Saturday, 14 July 2012

How to write alien characters (3)

I’ve done a couple of blogs on this already, but the other day some of my readers commented that the new species I’d invented, called the Shrell, were pretty convincing. That of course got me thinking – what was working this time?

Like a normal character in fiction, one of the best ways to introduce a new alien species is to have others talking about them first, before they actually ‘appear’ in the novel. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5 of Eden’s Revenge, the third book in the Eden Paradox series:

“The Shrell are already en route, they will poison space around Esperia. You must stop them.” The avatar’s eyes flared. “You must hold Esperia till the very end, whatever the cost. Qorall will come to you.”
            Kilaney stared at the space where the avatar had been a second ago. While he chewed it over, he set the navigation controls, and then powered up the engines for the first jump. A low bass rumble vibrated the soles of his feet.
            He looked at his Ngank companion. “Tell me, who are the Shrell?”
            The squid did the head pirouette thing again. “Space-dwellers, born in outer edge of gas giants.” Its tentacles coiled, pulled at each other. “This bad news. Shrell are space-fixers. Patch space after too many high energy transits bruise subspace. Care about their habitat.”
            For some reason Kilaney imagined dolphins, swimming through space. But he’d seen how wars could twist allegiances, particularly on sides that tried to stay ‘neutral’. When a war went global, or in this case galactic, there was no neutral party, everyone took sides sooner or later, out of choice or coercion.
            The engines reached mid-pitch. “What did he mean, ‘poison space’?” 
            “Fracture subspace harmonics. Stops transits, creates eddies and vortices.”
Kilaney pictured ships heading full speed then slamming into a lattice of supercharged exotic particles, like a giant cheese-grater, shredding vessels and occupants, leaving their fragments to drift forever in quickspace. Qorall would send in the worms later to mop everything up. Bad news indeed.

The Shrell are mentioned once in one line in chapter 8, but they don’t appear until Chapter 12. This time there is no introduction, you simply get to know them. Here’s how Chapter 12 starts:

The Shrell leader Genaspa, at the front of six phalanxes of her most trusted warriors, stared ahead with all six eyes through the eddies of Transpace to the Quintara sector, where the spider world lay. She already knew all the details, but wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to train her protégé, Nasjana.
            She thought-directed “Tell. What you see. What you propose.”
            Nasjana shifted up a gear, flapping her long wings faster, and moved forward from her phalanx of fifty, her Second taking her place. She drew alongside and slightly behind Genaspa. “I see the one-mooned Katha-class planet whose natives call Ourshiwann and the new ones call Esperia. I see two other planets, one further in to its Giver and so too hot to sustain life, the other further out and too cold, a thin asteroid belt from a former planet, and the ice-scratch of a past comet with a return cycle of two thousand years. I propose standard treatment: three opposing pairs at right angles to the Giver, twenty light minutes apart before we commence the cross-run.”
            Genaspa sent a sinusoidal frisson down her right wing, a sign of approval.
So, they have wings and six eyes, and they manoeuvre through space. Otherwise they are not described – how big they are, their exact shape, colour; I leave all these things to the reader’s imagination. I use ‘dialogue tags’ but let the reader know that maybe they don’t actually ‘speak’ as we do (Genaspa ‘thought-directed’ to Nasjana). The way they speak is different, but this is clearly a hierarchical society or a military or religious order, and the way they talk about the ‘Giver’ is an honorific, they are environmentalists, as was stated in the earlier passage. Then I go deeper, into their value structure:

Nasjana did not return to her team.
            “You have a question?”
            Nasjana dropped slightly behind. “I have a doubt.”
            Genaspa’s wings took on a more rigid motion. She’d been expecting this from at least one of her team leaders, though not Nasjana, her Second. Or maybe, she reflected, that was why she had chosen her as Second.
“Where you lead I follow. What you tell, I do, as do we all. But this… We only poison space when absolutely necessary, to avoid rift expansion.”
Nasjana’s thought stream had come out fast, urgent, and Genaspa realised Nasjana was worried. But they were short on time. They must be ready, in formation, in every sense of that word.
“Tell true, Second.” She had to wait a full flap-beat for the response.
“Why do we follow the orders of Qorall? He has brought … the Xenshra inside the galaxy, those despicable worms. I fear we will never get them out. And Qorall has caused more space damage than in recorded Grid history.”
It was a good question, but not the whole reason Nasjana must be daring to doubt her First’s judgement.
“Tell deeper. All.”
Nasjana wings trembled, slowing her slightly until with an effort she caught up. “My husbands. I fear many will perish today.”
Genaspa forced herself to concentrate on the flight, to keep it steady. A First must always be sure, never waver. Tell true, she had instructed, and yet she had not told her team leaders the whole. None of the husbands would survive the day. She and three hundred Shrell would enter the system, she and fifty would return, all female. This was a high price. But only Genaspa knew that Qorall held fifty thousand Shrell – a tenth of their entire population – hostage in a far away quadrant, lured there to try and shore up the damage done when he and his worms breached the galactic barrier eighteen years earlier...

