TL;DR: suggest human traits of mind/society that one should (a) tweak (b) leave well alone, in order to generate an alien worldview that allows a novel length tale to be told purely from perspective of said aliens but at the same time permit human readers to identify with and care about the characters. This is a bio-chemistry free question.


I have a setting based on a super earth with 4-10 times earths surface area, some oceans and plant life and animals and stuff. The ecology will be sufficently different to earth's oxygen based environment that it'll seem nice and alien (my critters breathe hydrogen), but not like a Venus-hell-hole alien, the weather will be nice(-ish) and there will be a solid surface to walk on.

This should afford a suitably wide potential for an epic xenofiction world (I say potential because more than likely I'm way off having the skill to pull it off). By epic I mean large in scale in terms of time span, geography, numbers of characters and events.

Anyway, this setting has no humans, but lets assume it does have human readers; its important to hang onto the reader through to the end of at least one book and maybe more. This is not a short story format, where one often finds xenofiction.

What it can and will feature is the struggle to survive against alien nature, ones own worst alien instincts and against the unwanted attentions of other members of ones alien race. It may feature some physical intra-species conflict but war and violence ought not to be the main thrust of the narrative. It would feature stuff like love, childbirth/rearing/being a child, family, competition, economics etc etc to the extent that the species exhibits such characteristics.

I am willing to consider a range of readerships (e.g. Young Adult, Mainstream, Adult, Sci-Fi nuts, Fantasy nuts) but I would like to keep it as broad as possible and do not intend to employ any magic devices or powers in the setting. The setting's tech level will range from stone-age equivalent tech through to early Renaissance.

Question Restatement

  • What aspect of human psychology (and by extension human myth archtypes etc) would you suggest changing in order to fulfil my goals above? How might they be altered?

  • What aspect do you suggest I do not alter?

  • And most importantly because this is a world-building forum, what overall 'look and feel' do your suggested changes and non-changes generate that can be woven into a large scale alien setting?

Suggestions that generate the right kind of skew from human POV and which generate nice plot devices with the minimum alterations to the human mind are likely to be the most useful. If you have a particular readership in mind when making a suggestion please state who you are aiming at. By all means cite existing works but please outline the psychology changes that were involved and whether the story worked for you.

TL;DR: existing questions

This WB.SE questionis an excellent question and set of answers but it seems to me that the OP still had in mind to write from a human viewpoint at least for part of the book. My requirements are more restrictive.

  • $\begingroup$ Not a dupe but check out: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/11637/… $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, lots of good material in that one! The point about tweaking morality made in one of those answers is the kind of thing that is likely to lose readers unless done with the most consummate skill... $\endgroup$
    – rumguff
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @rumguff, I'm really enjoying watching the evolution of this world you're working on. Thank you for sharing. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ The key features of any species' psychology can be tied to the species physiology - it is hardly possible to separate them. Without a great deal more information about the proposed physiology, it is hardly possible to come up with a coherent psychology. The question @DanSmolinske referenced contained sufficiently detailed physiological and evolutionary history to derive a psychological profile; this question does not - it is verging on idea generation as a result, though I haven't downvoted or voted to close yet. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ @monty - all fair points but one hypothesis is that characteristics of sapience may have to converge, at least for social/individualistic species in terms of abstract thought and language/communication related to that, even where they have different physiology. I wish to adopt this principle in order that I can design this top down - I want to determine the psychological parameters of my plot first and then design physiology that fits with that. You suggest a bottom up approach, which is likely IMO to lead to many more false starts in terms of the overall work. $\endgroup$
    – rumguff
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 10:55

4 Answers 4


It may be too glib, but maybe make the aliens egg-layers, and base your "alien" expressions of emotion on birds. Some birds are remarkably intelligent and social, yet are about as far from human as we're able to empathize with. Others are almost completely asocial: well-adjusted autists?

