Until now, I have mostly written in settings similar enough to Earth, mostly with human beings. For the first time, I am writing a short story set on a different planet, where the protagonists are not human and will have no interaction at all with Earth or human beings.

But the more I write, the more I realize how many things I just cannot say. I try to write using senses (especially smells and colors), and that is where it is the most problematic.

"She smelled like fresh lilacs."

Do they even have lilacs? Would they call it lilacs? What if she smelled like fish?

"And that is how Earth was granted to humanity."

Would they call their planet Earth? Would they call themselves humans? How does a race name itself when there is no other race to compare itself to?

"He had never seen eyes as blue as hers."

Do they even have the color blue? Would they call it blue? I know this sound a bit extreme, but where do you draw the line of what is common between a fictional race/world and ours?

I know of the possibility of using fictional words:

"And that is how Blardt was granted to Twibns" she said, her hair smelling like fresh garozias."

...but somehow this seems cheesy/cliché/old-school to me.

Is there a tried and true method for dealing with this issue? If there are several methods, what are the good and bad points of each?

P.S. The Earth/humanity might be better off as a separate question, but is relevant enoughthat I felt it might be redundant to ask about it separately. Note that this question seems related, but doesn't really help with the issues I am talking about.

  • 4
    Coming from the "My Little Pony" fandom, I must say this problem is all too common: Matters of inequine treatment of prisoners, choice of Equan Sciences, Equaformation of foreign planets, and on the other hoof, nopony knows what these 'humans' are. By Celestia's beard, will you get out of my mane already? Learn some culture, you hipparion, or just go eat a hayburger or something... :)
    – SF.
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 17:13
  • 1
    If you like to think about things like this, I'd recommend you take a look at this soon-to-be awesome SE page: area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/63276/worldbuilding
    – Sheraff
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 0:09
  • @FlorianPellet I have been following it for some time yes :) Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 12:41
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    This is something I'm occasionally running into as well. While mine are human, I'm more running into the problem of relating experiences to specific Earth bound names such as "cotton" or "bats". More general names like "leather" and "birds" seem more okay to use, though. Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 22:47
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    When you describe non-english speaking people, you still can use color-denoting words, even if they sound differently on their language. So, regarding color it seems to be easy. Just like sweet, salty, stinky, loud, etc. Of course you can't tell the same for beings lacking corresponding senses.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 24, 2018 at 17:06

7 Answers 7


Some of the choice of words depends on the desired feel of the story. The reader might be an invisible observer of this alien world with a fellow human guide explaining various details. This expert may be a tourist or have a more scientific bent (e.g., sociological, biological, or physical/chemical).

With such a feel, wording would be more human-oriented and descriptive of what a human would observe. In this case, using words specific to human, terrestrial experience is not problematic, though wording would be biased by the guide's bent. (E.g., a "tourist" guide might use more emotive phrasings while technical phrasing would be more typical of a "scientific" guide.) However, interleaving native dialog with such narration could be tricky, especially for less formal dialog where native emotional traits are common. (Note: it is conceivable that the native culture considers phrasings that are not generic or technical to be extremely provocative—taboo in ordinary communication—or possibly even unknown.)

Alternatively, the world might be presented as if by a native guide, who has some familiarity with humans but is still biased by native assumptions. Such a native guide might bias the presentation as if trying to interest a tourist or a scholar. This will have a less abstracted but still strange feeling, more like meeting a friend's family for the first time than visiting a foreign country. There may be strange events (comparable to in-family jokes) that are never explained but there is enough commonness and welcoming that one is still inside the story.

Another alternative viewpoint would be closer to being telepathically linked to the natives. With this kind of perspective, when alien terms are used their basic meaning should be easily discerned from context or previous use and the reader is made to feel as if a native to that strange world.

With respect to sensory descriptions, many can use common terms even if the use does not exactly correspond to what a human would sense. For the human-guide perspective, these terms would be used as a human would use them and analogies would be more clearly declared as analogies. An immersive story would generally use terms in their native sense.

