Being a Better Writer: “Alien” Aliens and the Conflict of Drive

Hello again readers from across the datanet! Well, some parts of it. Today I woke up to the frantic news announcements that Facebook and all its associated services, from Instagram to WhatsApp, are down. Completely and totally. Very likely not permanently, but as of writing this, it’s gone from the web. You can’t even access it.

You know I’m just going to say it: It’s a good break for people. I usually log on each morning to see if I have any notifications from my family, but I don’t miss not having it this morning. If it were gone for good, well that’d be a different story since I keep a bunch of photos on there and I do use it to keep up with family members since I can’t get any of them to use Discord.

But that’s all I’ll say on it. It’s down, so you’re probably not going to be linking here from there today unless things come back up. No ads on Facebook today! Which almost made me switch topics, I’ll admit, but I’ve wanted to talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic for some time now. And having Facebook and some of the primary social media sites be down for the other topic would be slightly less than ideal, despite making me thing about it. So that post will have to wait.

So then, what about today’s post? Most of you have read the title, so where is this coming from? Why this topic? Well, hit the jump, and let’s get talking.

So, as an author, I do spend some time hanging out on various book-related subreddits and other locations online. Some (like r/book) are almost pure cancer. Others though, can be pretty nice. One that I follow is a subreddit dedicated to discussing speculative fiction in print … which mostly, since they abbreviate the speculative fiction part, ends up being Sci-Fi (cause you know, speculative fiction becomes “sf”).

Anyway, a common discussion that comes up in some of these places is the debate (friendly, not vicious) over “Alien aliens” and what makes a good or bad alien. But there’s a trend I’ve noticed.

See, some readers (uh-oh, we’re talking about audience already) really like the alien in the alien. Aliens, they hold, must be as different from a person as possible. So no, we’re not talking Star Trek forehead ridges or antenna. Humanoid is a no-go, and bipedal is right out. As is, for many resembling a creature from Earth, unless it is justifiable by the evolution of said creature. So no space wolves.

But it isn’t just looks these readers are interested in. It’s the mindset as well. They want aliens that are alien. As in, foreign to the understanding of mankind. Whose logic, mind, and appearance are beyond human comprehension, or at least completely alien to it. In other words, they want aliens that don’t think, act, prioritize, speak, or understand the way we do. Utterly alien.

The thing is, this is entirely doable. Books have done it. Games have done it. Even comics have done it.

However, there is a massive BUT coming. Because while it is possible to sit down and chart out truly alien aliens, with looks, thoughts, desires, and aims completely perpendicular to what we as sapients think of as looks, thoughts, desires, and aims … This comes at a cost. Sometimes a steep one.

See, the whole point of creating really alien aliens is to make them, well, alien. Something that we can’t understand. With that sentence right there, some of you may have already spotted the problem: if we can’t understand them, then how does the book or story have any structure to it?

Now we move to the other half of the issue that comes up in these discussions. See, a creator can sit down and create completely alien aliens that are a complete mystery to the audience and the cast of their story. But therein lies the problem, and the difficulty: How do you get an audience to understand something so alien?

For example, in one of these discussions, I saw some folks asking for books with “good alien aliens where the aliens stay alien.” IE, mankind or the cast of the book never quite figure them out. And a bunch were recommended!

Cue about a week or two later, when someone posted about one of said books and how frustrated they were with it because nothing made sense regarding the aliens by the end. The aliens came, they did a bunch of stuff to Earth with no apparent purpose, and then they left. Because, you know, alien aliens.

The only problem was, it was so alien that nobody, even by the end of the book, understood anything. The events were effectively “random acts of wanton violence/destruction,” though they probably weren’t that to the aliens—though maybe they were because again, alien. The book was just about people dealing with the mayhem caused by a completely alien force that left as soon as it had come, for no reasons understood in any way.

Understandably, the reader was a bit miffed by this. Comparatively, it’d be like picking up a fantasy book where the classic “farm-kid protagonist” has their life upended and sets out on an adventure … only to be repeatedly yanked around with no resolution or understanding at the end. What happened to the “big bad?” Were they bad? Why did they ruin this character’s life or do X thing? We’ll never know! The book just ends with the antagonist “force” leaving, as nebulous as it was when it came, for reasons not understood.

Honestly, I see the complaint there. Granted, there are ways you could make that story have interesting elements. You focus on the protagonist, how they react and change, etc. But It’s not a stretch to say that even if that was done impressively well, the story itself could still feel hollow without any understanding of the cause behind it.

See, this comes down to all stories needing a direction. Our protagonist (whatever that happens to be) needs to have something to move toward. If you think of the classic “three act structure” image (actually, I’ll just embed one) with the classic rise and fall, a story can only rise if our protagonists are pushing against something. It’s like walking up a hill: In order for us to be able to climb, we have to in some way conquer gravity. There’s a pressure there, pushing us back. That’s what makes the “rise” exciting! It took work, and effort, and there were stakes.

