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I am in the beginning stages of writing what might be a space opera. The story starts in a society that consists of three planets that all fall under one governmental domain. The problem I'm running into is the way I've structured these planets is they are all home to multiple species of aliens. Is there a way I can describe each alien species my main character encounters during her day without it getting repetitive or breaking up the story too much? Do I need to go into specific detail about the physical appearance of each species?

I have found a lot of articles on how to create good, believable alien species, as well as this stack exchange article on how to explain a new, alien world without boring the reader. However, I'm asking for extraterrestrial characters specifically. I feel like if I have 7 or 8 species that I introduce within a chapter, giving a description of each of their physical characteristics might get tiring, for both me and my readers.

Thanks in advance!

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    Would you consider adding some illustrations to your book? Having a page with pictures of the main characters of different races could save thousands of words. – Steven Gubkin Oct 16 at 14:13
  • Yes, I have thought about it. At current, I'm pretty early with the drafting of this particular tale, but I think images might help. It's something I go back and forth on. – NotSteveThePirate Oct 16 at 21:03
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    A short lesson in minimalism from The Thing (1982). Childs: So how's this motherf---er wake up after thousands of years in the ice? Bennings: And how can it look like a dog? MacReady: I don't know how. 'Cause it's different than us, see? 'Cause it's from outer space. What do you want from me? – Schwern Oct 16 at 21:39
  • If this were a sci-fi or worldbuilding section, I'd still query why alien species or extra-terrestrial characters might need any different approach from others subject, such as shoes or ships or sealing-wax, or cabbages or kings? poetryfoundation.org/poems/43914/… Then, what's a "short time" in the context of your piece? Does that mean a paragraph each? A very short par? A sentence or even a single clause? – Robbie Goodwin Oct 17 at 16:12
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In this context, these aliens are probably going to be very domestic and familiar to this character, just as familiar as dogs, birds and cats are to us in the real world. If she lives in this society of aliens, she has probably seen them before and interacted with them before. Therefore, if you're introducing many of them in quick succession, you don't need to go into great detail about what these species are like yet, not until it becomes directly relevant to the story. Details should only be included when they are important to the narrative.

Maybe a quick blurb would suffice if an alien is being interacted with, just for description's sake:

Larima took the identification card from the clerk. "Thank you," she said, in its tongue. The Oolongian blinked slowly with its five mustard-yellow eyes, evaluating her, then slithered off to attend other customers.

And do the same for the other species that are encountered - little snippets of description, only where necessary and relevant. Mention that the burly Gasnian trucker has four arms and orange scales, maybe, but don't go into any more detail than that. You want to leave some things to the imagination. Keep it brief.

However, if you have a major character who belongs to one of these alien species, that would probably warrant a full description. It doesn't have to be overly long - just as long as you would give for a human character she encounters. Or, if an alien's anatomy or quirks are directly relevant to the scene, i.e. if an alien is doing something unique to its biology, that would also be the time to provide a fuller description, if only just for humor or shock value.

The K'tarian stared at her for a moment, then coughed violently, its throat sac expanding; a streak of green, bubbling saliva dripped down from its mouth. Larima jumped back just in time for it to pool on the floor in a spreading, stinking puddle that burned slowly through the floor. "What the hell?" she asked, disbelievingly. The K'tarian shrugged carelessly and wiped its mouth on its sleeve. Apparently, for its kind, this was something akin to sneezing.

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  • Good answer, but great username... – T.J. Crowder Oct 16 at 9:47
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    These are great tips. I'd like to add that depending on the disposition of your main character you can force descriptions to be relevant, and set them up in a way that's less obviously a forced description by having the character react to the features. Like a character that dislikes the gills on a species, or is intrigued by their eye shape. – Logarr Oct 16 at 18:51
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Describe Only What Matters

Physical descriptions are the shallowest form of character building. They help the reader to visualize the character, but they do not help the reader know the character.

We know someone by understanding their choices, and height, skin color, etc. are not choices.

If you want to give descriptions of your aliens, think about how physical characteristics might interact with culture, and how other characters might engage those cultures.

Example

It might be rude to smile at a prey species, because it emphasizes humanity's predatory nature.

A character who is ignorant, might smile because they don't know this, and another character who is contentious and courteous might correct them.

A third character might deliberately smile after observing this interaction, because they are a jerk.

We have learned something about the choices that all three of these characters make, and therefore have learned something about who they are. The physical description of your alien was necessary for the reader to understand the situation.

Pacing

By integrating your physical descriptions with character building, you spread out the descriptions naturally. Presumably alien culture only impacts some subset of your characters' interactions. Therefore, not every scene will involve descriptions of new aliens.

Occasionally, you might describe more than one alien culture / body type, as you explore the way that these different subgroups interact with each other - your main character might play two aliens off each other based on their understanding of the different social cues. Again, physical descriptions are a necessary part of these interactions, and because they are relevant they are interesting to the reader.

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  • This is usually good advice, but it can be used, sparingly, to develop a character and how they respond to things. "I've known Blorg for 10 years, but I just have a hard time shaking hands with a tentacle. {shivers in disgust}" Most times, this should be relevant to the story, but brief sections can be used for comedic relief or during "downtime" sections to let the reader's brain recover, instead of having 100% action. – computercarguy Oct 16 at 19:47
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If you have 7 or 8 species you want to introduce, don't introduce them all in the same chapter. Spread the introductions over multiple chapters, and try to have at least 1 chapter without any new species being introduced in between each chapter where 1 or 2 species are introduced.

Don't feel pressured to introduce all species early on in the book. It's perfectly fine to keep some introductions for act 2, or maybe even act 3.

If possible, you can adjust the species of some of your characters so you can delay a race introduction for a chapter or two. For example, if you have a mysterious criminal as your main bad guy and you reveal him in act 3, he's a prime candidate for a late species reveal.

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  • Did you forget to list an example, or did you merely forget to remove the beginning of the sentence? – Llewellyn Oct 16 at 18:41
  • +1 Don't overwhelm the reader with the alien world. – Llewellyn Oct 16 at 18:43
  • @Llewellyn a bit of both. I often start editing paragraphs I previously finished, look up something, get sidetracked and then not notice I have a dangling preposition. – Nzall Oct 18 at 20:35
  • Good advice overall. I have a minor disagreement with your recommendation about "a mysterious criminal as your main bad guy" revealed in act 3. Better to establish his species earlier, because this will make the reveal more effective. Then you can concentrate on his mystery & criminality instead having to freight in all the information about his species as well. This is a trivial quibble. – a4android Oct 31 at 6:03

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