; gave me something to think about. Now if I could just find my notes from twenty years ago...

  3. I play RPGs as well as being an avid reader, so I have another viewpoint on the importance of good worldbuilding. Using an earth culture can give you unexpected benefits, especially if it is one that is not widely known. For inspiration, take a look at anthropological studies of various human cultures. You'll find all kind of 'oddities.'

    For example, my supplement in progress (game material that adds to the game world but is not vital to playing the game) is based on pre-Genghis Khan Mongolian culture, with some tweaks.

    I chose that particular culture because the area is one of steppes; much like the region of the Mongols. Therefore, the people are more likely to have a nomadic herding culture instead of agrarian one, due to the climate & terrain.

    There are some elements that will not make the final cut, as being too complicated (patriarchal with matrilineal descent/inheritance structure -why do I do these things to myself?) for reasonable game play.

    The same thing happens in world building for a story. The author may know that the most important holy temple for Whahoozis is in Whereabout, but if it is not an element in the story, the readers won't know.

    For one author that I know, he starts with "I want a culture like this" and then looks for the type of terrain, etc that would support that culture.

    I'm afraid that I've rambled a bit, as usual. Have I answered your question? I guess, I use a similar process.

  4. Yes, I think the environment can really influence how the culture develops! Thank you for your comments!