Today I am asking for something I've been stumped on: what is the "key" to an alien culture? Allow me to explain:

I am currently writing a novel about a stuck-up, prejudiced, bratty girl in the 80s who comes in contact with a literal alien. The alien apparently lives on the moon. However, it was somehow forced down here and is essentially blackmailing Sarah (the brat) with its own customs. The whole journey, Sarah is forced to endure a culture different than her own (because it's quite literally an alien culture) throughout the whole thing. Despite their differences, they find some vague things in common that help steers her prejudiced values a little bit.

Anyway, all that to say, I don't want the alien's customs to reflect humans. Or, at least, have them reflect humanity as little as possible. But there's a tiny, little problem with that: I'm human, and humans think human.

So... what's the key? What makes an alien culture an alien culture? What makes it a confusing, 8th color of the rainbow (see what I did there?), bizarre thing? I'm finding it so difficult not to apply human concepts, but it's hard because I have never seen an alien before. I never interacted with them. All I know is that there are universes, and the only living things we know of are the earth. But how do I get out of that? The last thing I want to do is make the aliens human but change two things about their society.

  • So one thing to focus on is you aren't dealing with the alien character's species in a general. You are just dealing with this alien character at an individual level, so for all we know, he misbehaves by his own cututal standards just like Sarah (who you say is a brat, i.e. deviates from human cultural norms by acting like a spoiled child and thus not the best representative of Earth Culture). It might help to understand the nature of the blackmail as the term implies the alien will not do something unpleasent if Sarah meets his requests. – hszmv Nov 30 '20 at 15:20

Look to Biology:

Okay, so I'm a biologist. I think that way. Something doesn't need to be from an alien planet to have alien motives.

Think of humans and how they looked as primitive hunter-gatherers. They abused each other for gain (food/mating, etc). They hunted what they wanted, relied on others in a tight-knit community for support. If you try to look at them, they're our own species, and it's still tricky to think like them.

Now pick any other species on Earth. Look at what they do. What motivates them? How do they relate to other species and other members of their own species? How do they seek food, and mates, and do they even need shelter? If they had no problems as a species evolving, they would probably never become intelligent.

Then take those motives and add intelligence. What would intelligent cattle look like? Intelligent owls? intelligent mice? Try to ascribe a set of motives and needs to your species, then figure out how they intelligently would pursue those goals, modified somewhat for the evolution of intelligence.

Intelligent cattle might be anxious without many members of their own species present - your alien might glom on to this girl out of a desperate need of company. Intelligent owls might be predators, eat only live food, or be nocturnal. Perhaps they DISLIKE their own species except during mating season. Or intelligent mice might be nervous in open spaces, constantly seeking food, and have no sense of ownership about food. They might be defensively aggressive and always think you're trying to hurt them. The possibilities are endless.

So pick a species and try to imagine the motives they might have if they became the intelligence on a planet. The moon isn't a good candidate for an alien home since it doesn't support life. What did the home world look like for your alien? What drove it to live on the moon? Think about how the alien world shapes the behavior of the species. Michael McCollum in his Antares series had aliens that were deeply Xenophobic, but it was because their home world had an additional hostile sentient species on it, and they learned to hate aliens. Invent motives if you like, but back them up with good logic.

Beware of the trap of ascribing "perfect" motives for your species. If your aliens have evolved beyond all pettiness, they are 1. boring, 2. preachy, and 3. unlikely to interact with humans even for survival. Let your alien be arrogant (to contrast and exemplify the traits your MC needs to overcome) or a predator (who has a hard time not killing and eating humans, which look like a prey species) or even constantly afraid and neurotic (so your MC must be constantly super-nice just to keep the alien from freaking out). decide on a flaw that fits with the biology and evolution of the species.

  • I'm a big fan of the worldbuilding stackexchange, so once you've imagined what motives you want for your species, it's a good place to go for creative ideas about the 'whats' of your species if you can't think of why an alien species would be (fill in the blank - obsessed with grass, or prone to random violent outbursts, or why they aren't eating people).

