I love listening to writing excuses because I get to hear three smart and funny authors discuss interesting topics that get me thinking. This week’s writing excuse was on building non-humans in SF&F.
Here’s my take.
An alien race, if done right, can be a huge draw to a story. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Kandra point of view in HERO OF AGES is one of the most enjoyable parts of that book.
However, I want to suggest that aliens (in fantasy or sf) create that draw only IF they’re kept sufficiently strange or mysterious. The minute they become common or too human, they lose their power to enchant.
That’s one thing I like about how Tolkien did the elves and orcs–we never got the National Geographic on them. They never became common. And so I always wanted to know more. Easterlings, ents, balrogs, the orders of wizards, dragons, etc. were the same. There were tons of tales Tolkien hinted at, curioisties raised, but those desires were never sated. This is part of what drove me to other fantasy books.
It’s the same thing that made me love mammoths and dinosaurs, bats and giant squid, and far-off places. However, once these things became common and explained, their magic departed. The curiosity generated by the wonder of things new is one of the key things science fiction and fantasy offer its readers. But I think authors can only keep it alive if they approach it in the same way a fan dancer approaches her work.
This leads me to another point. It’s true that focusing our world building on the conflicts and story touch points can keep us on track. And we do need to produce. However, I think if we strictly limit our alien development to the central story conflicts, we might miss many opportunities for that wonder. Some of what we develop might end up complicating the plot while other parts might only enrich the experience. And I don’t think that’s bad.
For example, one of the most poignant parts of the LOTR, of which there were many, was the tale of the ents and the entwives and Treebeard’s poem. Tolkien could have eliminated that and the story never would have been affected. But, O, how much richer the story was for that little side trail that still beckons. Or you might think of the ring Bilbo found. When Tolkien first wrote THE HOBBIT, it wasn’t THE ring of power. It was merely a ring that Gollum used. Only later, when he began to work on LOTR and was trying to figure out the main problem of the story did he work that detail into it becoming THE ring of power.