I'm starting to write a sci-fi story where the alien invaders will have slightly similar looks and anatomy as humans. I mean they are still imaginative characters but I wonder how I can develop those characters?

Will I need to relate to their original habitat, or focus more on the technology they use? or their more advanced aspects compared to human beings in general?

This slightly physical difference of characters between the alien and human will increase the potential for me to write various stories of how they interact with each other as well as the possibility to share particular technology. Focusing on human survival rather than depicting the strange look of aliens all the time in each chapter.


3 Answers 3


How far should you describe an alien invader character that has similar appearance to human? The short answer is: as far as it makes sense in the story; no more, no less.

You do not need to talk about their original habitat, technology or their more advanced aspects until these things contribute to the plot. Consider what your characters are doing. When do they need to practically use these aspects?

If these characteristics are meaningful for your story, they should naturally appear, but never in arbitrary descriptions.


3 inter-related ideas that might help:

Chekov's Gun – a non-sequitor emphasis on any detail may signal to the reader that this will later be important to the plot. Worldbuilding is for writers. Too much can erode the reader's patience and muddy the story.

Characters observe things differently, and filter information through their own lens – a Biologist will view physical differences as deterministic ("The aliens have vestigial gills, therefore they are never far from a large body of water."), while a Translator will find insight within the language ("The Aliens have 17 different words for water, including some of their oldest-root words for God and Universe."), and an Engineer ("These extra vessels on their ship are designed to hold a gelatinous form of sea water. They can survive for decades hidden in isolation as long as the gel processors are functioning.") Think of the parable of the three blind men who touch different parts of an elephant and describe three different creatures.

None of your human characters will ever have a full understanding of the aliens, and they will always transmit their own biases while ignoring their blindspots. Every time a human describes an alien it should say more about that human character than the aliens themselves. The reader will perceive the aliens through a multi-faceted lens that doesn't fit neatly into a monoculture, and they will be forced to engage some imagination to bridge the descriptions. Moreover, the aliens will still have a mystery/other sense to them, and each new description offers a jigsaw puzzle of partial ideas rather than an infodump of factoids.

Combining the above can lead to "Ah-ha" moments in the story, when a character realizes what another observed (and described) that is outside their own experience. This gives you a plot-mechanic where it is necessary for humans to come together to discover something about the aliens, and a character can have a sudden change-of-heart or re-assess everything they thought they knew. These perspective changes enrich characters and prevent the story from becoming a travel log or descriptive wiki about your world.

  • Very interesting answer. Gave me a lot to think about. I like the idea of the information that is focused on from different viewpoints.
    – raddevus
    Jun 19, 2018 at 14:03

I feel this falls under the golden rule of descriptive text in general; say as much as you need to and then stop. There will be differences that are important to telling the alien characters' story and/or the humans' story as it intersects with the aliens and there will be differences that you as the author know exist but that have no bearing on the tale. For example the aliens may have five fingers on each hand but seven toes per foot, they wear space boots so it never comes up. In short point out what you need to, in as much detail as you find relevant to the character doing the thinking about, or noticing of, the detail in question.

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