Inventing alien cultures is one of the hardest things any writer of speculative fiction can attempt. Too many purportedly alien cultures are nothing more than human cultures in disguise. Star Trek's Klingons are only the West's perception of medieval Japanese warrior culture pretending to be that of humanoid creatures from another planet.

Cultures are created out of mixture of values and behaviour modified by a series of historical accidents and refracted by social, political, environmental and economic circumstances. This means even human cultures can be alien relative to other human cultures.

To put it crassly, Zulus, Cambodians and Finlanders don't basically share American cultural values and are only waiting for them to break out and be expressed in the world. However, humans everywhere want to be treated fairly, shown respect, and want their points of views and opinions to be considered in decisions affecting them.

Sticking with humans, we generally share common emotional responses to what hurts us and what makes us feel good. Consider the following hypothetical example. A woman is jilted and left at the church unwed. In front of all her friends and family, she is devastated. This is her human reaction to this set of circumstances. Different cultures determine different responses.

Culture A: She is ruined woman and commits suicide.

Culture B: Her brothers swear vengeance to hunt down the bounder and surgically remove parts of his anatomy.

Culture C: She says rats! There are plenty of fish in the sea. Everybody goes to the Wedding Party that isn't a Wedding Party and gets merry.

These are hypothetical cultural responses. Their emotional basis remains a human response. Behaviour and the values determining what they do in response are what constitutes their culture.

Now a truly *alien alien will be a creature with a different culture shaped by different history, different economic circumstances, different political political systems, different legal systems, a different environment on their home planet, and what can make even more dificult a different biology.

So much of human culture is driven by our basic biology and especially our reproductive behaviour and biology. Aliens from advanced technological civilizations will have found out how to control their biologies and modify their behaviour to their own advantage.

Creating aliens with different evolutionary histories and different biologies is hard enough, without trying to create cultures appropriate to them.

So fat this answer has discussed the simple fact that creating aliens is hard, and creating alien cultures is even harder. However, it is reasonable to assume that ethical behaviour will be common to any sapient species anywhere in the universe. Humans and aliens will probably share similar ideas about fairness, kindness and good behaviour. Their values may radically modify how and what is considered fair, kind, just, and behaving well. But it will be the common ground between your bratty Sarah and her Moon-based alien friend.

Apologies for taking the long way around to get to the point.


Ok. This might actually be a problem for you. I'm not going to lie. Making a completely alien culture is going to be really hard when you're a human. But it's possible, it's definitely possible.

I've got a few suggestions on what you might be able to do. But I'm a human too, so who knows if these suggestions will actually work or not.

My first suggestion is to think up ideas, try really hard to think of completely alien ideas, and then do the complete opposite. If the complete opposite seems too human, then you know that the original idea was about as close to completely alien as you could get.

The next thing you could do is try to study the way other shows and books have represented aliens. Don't copy them, but take some ideas from them to build your own alien community. For example, in Aliens, the aliens are vicious monsters that broke into a human ship and started killing everyone. Their community is advanced but overall just simple, mostly just a big place for the queen to lay her eggs. But is Super Girl, aliens are quite close to being the exact same as humans, except they are far more technologically advanced than humans are. Maybe take those two alien ideas and mash them together to make this aliens community, something like a highly operational city full of aliens that look like monsters, but are actually more human than you'd think. The highly operational city could also have an entire section based completely on the queen laying her eggs or giving birth or something. Get the idea?

Overall though, you really can't make a civilization that's too alien, due simply to the fact that you aren't an alien, you're a human, and as you said, we humans can't think too much outside the box, particularly when the box is the only thing most of us will ever get to see unless we decide to become astronauts. So sorry if this advice doesn't work. I really wanted to help because no one else would, but just like you, I'm human too, so there's not much that I could do. (Ayyyy, that rhymed. Pretty cool huh?)

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