The light spectrum is universal. Generic color names such as red, green, and blue can be used freely even if the perception of color does not exactly match ranges in the electromagnetic spectrum associated with such by human standards. E.g., if the planet orbits a red dwarf, the natives might shift color names so that red is actually in the human infrared portion of the spectrum. (Even human perception of color does not precisely map to the electromagnetic spectrum, but it is a close enough mapping for general use.)

Color names associated with specific chemicals, e.g., rust, could also be used freely, though this may present consistency issues if the color spectrum names are shifted or otherwise adjusted. A character calling something "rusty green" may seem very odd; without preceding context the reader might even guess that copper is the common metal on this planet for some reason or otherwise takes the place of iron in people's thinking.

Scents and tastes are related to chemical qualities which are often generic even if only by biological analogue. Sweetness is a common nutritional cue, and the native analogue could be so named even if a human would not notice any distinctive taste. Bitterness is a common indicator of toxicity. Sourness is a common indicator of spoilage.

It is somewhat reasonable to expect that many biological aspects found on Earth will have analogues in other biological systems. E.g., analogs to molds and fungi are likely to exist, so saying that there is a musty smell is reasonable. (However, such organisms may thrive in a different environment than their Earth analogs, so a character might say something odd-sounding like "the air was dry and musty".)

There are likely to be mobile organisms, which are likely to be heterotrophs, which can be called animals. There are likely to be sessile organisms (likely autotrophs), some of which may attract animals to distribute genetic material, the sexual components of these plants could be called flowers. A common characteristic of such flowers is a distinctive scent which might be called floral.

(However, it is quite possible that the native flowers commonly use carrior eaters, as some Earth species do, so a floral scent might not be pleasantly sweet. The floral odor might not even be an "organic smell" if some other chemical had a particular nutritional importance. E.g., on an iron poor world where flowers organically mimic the scent of iron, a character might say something like "metallic meteorites are often detectable by their floral odor".)

Furthermore one can use words like said or read even if the communication was not auditory or visual. If persistent information is stored magnetically and retrieved by something similar to a platypus' bill, one could still write that the information was read even if the storage has a more analogue component (weakly analogous to word connotations and font/layout choices in print). It may even be convenient to use analogy that is closest in perception rather than physics. E.g., if bioluminescence is used for common communication, one might write that a character heard what another was saying, particularly for a more immersive perspective.

In English, the use of non-generic terms is more common when the communication is either technical where specificity can be important or emotive where connotations can be more important. If a native is describing a moving observation, it would be ordinary to use native similes and metaphors like "his tendrils spread wide like iliar petals, calling to entwine with mine". Even without translation it is clear that iliar is some type of flower (this is probably a reasonable biological analogy) and like a flower the spreading has a welcoming/calling aspect.

Something like

"And that is how people were given the world," she concluded, her hair smelling comfortingly like fresh garozias.

would be less jarring by avoiding dense use of foreign terms and giving a sense of the connotation of garozias than

"And that is how Blardt was granted to Twibns" she said, her hair smelling like fresh garozias.

(though it might be that The Word for World Is Forest).

Using proper names could be appropriate if a distinction is necessary (e.g., the people are aware of multiple habitable planets or multiple peoples), especially if the distinction is important. It should also be noted that a longer sample of text would typically not have such a high average density of alien terms.

(Another part of using a foreign language is to have the feel of the language be consistent. Since the vocabulary is relatively small, it may well be desirable for the sound to be more similar than an ordinary language would be in order to seem realistic.)

Using native vocabulary has the same issues—and benefits—as using a foreign language or even just unusual words. Such can distract and confuse the reader if there is not enough context to discern at least the general meaning, but such can also provide a distinctive sense of place or tone. Some readers enjoy fiction that frequently uses alien terms, sometimes even when a decent understanding requires using a glossary, but most readers are not amateur ethnologists or linguists and prefer to have the basic meaning be evident even if they also enjoy being able to look up such terms at their convenience.