However, imagine that your character is facing something completely alien, where the logic and sense of objective are never understood or purposefully obscured. The character might “push” in a direction, but without warning that force might vanish and come from another direction. Or be gone for good.

In essence, it would leave our protagonist floating in an endless void, occasionally seeing pressure to push against from various directions, but never clear on if pushing against it was the right direction to move or even worth doing.

Which, if we think about it for a moment, doesn’t sound like a great setup for a story. Something small and experimental perhaps. But not a larger, overarching story. The lack of direction would mean a lack of coherent rise-and-fall, and therefore a lack of any real tension.

Now, this isn’t to say, in a quick aside, that one still couldn’t make this story work. For example, if one changed the locus of the story so that the characters did have something to push against—themselves, for example—while the alien force simply does stuff in the background that sets the scene, well, that could still deliver alien aliens while giving the characters and cast something to work toward.

Of course, this comes with drawbacks as well, because now your story really isn’t about the aliens. They exist, yes, but they’re not the focus. They’re secondary. If carefully handled you still can give them an impact, but then that might make them less alien.

Which a lot of books aiming for this kind of story actually do. For example in the story Contact (the book, not the movie) the aims, goals, and objectives of whatever is behind “the signal” is completely unknown until the end of the story. The challenges are the characters and the setting being impacted by this alien signal. Until the end, of course, when the aliens use human form to explain things. Which suddenly makes them less alien.

Okay, so what has this entire post been getting at? What’s the point of everything we discussed in the paragraphs above? It’s quite simple, actually: For aliens to be utterly alien and stay that way, a story still needs to have something understandable for the characters to press against. That can be something as simple as trying to understand the aliens (though a lot of people won’t like it if in the end the answer is “We can’t, ha ha, isn’t that funny, this book has no other conclusion”) or something like aliens conquering the planet, or just the trials and conflicts of the characters themselves with the aliens as a background instigator but less of a “character” and more a force in their own right.

However, the more we understand about the aliens, even ones with very perpendicular aims and ideals, the less alien they become. And, I kid you not, I’ve seen people complain about this, that the aliens in the book they read stopped being alien because the characters figured out their aims and objectives.

Which makes writing about the alien alien a truly daunting task of a balancing act. Because if we wish them to be truly alien, and remain that way, there’s little for our characters to interact with in any meaningful fashion. Again, this is why so many stories that do aim at keeping the aliens alien make the crux of their story the attempt at understanding the aliens—usually a failure—combined with the interpersonal relationships of the characters as they go about their business under the alien force’s impact. That’s what there is to interact with, because in order to interact with something in a meaningful way, we have to have an understanding of it, which means … if it was alien, now it’s no longer as alien.

And no joke, I’ve actually seen people who hunt for “alien aliens” prove unhappy with the ending of books where an understanding of some kind was reached. Spin, for example (which I’ll admit was not one of my favorite books) is entirely about people reacting to an alien force rather than interacting with it because they don’t understand a thing about it. When the end of the story arrives, however, a little understanding is reached and the aim behind things is revealed, with things becoming a little less alien. To which some readers said “What!? This ruins the book for me!”

But there’s a second part to this we haven’t discussed yet. See, so far we’ve been talking about approaching aliens from one side, which is keeping them fully alien, as one particular audience requests. That’s only one side of things, however, and here’s where things get even trickier. To illustrate this, I want to talk about a much-reviled (at least among many circles) movie: Battle LA.

Battle LA is, at first glance (and for most part, if I’m honest) the quintessential alien invasion popcorn movie. Aliens arrive in our solar system, slam down into the oceans via drop pods, and begin executing an invasion and extermination of mankind via amphibious invasions across every major coastline in the world. The movie follows a group of US marines deployed in the opening stages of the attack in LA who find themselves cut off behind the rapidly expanding line of alien-controlled territory and have to find a way back to link up with the rest of the US military while being almost completely in the dark about what’s going on.

I bring this film up because it highlights an interesting contradiction with regards to aliens in entertainment mediums. See, the aliens in Battle LA are both understood in some ways, but not in others. For example, the only aliens we see are their military forces … which are laid out in a manner that actually makes sense. Unlike traditional Sci-Fi alien armies which tend to be faceless identical mooks, the movie makes it clear that the aliens have rank, structure, and objective in a manner similar to a real military. At the same time, however, their ultimate goals, as well as the logic behind them, remain a mystery. The conclusion is made that it has something to do with the ocean water (as ocean levels drop a foot within hours of their arrival) but why the aliens want it, what it’s for, and why they would fight for it isn’t made clear (though a news story in the background of an early shot does establish that odd things are happening to Europa and comets across the solar system, hinting that the aliens didn’t skip those either).