Personally I think we underestimate birds. A small bird's brain must clock far faster than ours; flight with small flapping wings must require conscious control ten or more times faster than humans are capable of. Does a bird's four-year lifespan feel subjectively like forty or eighty to the bird? If so, a bird's day is nearly a week long, subjectively, and winter is a truly terrible thing. There's another idea: a different rate of consciousness.

There's a girl who decided to feed her neighbourhood crows. The crows are reciprocating, saying thank-you as best they can. That's very advanced thinking. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-31604026

  • $\begingroup$ Love the story about the crows! $\endgroup$
    – rumguff
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ Hail to the crows! $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ My bird (Pionus chalcopterus) will regurgitate food from his crop, to be polite. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 22:20

We have one criterion already which pretty much dictates a certain set of psychological traits: Stone Age to Renaissance technological development.

It might not seem much, but this criterion dictates quite a lot about a being's psychology. It is not really possible to move beyond the stone age without sociability. In order to develop renaissance-level technology, these beings must co-operate with one-another, which means some sort of communication, leading to social grooming (of whatever variety) in order to defuse conflicts which may lead to violence or avoidance. However, the definition of 'social grooming' can be quite broad. Humans mostly make small-talk, but can also have sex. Dogs sniff each-others' backsides. Cats sniff noses. Bonobos have sex. Chimpanzees and many monkeys literally groom each-other (hence the term 'social grooming'). Whatever form you choose for your protagonists' social grooming, it must exist, and your story will likely be better for you knowing what it is and how they do it.

Secondly, these beings must be able to comprehend and practise economic principles. Without this, they will either over-consume to the point where they starve themselves and suffer a major population crash, or will not have sufficient motivation to better themselves with improved technology at the other extreme, that of frugality. There are exceptions, of course. You may have a species that is unable to practise birth-control for whatever reason, and therefore undergoes periodic population crashes as resources are exhausted and fought over (consider the Moties from The Mote in God's Eye), yet are still able to develop technology. However, as it is stated that warfare is not the prime focus (of the story nor, we can presume, the society), this is unlikely - hence our presumption of knowledge and practise of economic principles, as well as a certain degree of birth-control, either natural-biological or artificial.

Another option is that the protagonist species is itself predated upon by a physically superior carnivore species, thus providing natural population control, but this option becomes less relevant as technology improves, unless the species is an r-strategist, and expects to lose a lot of offspring. All things considered (though coming from the bias of a K-selected species, namely humans), K-selected species are more likely to produce civilisations, yet the converse is not impossible.

However, a r-selected species would likely be less sympathetic to a human audience. Who would sympathise with characters who give birth to whole broods of offspring, then basically neglect them, not lifting a manipulatory appendage to prevent them from being eaten by a variety of eager predators, until they grew up enough to become worthy of inclusion in society? It may be possible to make said scenario sympathetic, but the life-story of K-selected species would inherently be more sympathetic to us.

The question mentions love. This may or may not be a necessity, and too much may be worse than none at all. It is possible to have a perfectly well-functioning technological society without love, where reproduction takes place on some schedule or in response to some environmental trigger, and the operative emotion during reproductive events is lust. In biological terms, love binds breeding members together in order to provide for offspring, and can be expected to occur primarily in K-strategists. However, why is too much love bad? In species where pair-bonding is for life, the bonds between partners are so strong that they instinctively reject other members of their own species, reducing the likelihood that sufficient co-operation could be mustered to establish a technological society. It isn't impossible, just unlikely.

Now, to warfare. It may not be the primary focus of the intended story, but it is all too likely to exist in a species with an appetite for resources and technology. Warfare typically takes place in response to competition for limited resources, though in humans at least, it can also take place in response to competing ideologies. It is possible to design a species that would not consider fighting for beliefs, but the strict limitations of economics dictates that some form of conflict or drama will occur in response to an insufficient supply of resources, whether that is some form of competition for those resources or a concession within the society that the resources are unattainable in the desired quantities, and the compromises that must be made to reduce the demand for them to sustainable and equitable levels. However, a species that has the drive to develop technology is quite likely a species that is willing to fight over resources if not also their beliefs.