  • 1
    This answer is not well organized and is incomplete, but I think it gives a few useful basic tips. (Sadly, I doubt I will make the effort to rework it into a really good answer—too many distractions—, but I might try to make a few lesser changes in the near future.)
    – user5232
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 1:59
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    Your answer brings up another point: The writer must consider just how alien he wants the world to be, and how much you want to get into it. If you're trying to write an escapist adventure story, you may describe the aliens as having four arms or pointed ears or whatever, but otherwise they basically act like humans. You probably don't want to dwell on how the body chemistry of the aliens differs from humans. If you want to write more speculative SF, perhaps you want to explore just how creatures who have copper instead of iron in their hemoglobin would function, or discuss the ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 13:37
  • ... implications of an alien language that has no adverbs. Note that the more important a role the science plays in your story, the more you have to know about science. Like just the other day I read an SF story about a new planet discovered behind the moon, never visible to Earth because the moon always blocks it from view. Umm, no. There is only one possible speed for an object in any given orbit to travel and remain in orbit. A satellite further away than the moon would HAVE to travel at a different orbital velocity, it could not always remain hidden by the moon. Not to mention that ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 13:41
  • ... it's gravity would affect the Earth and the Moon and it would be detectable that way. The whole story just didn't work.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 13:41
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    @Jay Ignorant statements can be unpleasant to one knowledgeable in a field (movie/TV computers are a common gripe). Side note: while not applicable to a planet-sized body, a small object could occupy the L2 Lagrangian point at least temporarily. Even the tidal effect on Earth's surface from a modest body might not be distinguishable from a denser Moon given limited measurements, though a substantial body would shift the Moon's orbit. (IANA physicist but not entirely ignorant on physics.)
    – user5232
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 16:00

The first and most important thing to consider is your reader and, for the most part, I imagine they're humans. Writing a science fiction story where there is nothing for the reader to relate to becomes tedious, and unintelligible. To carry it to its extreme, assuming you're writing your story in English (sorry, you did mention you're not a native English speaker, but you don't mention the language you're writing in), would they even speak English?

However, with some of your specific examples, it makes sense to substitute species-specific or world-specific references for some things like nouns. I doubt lilacs would grow on their planet (who knows, maybe someone imported them from earth), so it makes sense to make reference to a different plant. Likewise, they would have a name for their planet, and they would have a name for their own species, so use it.

My personal take is to approach it as someone would approach reading a translated book that was originally written in a foreign language in a foreign country (think someone living in the middle of the Sahara desert trying to read a book that was written by someone in Iceland). For them to read it, that book would need to be translated into their language, with a smattering of names and terms that simply cannot be translated accurately, but can be explained in a given context.

With your specific examples, you could say, "She smelt like garozia petals" (indicates it's a flower) or "She smelt like the spawning falar he remembered watching in the river as a child, their flapping fins secreting their rotting odour into the night sky. Sexy." Give context that the reader can relate to, and don't just drop in the name. And yes, try to use the foreign terms sparingly, if possible; you're correct with your instinct that it can be clichéd if overused.

Remember, that often a translator has to substitute a word or phrase for one that the reader would understand, and that best suits the context. In the above example, I used the word "child", but obviously that may not be suitable for them as a species. Perhaps they're a bird-like race, in which case use the word "chick" instead.

Alternatively, make the narrator someone who is human telling this alien tale. Maybe he heard it from someone else, or was there himself, in which case you avoid many of these issues.

Whatever route you take, just remember that your readers aren't stupid, they'll understand, and will thank you for at least writing a readable book that they can relate to while at the same time being drawn into this other alien world. The best advice I can give is, write for your human audience, and don't over-think it!

  • This is the stance I am taking. The race are humans, very relatable humans, so I'm personally walking a fine line between generally relatable references like "green", "birds" and "leather" and trying to avoid more specific Earth bound references like "cheetah", "budgerigar" and "cotton". It's a tricky line to walk. Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 23:00

First, think about what is universal and what is specific to our own planet, species, or culture.

