Most aliens tend to be humans with bumpy foreheads and/or pointy ears. Even when they do have differences then usually it is an entire species being portrayed as a particular brand of human. For example races might be based on Vikings, or Mongols, or Japan in their culture and viewpoint. Even famous sci-fi examples like the Daleks or Vulcans are just a particular brand of human turned up to 11.

When creating alien (whether sci-fi alien or other species in a fantasy setting) viewpoints how do you actually make them seem alien? Are there any ways that we as humans can simulate non-human thought patterns and portray them in a convincing way to other humans?

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    $\begingroup$ Man you should read the Uplift trilogy by David Brin and The Swarm by Frank Schätzing. Basically they say that unless there is a good reason not to, aliens would be way to alien for us to even comprehend. And if there is a good reason, then they might be as similar to us as you want. $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Sep 22, 2014 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @FlorianPellet Read it. Most of the "aliens" are still bumpy foreheads :p There was some more original concepts with the bird aliens and the ring aliens though. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Sep 22, 2014 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I had the ring aliens in mind when saying that :) $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Sep 22, 2014 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ Read Stanisław Lem. Quite unknown for Western audiences but very famous in Eastern Europe, he was a very strong proponent of the "alienness" of aliens. Pretty much all his works involving extraterrestrial intelligence presents them as such different from life on Earth that it's hard to even detect it, or to even view it as "life". His main topics are about the difficulty or even complete impossibility to communicate with such an alien intelligence. His novel "Solaris" should be pretty much compulsory for everyone interested in the presentation of truly alien intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Sep 30, 2014 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ There's a great answer on RPG.SE which addresses this topic as well. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Jan 13, 2015 at 16:09

6 Answers 6


I think the key aspect of conveying a sense of alien-ness is inscrutability. They're alien because they don't make sense. It's impossible to successfully anthropomorphize them.

All the "bumpy forehead" aliens in Star Trek, along with many of the "not so alien" aliens from other works of fiction don't feel as alien because humans can understand them. Even when they have some behavior which is strange or bizarre (such as being unable to understand ________), that very lack of understanding is humanizing. After all, there's all kinds of human behaviors other humans don't understand, from religious belief/nonbelief, to bizarre sexual fetishes, to simply being willing (or not) to eat meat.

Humans are really good at anthropormorphising (literally: to attribute human form or personality to things not human). Just look at the personalities and thoughts we attribute to our pets. To convey that sense of alien, you need to make sure that any attempt to anthropomorphize the alien will not be any more accurate than doing so to a cat or dog. Sure it may hold up for a while, but when circumstances change, the creature's behavior changes in a way that bears no relation to how a human showing that behavior would have.

Just as an example: A cat who's very friendly and cuddly is interpreted to like (love?) her people. But if you move, that cat may not want anything to do with "her people" any more. It could be because of the trauma of moving. It could be the new place has something that's constantly irritating her. It could be that her people smell different. It could be any number of things, but the key is that there's no way to know and no way to have predicted it: The cat's behavior is inscrutable.

That doesn't mean that behavior is arbitrary, however. There's always going to be some cause to produce the effect, and the same circumstances should produce the same effects (if the circumstances are actually equivalent). For another example: a funny movie should always be funny, but if you've just come from your child's funeral, you're not likely to feel like laughing, even though the situation (sitting and watching a funny movie) looks the same to an outside observer. You should be consistent in the inscrutableness of the alien's behavior, except when the circumstances are different in inscrutable ways.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree, but I think it's important that there be an internal consistency to the way the aliens think, even if it's not the same way we think. Otherwise it becomes unconvincing in a different way. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Sep 22, 2014 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Without an internally consistent psychology, inscrutability is all to likely to turn into arbitrariness. An alien with an internally consistent psychology can be made to appear inscrutable by simply describing its actions without explaining them. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Sep 22, 2014 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB - Yes, that was going to be one of my points but I forgot to actually include it - I'll edit it in. Thanks for pointing that out. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Sep 22, 2014 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild - That I agree with, which is why I think your answer's better than mine, overall. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Sep 22, 2014 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ Revisiting this, five years later - we still have the cuddly cat I was using as an example in this answer, but we've since gotten two more. She's notably less cuddly now, even when the others aren't around. I could assume that she's jealous, or angry with us, or something along those lines, but the truth is that I just don't know. Sometimes she'll be like her old self, even with the newcomers nearby, and sometimes she's much more standoffish, even without them (and vice versa). In other words, quite inscrutable. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Oct 22, 2019 at 23:17

The first step in this process is to define the alien's body plan, life cycle, and the nature of its planet of origin. This is an absolute prerequisite to determining its psychology, though it may be possible to reverse-engineer the former from the latter.