So, the reader now gets that this is a matriarchal society, where the females run things, but care deeply for their husbands, and the stakes are clearly laid out – these aliens are not just there to mix things up in the plot, they are players, their stake is important to them, and the reader maybe begins to care about them too. To make sure, a bit further in the section, I go further into Genaspa’s character, making it personal:

“Second, You will signal to the other leaders, and instruct your own husbands, that what we do today is of the utmost importance for the survival of the galaxy.”
Nasjana blinked all six eyes at once, for a full flapbeat. “Such a message should come from the First, not me.”
No, Genaspa thought, not this time. I may not survive this run. They must begin to hear from you as a Leader.
Nasjana hesitated, then fell back.
As the thought streams rippled through the ranks, Genaspa felt their swarm’s wing pulse harmonic grow stronger. But she herself did waver. She thought of her own husbands, lost during a similar run two thousand years earlier. It was why she was First, because she had paid the price, knew that the husbands’ life force would be bled away from them as they ripped spacetime; that was the energy exchange needed to inflict such damage. She had cherished each of her six males, and had not taken a husband since.
Abruptly she made the decision. She slowed down, decelerating at a breathtaking pace, as if rearing up against a sudden wall. With no small pride she observed and felt all six phalanxes stay in formation, even the husbands. The entire swarm stopped and hung, panting. The eddies of Transpace scattered around them like columns of orange steam blown away into wispy nothingness.
She addressed them all. “We will pay a heavy price today.” Her thought-stream flickered for a moment, then regained its true. “You are the best. That is why you were chosen, why you are here. But many of us will not return today.” She let here eyes swivel to take in every individual Shrell, even the males, who bowed and blinked all eyes in return. “And so I wish you to say your goodbyes properly, as you see fit. You have one hour.” She turned her back on them, quietened her form-sensors so they could have their privacy.
A single ship threaded above her, the Mannekhi one she had overtaken earlier. She watched its trail, its ripples flourish then diminish, eddies whirling in its wake then dissipating. Go ahead, she thought, do whatever it is you have to do, you have little time. She spied another ship on the other side of the Quintara sector, a Q’Roth Marauder, also heading in at unbecoming speed towards Esperia. She reflected that so many beings rushed around in their short life-spans, generally making things worse. Shrell were different, they were gardeners, conserving natural space.
Genaspa heard the cries of ecstasy behind her. Good, she thought, in a year there will be new Shrell to replace those we lose today. Her eyes fixed hard on the distant planet, the object of so much sudden attention, while a dozen planets fell every week during this war. She hoped that whatever lay on Esperia was worth the sacrifice.

I give Genaspa compassion, and make her a sympathetic character through her former loss, and she deserves respect because she is willing to make hard decisions. But I try to keep the Shrell’s emotions and values different enough that they are still alien, not ‘anthopomorphized’ characters (humans wearing some extra deep ridges on their foreheads), and underline this when she watches with disdain as other ships tearing through space on their business, whatever that may be.

The Shrell next appear in Chapter 17, making their ‘run’, and the reader will be conflicted because what the Shrell do will damage mankind’s chances of survival, but at the same time the reader will hopefully also be sympathetic to the plight of these winged, six-eyed aliens…

In summary, here are 7 off the cuff ‘rules’ I have used with the Shrell:

  1. Introduce them first through other characters discussing them – that’s how we often get to hear about interesting people
  2. Don’t over-describe, let the reader’s imagination have a light work-out
  3. Make their dialogue different in its lexicon and rhythms
  4. Show how their society works (e.g. hierarchy, dominant sex, etc.)
  5. Show their value structure through cultural references (‘Giver’; ‘its true’ etc.)
  6. Make the reader care about the aliens, rather than them just being there as a prop (this can include making the reader hate the aliens)
  7. Remind the reader that these beings are not human, they really are alien
To be fair, I do have an image in my mind of what the Shrell look like. I'm a scuba diver, and I love rays, for example Eagle rays, who I've seen swim in formation quite recently (January in Mauritius). They are incredibly graceful, as are Mantas. From a Scifi purist point of view, some might complain that no animals could live in space, but I think we have to wait and see - we are only just learning about dark matter and Higgs-Boson, there is so much we don't know, and that is where Scifi comes in, to explore possibilities.

The Eden Paradox is available in ebook and paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, and Ampichellis

Eden’s Trial is available in ebook from Amazon and in paperback September 2012

Eden’s Revenge is coming out Xmas 2012 in ebook, paperback April 2013.

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