Like, would aliens have the color blue? Color is a basic phenomenon of physics. The same colors exist everywhere in the universe. I suppose it's possible that there would not be any blue things on their planet, but this seems pretty unlikely. Surely something, somewhere on the planet is blue. As human beings have learned to synthesize colors electronically, I have yet to hear someone say, "Zounds, if we generate just this frequency of light, there's a color totally unlike any color that anyone has seen before!"

I suppose an alien might not be able to see the color blue. But frankly, unless you're going to build a plot point around that -- the humans are able to sneak messages past the aliens because they write them in blue and the aliens can't see blue, or something of that sort -- I think it just gets too obscure to be worth worrying about.

On the other hand, do they have lilacs on this alien planet? Well, I suppose at that point you get into theories of origins. An evolutionist would surely say that the probability of something as specific as one particular species of plant evolving twice on two different planets is pretty small. A creationist would say that a creator God COULD create the same plant on two different planets, but would he? Considering the diversity of life on Earth, even a creationist wouldn't expect to find ALL the same plants and animals on another planet, any more than he expects to find all the same plants and animals in Australia that one finds in Norway.

So yes, I think you have pretty much no choice but to make up names for the plants and animals on their world. If you make a big deal of all these made-up names it could sound silly and contrived. Like I wouldn't have a scene where a character goes for a walk and says, "Oh look, a burgwhal tree. And there are some mijnik flowers. And see the wagmeers flying overhead ..." I'd keep the number of made-up species to a minimum.

And remember that the reader will have no idea what you have in mind when you refer to a made-up species unless you explain it. Like if you say, "He was walking down the road when suddenly he saw a majneek!" Well if you've never before said what a majneek is, the reader has no idea if that is a dangerous wild animal, a pleasant-smelling flower, an occupational title, a hand tool, or what. If it's not important to the story, explaining many such references would just get tedious and boring. Where possible I'd use such words in a context that makes the nature of the thing obvious, at least in a general way. I mean, you don't need to say, "Suddenly he saw a majneek! On this world, a majneek is a large, orange furry animal that inhabits the tropical regions, and that ..." whatever. Rather, you could say, "Suddenly he was attacked by a large, ferocious majneek! He grabbed hold of its furry mane and tried to wrestle it to the ground." Or, "He handed his girlfriend a bouquet of beautiful majneeks. 'I picked these for you', he said". If the reader doesn't need to know exactly what the thing looks like or it's hibernation patterns or mating cycle, then don't slow down the story by bringing it up. If I was writing such a story, I'd certainly use a made-up name for, say, a local flower rather than saying "roses" in such a context. The reader will get the idea and move on.

Of course the aliens wouldn't even know the word "Earth" as presumably they don't speak English. I'd guess that you are writing your story in English (or whatever your native language is), and all dialog is assumed to be translated from the alien language into English. In such a case, calling their planet "Earth" would just be confusing. Earth is the (English) name of our planet, not theirs. Likewise it wouldn't make much sense for them to call themselves "humans". "Human" doesn't mean "us", it is the name of a specific species. You could debate more general terms. I presume aliens would call themselves "living beings". (Unless you're supposing they are not "living" in some sense.) Of course aliens wouldn't call themselves "aliens", they'd consider Earth people to be aliens. Etc.

One last thought: If you use a made-up word in a context where it is supposed to be a surprise or a dramatic revelation -- like if the climax of your story is when the hero says, "Suddenly I realized that Frabnar was a majneek!" -- that is not a good time to explain what the word means, because then you ruin the suspense. So come up with an excuse to refer use this word and explain it earlier in the story.