It has been shown from human history that warfare has been a major impetus in the development of technology - in those areas where conflict is rare, technology tends to be simpler than where conflict is frequent. However, while warfare need not be the focus of a story, a good story should acknowledge that it exists and consider the impacts of warfare on the non-combatant protagonists.

Additionally, while it was not stated in the question, I should point out that warfare tends to be concentrated to areas with many natural boundaries between regions; social groups form where movement and communication is easiest, and conflict occurs across natural boundaries where the society on the other side is 'not like us' in some - or many - respects. Places with wide-open plains tend to be more peaceful than places with many natural barriers, leading to a technological disparity in favour of the societies who are more frequently in conflict with one-another.

Given these guidelines, if a question was to be asked with a more specific set of personality traits, I would have a better chance of designing a biology to fit it.


A dash of Blue/Orange morality for the win! Blue/orange morality is an excellent way to get some really weird behaviors from aliens but the danger is that it's also easy to make them too alien which will fail the "novel length story" requirement.

My favorite example of Blue/Orange morales comes from Eve Online where space ship pilots will kill each other, for fun, with nukes because they can. Instant cloning with no memory loss on death enables this kind of "play".

Areas of Psychology to Explore:

In general, the problem with altering many of the below traits in this alien will cause them to appear to be mentally ill to a casual human reader. While there is an audience for wacked-out alien psych, it's a smaller audience than for aliens with more human characteristics. Some aspects don't need to be completely alien, just borrow from the habits of life on earth to get some really weird options. For example, you could tell a story about an alien that is born from an egg and must be completely self-sufficient immediately.

  • Violence - This could be used in moderation. Reading graphic descriptions of violence would be exhausting to a human reader, even if the alien depicted thrives on violence.
  • Sexuality/Reproduction - Exploring this aspect will depend on the audience. Probably not appropriate for a children's book. In general, you'll need to be careful with this area since human sexuality touches so many different aspects of psyche that it would be easy to design an alien with horrifying sexual tendencies. For example, reading about an alien that mimics the black widow spider females post-coitus meal of her mate might be difficult to read.
  • Authority - This could be played with a ton though it will need to be combined with another aspect in order to be truly alien. Humans range from the megalomanical dominator type to willing abject slaves. Between those two extremes there are many nuances to be explored.
  • Concept of Self - Perhaps an alien with no concept of self. I'm not sure how you'd portray this but it could be interesting.
  • Concept of Other - This may play into the 'empathy' aspect listed below. If a creature has no concept of 'self' or 'other'...that'd be curious to read about.
  • Concept of Family - Lots of variation possible here. Humans have a wide variety of family types so a really strange family arrangement by your aliens won't be too difficult to read about.
  • Relationship between parent and child - Lots of variation possible here too.
  • Empathy - Lots of variation possible though it's super easy to create a psychopathic or sociopathic alien.
  • Cooperation with others - Lots of variation possible.
  • Relationship with Environment - Lots of variation possible.
  • Industry/Commodities/Commerce - Lots of variation possible.
  • Alteration/Inversion of Maslow's Hiearchy of needs...leading to aliens that feed on experiences and must work their way up to food and shelter. That'd be so weird!

Manipulation of any of these dimensions of human personality can easily be alien if not downright horrifying. Be careful or it will be very easy to alienate your audience.


This has already been done (by Niven, i think?) but it might inspire other ideas:

Birds use birdsong as a form of combat. The birds with the stronger bird songs get the mates and drive away competitors.

A member of a bird race comes to Earth. Their singing is so beautiful that they are treated as celebrities: given gifts, fawned over and otherwise pampered. That individual then goes back to his home world, believing that he conquered an entire planet with his song.

So, in general, observe animal behaviors and think how they would interact with sentience. The readers should be able to understand animal behaviors and should have a touchstone so they can relate to the characters.


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