For example, one alien species I created came from a world in a trinary solar system with relatively eccentric and precessing orbits, where the seasons were so variable that on an evolutionary level they were completely unpredictable; only with the rise of sentience could then be predicted, and even then not easily.

The effect this had on these creatures was that they had evolved a psycho-physiologic need for unpredictability in their environment, that prolonged periods of predictability would lead to levels of stress that would lead to derangement and violent outbursts. In consequence, they had a unique profession - the stealth decorator - who would sneak into a home (that they had been contracted to enter) on a random schedule and perform some redecoration that could range from trivial to major, thus providing a necessary element of unpredictability in an environment that civilization had made all too predictable. Given their propensity for travel and exploration, these creatures were nicknamed Tourists.

Another example of mine was the Hive Trees. These are tree-like creatures in a science-fantasy universe. While usually sessile (they are able to move on occasion), they have the ability to grow numbers of separate mobile forms, in an almost infinite number of variations, that have an instantaneous link back to their parent tree, these remotes are effectively part of the parent tree even though they are physically separate. The tree houses the brain, so the loss of a remote is not particularly great, sort of like losing some hair or fingernail, or a little more serious.

The psychology of these beings was a weird combination of paranoia and bravado - they would risk their remotes like pawns in a chess game, but the more control their remotes have over the tree's surroundings, the more paranoid (by human standards) the tree becomes of its personal safety, not allowing anything other than its own remotes to come near, while trees in hostile areas are more willing to allow dangers to approach more closely - This difference is mainly due to effective area of control.

The variations are infinite, but as long as a world creator defines the species' world, physiology and capabilities sufficiently well, extrapolating a psychology is mostly a matter of logic.

Unless an alien is radically different from human, it should share at least some common psychological background, such as the need for sustenance (even if it is an autotroph), the need for self-preservation, the need to reproduce, et cetera. However, there can always be exceptions. Imagine a species that has a life stage that cannot eat (like a mayfly), that is primarily reproductive, and must mate quickly and produce eggs before its inevitable and imminent death. What about a species that has a caste of individual that cannot reproduce, and is responsible for defending the hive. While these are real-world examples, what if a creature with similar traits was sentient? How would it think and react?


Alternative viewpoint: Maybe we shouldn't assert that behavior of aliens is in all situations so different from ours. Aliens, if they are evolved creatures like us, probably evolved their psychology to best serve evolution strategy they need. We can notice that dogs, for example, behave not so differently from us. Probably because they are pack animals, same as we are. Cats on the other hand, are solitary predators, and they may be quite inscrutable - their evolutionary strategy is different than ours.

There is interesting (although very speculative) hypothesis how our psychology and morality is shaped by our evolutionary origins. It is called Moral Foundations Theory (more here and here). It assumes that morality of almost any society of humans contains elements of five pillars, which have quite clear evolutionary origin:

  1. Care/harm: Protect others from harm. Probably based on the need to nurture offspring.
  2. Fairness/cheating: Includes ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. It is based on repeated Prisoner's dilemma and reciprocal altruism.
  3. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation includes fact that we are group animals and we had to cooperate withing groups for long time of our history. It includes patriotism, identification with our group, tendencies not to be "too different", etc.
  4. Authority/subversion: We are hierarchical animals. This foundation includes leadership and willingness to follow, as well as respect for natural authorities.
  5. Sanctity/degradation: Idea behind this foundation is to avoid contamination. It contains emotions of disgust, as well as widespread notion that one should live in a clean way. According to authors:

    It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Different cultures, religions or political opinions, according to the authors, stress different foundations, but they are always present to some extent.

If this reasoning is correct, then we should expect to find all five in aliens, provided they evolved as pack animals. Depending how exactly the species looks like and how it operates, some could be stressed much more than the others. If they evolved as mostly solitary animals, they would probably completely lack pillars 2, 3 and 4. (This would be probably the reason why cats in Bobson's answer do not attach to people.) They might be betraying, paranoid, completely unwilling to follow natural leaders or simply indifferent to what others think. But they would probably still be able to feel compassion, or be disgusted. On the other hand, for example the elephant seals live in groups of one dominant male and many females. The males often fight for the females fiercely. If they would develop intelligence, their behavior would probably be very strongly based on authority and the gender inequality (and differences in general) would be probably be near to extreme.