By the way, I am reminded of an article I read about writing science fiction many years ago, where the writer urged the reader to be careful about casual references that don't make sense in context. One example he gave that I recall was to point out that the phrase "Try a different tack" is a reference to sailboats, and so someone living on a world with no seas would be unlikely to use any such phrase. Or in Disney's cartoon "The Little Mermaid", they had what I thought was a very clever line where a mermaid is making fun of the lack of courage of another sea creature, and says, "You're such a guppy." I had to give them credit: A human might say, "You're such a chicken", but of course a mermaid probably wouldn't even know what a chicken is, never mind make a casual reference to one. But calling someone a "guppy" -- I can easily imagine that being an equivalent insult for a mermaid.

  • "Color is a basic phenomenon of physics." As a physicist, let me tell you you're wrong here. EM radiation is a basic phenomenon of physics. However already the range of visible frequencies is not universal (bees cannot see red, but can see UV; some snakes can see IR). And even inside the visible spectrum, the matching between spectra and colours depends on the receptors in our eyes; even humans don't see them all the same, think of colour blindness. Birds see more colours than humans. Other animals don't see colours at all. It could well be that the aliens don't have any concept of colour.
    – celtschk
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 8:56
  • Well, technically I think that "as a physicist" you would agree with me that color is a basic phenomenon of physics. A biologist might point out that the ability to perceive any given color is not the same thing as the color, i.e. the wavelength of light rays, existing. Which is why I said, "I suppose an alien might not be able to see the color blue." I had the idea of color blindness and the range of colors that any given creature can see in mind when I wrote that. Yes, aliens might be able to see colors that we can't, and vice versa. And who could say what any given color looks like ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 13:23
  • ... to an alien? Maybe what we call "red" looks like blue to them and vice versa. But for that matter, how do I know what colors look like to other people? Anyway, my point is that there are not different colors on an alien planet in the same sense that there could be different species of plants.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 13:25
  • Also aliens must have the same Platonic solids that we do. They do not have dice of regular polyhedral shapes that we have never thought of. Etc etc. Of course I'm assuming that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe, which is a philosophical assumption and not something easy to prove scientifically.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 13:26
  • "Well, technically I think that "as a physicist" you would agree with me that color is a basic phenomenon of physics." No. Physically, there's an electromagnetic spectrum. No more and no less. While we (including physicists) often refer to wavelengths by the colour impression they cause, this is just a convenient shorthand. Note that for most colours there does not exist a single frequency that generates that colour. And for those colours, there always exist many spectra which cause the same colour to be perceived. And the set of those spectra depends on the physiology of your eyes.
    – celtschk
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 19:49

I don't think there's a right answer for what you're asking. At the end of the day, you're writing in English. English, like any language, reflects the history and collective views of the society it came from.

For example, English has many words for water related things, especially about things that relate to sailing, because throughout its history (through the vikings and Normans, and finally the more modern English who were seafarers as well) the English nation has been sailing. That's just how that is.

So the way I see it, you have three options:

  1. Stop thinking over it and just write in a way that's natural to you. Alternatively, introduce a human element to the story, or have the narrator be human. Make it natural for you.

  2. Write up a variation on English, as you've said, but always be careful to strike a balance between making it sound authentic and making it understandable by humans.

  3. Do what Tolkien did with his elves. Granted, they did have human interaction, and they did speak (to protagonists) in "common speech", but what Tolkien did was he invented a language (a few languages, actually) for his elves, to match a society he invented for them, and everything he wrote about them, he wrote with that in mind.

    He could chose a different word order in a sentence, or have they choose specific words, or act in a certain manner that was uniquely elvish. And then, everything fell into place with elves.

    This is by far the most difficult way to go, but it's also, in my opinion, the most rewarding. It sounds right, when you write it down. There's a lot of learning to do, though, and a lot of work after it. If this is the course of action you want to go with, a great book to start with is Mark Rosenfelder's The Language Construction Kit, available both online for free, and on paper or pdf as an extended version.

Best of luck to you!


First, read some of your favorite science fiction closely. Seeing words in action is more useful than advice here.