We never learn why either. Their aims, past “kill everyone near a beach and steal the water” are never learned. Oddly enough, people complained both about that and the aliens having a “structure” to their forces.

That’s right. People complained that they never got an explanation for the water thing, that the alien’s motives remained alien, while at the same time complaining that the aliens military actions were not alien enough. These were even often the same people.

I share this to highlight the strange paradox that writing about aliens entails across all of fiction. For aliens to remain truly alien, then we must not understand them. But once an alien isn’t understood, we run into the problem above of having no drive for our characters to work toward with regards to the aliens.

Battle LA is not the only story that runs into problems with this paradox. Readers will complain that nothing the aliens did in one story made sense to human logic, but then complain in another story where the aliens did have a logic understood by the cast that it made the aliens “too human.” Thankfully, these readers aren’t the majority, but the fact remains that they’re almost aware of the paradox, but only enough to dislike it in any situation it appears in.

Which, unfortunately, leaves us as creators in a between a bit of a rock and a hard place. If we make our aliens alien and keep them that way, we can’t focus on the aliens because the drive behind them can’t be understood. Conversely, if we start to peel back the layers of what makes an alien tick, we make them less alien, and therefore not as appealing to those who want their aliens to be alien.

I realize that this might sound like a bit of a downer to some of you. Is there any recourse to be had? What can a writer do if there’s a paradox of having alien aliens?

Simple: Choose how alien you want to make them, and understand that not every audience wants the same thing. I like Battle LA for it’s different take on things. I love that it found similarities with some of its alien aspects, such as its military usage (which, if we’re honest, did develop in remarkable similarity across dozens of cultures in Earth’s history because making war tends to trial-and-error out all the less effective ways of doing things) while still keeping some of its alien elements completely unknown with no answer or recourse. Mass Effect has very “human” aliens in that they’re all understandable even if they think or work a little differently, and people love that setting.

However, make your choice knowing what your both gaining and losing. Know that some people will be upset that the aliens in your story are “alien” and don’t “think like a human” but think in a way that we can understand. But also know that if you change your story to make them less understandable, you may be removing any drive from interacting with said alien at all in your story, and that will make other people (and sometimes the same people) frustrated.

How will you approach the alien in your story? Will you make them utterly incomprehensible? Where then, will your drive be in relation to that alien? Or will you make them more understood by the characters, acknowledging that you’re losing some of that “utterly alien” factor in exchange for the ability to have drive and vision understood (or capable of being understood) in one or both parties?

None of these approaches are wrong, which is something that I believe a lot of readers incorrectly postulate. It’s simply that you cannot have one and have the other at the same time (at least, not with the same species/character). Once something is understood, it stops being truly alien. It can still be strange or odd to us, difficult to wrap our head around, but it is no longer alien.

Again, none of these approaches is wrong, no matter what one audience might say. But it is important to understand the distinctions between them, as well as what kind of story they may help or hinder, so that you can best decide where you will draw the line. Do you want alien aliens? Or do you want aliens, IE sapient beings that are different in culture, thought, society, etc, but that are still understandable for the most part, even if their logic seems strange (though of course, they’re likely thinking the same thing).

Now, one last aside before we wrap up. Some of you who have read through this post may be thinking something like “Well, this is all well and good, but I don’t write Sci-Fi, I write Fantasy/some-other-genre. So this doesn’t apply to me, does it?”

Oh no, it does! Hold on for just a brief moment. See, the final kicker with today’s topic is that the “alien alien” can show up in any speculative fiction genre. Are classic fantasy races like mermaids, centaurs, gnomes, or dragons alien? Well … yes. They’re just so often close to human analogues we don’t think of them that way, but there are stories that do make them a lot more alien … though still understandable.

So yes, if you write any form of speculative fiction, this topic is worth keeping in mind. Be your alien in a world of magic, modern computers, or spaceships, it’s still an alien force.

How alien, however, is up to you, as is how far you go toward embracing it.

So, be it Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or some other genre, there’s always going to be some element of “alien” to consider. But how far we go with it, and how understandable we make our “alien” can determine a lot about the drive of our story, as well as what kind of audience will find an interest in it.

And again, none of the various “approaches” are wrong, no matter what audiences say. Star Trek did rubber-forehead aliens for decades with no issue (and what seems to be causing trouble with the series now certainly isn’t related to that). Star Wars made slightly less-human aliens, but still had them engage with humans in a setting where everyone had roughly similar aims, like Mass Effect.

Finally, none of this is saying you can’t have a sapient space cloud as an alien in whatever setting you choose. Your aliens can be wildly creative and be wildly alien, or they can be wildly creative but still show up on poker night because despite their relative lack of much use for money, they enjoy the social aspect and the pretzels.

It’s up to you. Know the balance, and understand what you’re aiming to achieve.

So good luck. Now get writing!

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