The foundations present nice tool for a worldbuilder, since you can analyze patterns of behavior more analytically - you simply decide how strong will each foundation be and then work out the details. But the results will probably not look so alien.

  • $\begingroup$ I think this is the best answer so far. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Oct 9, 2014 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ Now I am thinking that although very similar processes would have probably shaped alien minds and our minds, and we should therefore expect some similarity in emotions and opinions based on them, this still does not mean that we would have similar was to formulate ideas. Although our motives might be similar, our languages and way of thinking could be simply beyond translation. I, however, do not know how to model such 'alternative reasoning system'. $\endgroup$
    – Irigi
    Oct 9, 2014 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Well, any reasoning system would have to pass the "reality check": If you don't conclude from the presence of a danger that you are in danger, then you probably won't be anywhere soon. So there would have to be some strong similarity in the logic. Other than that, thinking and language are strongly related, so inventing their way to think is basically equivalent to inventing their language. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Oct 9, 2014 at 17:58

I would say that most fiction aliens are not just a bit of facial makeup/prosthetics. It is true that the most visible group of alien portrayals is StarTrek in which they are 98.5% just facial features (or colouring). StarTrek did give an in world explanation for this at one point, all current humanoids being descended from DNA dropped on planets by an original humanoid progenitor race1. However there are many shows that are much better for imagination level of the physical characteristics of aliens; for example FarScape (TV) or Stars at War series (books) by David Weber.

In terms of making a believable alien that doesn't just seem like a race of stereotypical Vikings (Klingon) etc, it is challenging because humans are what we know and imagining beyond what we know is hard. I would suggest that as soon as you lose the humanoid shape you suddenly seem a lot more alien and even without a lot of psychology differences you'll be much more believable. Non-bipedal definitely helps; as do extra abilities (for example flight such as with the Crucians in Stars at War) etc.

Psychology differences are much much harder. But humans have this tendency to see anything physically different as utterly different so you can use that and focus on the physical differences and just do minor psychological differences. Really those differences can be as simple of an inability to grasp a very human concept (for example revenge - lack of humour has been done too many times of course). Sure that isn't ideal but a little bit of psychology combined with moderate physical otherness will sure make them feel alien.

  • $\begingroup$ I disagree. While these are good ideas for writing interesting aliens, they still don't feel alien in the sense of non-human thought. An alien that doesn't get humor (or revenge) isn't really alien unless there's also a concept that they have which makes entirely no sense to us in the same way that humor (or revenge) makes no sense to them. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Sep 22, 2014 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ yes but as I said imagining beyond what we know is hard; how do you imagine something that makes no sense without an example of it. So I'm basically saying how to get around that and still have an alien feel. I'd be definitely interested to hear how you would suggest going about writing that though ;) $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2014 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pondering some ideas. I have one or two bouncing around in my head, it's just a matter of getting them into words. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Sep 22, 2014 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Bobson great I look forward to hearing them :) $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2014 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ I've added my answer, although I think Monty Wild did a better job with the big picture. The key word is inscrutable $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Sep 22, 2014 at 16:59

So in my mind there are one of two possible ways this can go for any given alien species.

  1. Humans can relate to the species to a sufficient degree to be able to comprehend their actions, feelings etc.

  2. Humans cannot comprehend the other species.

Number one is really the only plausible option for use in fiction. If we can't comprehend it, how could you write about it? No matter how different a species may be a human will always define the differences in relation to himself, because what other baseline do we have?

This does not mean that you cannot have an effectively alien species, but there is no way to really define another species, particularly one you are making up without referring or comparing to humanity.

The one thing you can do with option two is create uncontrollable, unknowable powers in your universe.

  • Perhaps a member of a progenitor race (non-humanoid)
  • Dieties
  • "Powers"

I don't have an answer, but I do have some ideas that might help you reach an answer:

  1. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language shapes how we think. If you are familiar with a language other than English, you will appreciate how to express an idea stated one way in English, one may need to state it in a different manner due to the gestalt imposed by that language.

  2. Wittgenstein once pondered the question would it be possible to communicate to any degree with an alien species. He noted this problem was similar to whether it is possible for one person to always express an idea to another person, based on their subjective experiences. Wittgenstein concluded it was possible due to the phenomena of pain. If I tell you that my arm hurts, you understand what I mean, despite the fact you cannot feel what I feel in my arm.


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