Second, I'll propose one of a million approaches: Forget about it. Modern readers are pretty good at seeing past self-awareness in fiction. Some readers, like myself, even appreciate stories that don't pursue the impossible simulacrum of a fictional world, but rather put that extra effort into something beautifully and uniquely imagined and described. Whatever you do, just be consistent and do it well.

  • Agreed. Some of the best science fiction stories I've read don't bother trying to make up and explain everything, but rather get on with the plot, the emotion and the character's actions, allowing the reader to easily be absorbed. It's when you are given those little tidbits such as names and descriptions of non-Earth related "things" that you get the fantastical feeling that enriches the human aspect of the experience. Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 23:04

Much of this will fall under normal "suspension of disbelief" for most readers. We don't demand complete realism from our fiction, and Earthlike planets, fantasy realms or alternate realities are generally granted license to be as much or as little like Earth as they need to be (as long as you are consistent). With that said, I have varying intuitions about your specific questions:

He had never seen eyes as blue as hers.

This one is a yes for me regarding the word "blue." (On the other hand, if your aliens are all blond-haired, blue-eyed and pale-skinned that raises for me an entirely different set of concerns. Double, if that's just the "good" aliens!) You could go with "as purple as hers" or "as yellow as hers" if you want a little harmless exoticism.

She smelled like fresh lilacs.

The problem here is that lilacs are local, even on Earth, which makes this feel a little TOO close to home. If you want to avoid laughable coinages like "garozias," what about something like "she smelled like fresh nightflowers"?

And that is how Earth was granted to humanity.

If you don't want this to be Earth, don't call it "Earth." I think this is a place you can't avoid a coinage. I think you can make a case for "humanity" being okay, if they are just like Earth humans. Otherwise, you might want to make up a relatively generic coinage like "The People" or "The Folk," or name them after their own planet.

In summary, I would treat this as if you were writing about a foreign country. It shouldn't sound exactly like home, but it's a place where "people" live. You don't have to kill yourself making it wholly alien.


Have a read of the note Isaac Azimov put at the beginning of Nightfall:


Kalgash is an alien world and it is not our intention to have you think that it is identical to Earth, even though we depict its people as speaking a language that you can understand, and using terms that are familiar to you. Those words should be understood as mere equivalents of alien terms-that is, a conventional set of equivalents of the same sort that a writer of novels uses when he has foreign characters speaking with each other in their own language but nevertheless transcribes their words in the language of the reader. So when the people of Kalgash speak of "miles," or "hands," or "cars," or "computers," they mean their own units of distance, their own grasping-organs, their own ground-transportation devices, their own information-processing machines, etc. The computers used on Kalgash are not necessarily compatible with the ones used in New York or London or Stockholm, and the "mile" that we use in this book is not necessarily the American unit of 5,280 feet. But it seemed simpler and more desirable to use these familiar terms in describing events on this wholly alien world than it would have been to invent a long series of wholly Kalgashian terms.

In other words, we could have told you that one of our characters paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything might have seemed ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it would also have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful. The essence of this story doesn't lie in the quantity of bizarre terms we might have invented; it lies, rather, in the reaction of a group of people somewhat like ourselves, living on a world that is somewhat like ours in all but one highly significant detail, as they react to a challenging situation that is completely different from anything the people of Earth have ever had to deal with. Under the circumstances, it seemed to us better to tell you that someone put on his hiking boots before setting out on a seven-mile walk than to clutter the book with quonglishes, vorks, and gleebishes.

If you prefer, you can imagine that the text reads "vorks" wherever it says "miles," "gliizbiiz" wherever it says "hours," and "sleshtraps" where it says "eyes." Or you can make up your own terms. Vorks or miles, it will make no difference when the Stars come out.

It's not an approach you have to take by any means but it speaks to a basic truth; your readers are humans who live on earth, therefore you are limited in the experiences you can call on when trying to communicate ideas to them.

The main point is in order to explain something to someone properly you have to find a point of common ground on which to build an understanding. Once you have that common ground you can branch out as far as you like but you have to start with concepts your audience can grasp.

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