Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Adapting Earth Animals 
into Alien Lifeforms

By S.L. Viehl

© 2002, S.L. Viehl

Here’s a bit of movie trivia you probably don’t know: Charles Bailey III, the Chief Model Maker and the man who helped created Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1981), told a reporter that he inverted a domestic cat’s head when he made the preliminary sketches of the much-beloved alien’s face.  By turning a feline’s slanty, slightly wicked features upside down, he was able to produce a tender, sympathetic yet-still-inhuman face that would appeal to everyone, especially children.  E.T. went on to gross over $400 million dollars at the box office, so I’d say he had the right idea.

Writing science fiction and fantasy novels usually means populating your story with other-than-human life forms.  For fantasy writers, this generally means raiding mythology, or using the genre standards like dragons, trolls, and faerie-type creatures to come up with believable beings.

Science fiction authors, on the other hand, produce a lot of very strange critters.  In the desperate dash to be different, many go way overboard to invent fantastic, outlandish species unlike anything anyone has ever seen.  It’s an admirable expression of their artistic abilities, but there’s an inherent problem:  they almost always lose the reader along the way.  Sure, it sounds ultra-cool to have a whole herd of 80-foot quasi-limbed orb-stasis beings, but unless you draw me a picture of these things, I have no idea what you’re talking about.  However, if you tell me that your alien has four wings, ten eyes, and looks a little like a kangaroo, I’m right there with you. 

Why Go With What You Know?

The difference is simply point of reference.  Most readers need at least something familiar to draw on for their imagination, or like me, they get lost.  They might read “quasi-limbed” and “orb-stasis” as being anything from gigantic paramecium with protruding stomachs to legless/armless/headless bubble-beings.  But if you base your alien on something familiar, like a kangaroo with wings and lots of eyes, they can construct a vision of what you’re describing out of what they already know.

Mini Science Lesson

The classification of organisms is called taxonomy. Here on Earth we use a taxonomy system that places all organisms into five categories, or kingdoms:  Monera (prokaryota), Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia.  These categories are further subdivided into phyla, classes, orders, families, genus, and species.  The way our science teachers have us remember the order of the classification system is a little jingle:  King Philip Can Order For German Students. 

The five kingdoms make up Earth’s Tree of Life.  Any biologist can tell you that we’re barely begun to count all the branches in the tree, and what belongs to them, and how they all work together.  One on my favorite sites on the Internet is David R. Maddison’s Tree of Life Web Project, which you can find at 

I use Earth organisms from all five kingdoms as foundations for all the alien species in my novels, not only for point of reference, but because it saves me a lot of headaches.  With all due respect to outlandish-lovers, I think our planet has enough interesting critters to keep me creatively inspired forever.  Also, researching Earth animal biology allows me not only to construct believable and interesting alien life forms, but to give them instincts, feeding and mating habits, natural environments, and so on, similar to the same for the real animals.

Your aliens don’t have to be based on a single animal, either.  In my StarDoc series, my Aksellan miners are pretty much straight-forward three-foot-tall sentient black widow spiders, with some tarantula characteristics thrown in.  However, when I created the Patriarch of Furin and his people, I crossed a beetle with a horse and gave it the ability to fly (imagine finding one of those things circling around your porch light one night).  You can combine two, three, or six different animals to create your alien critters, too.  There’s no limit on the mix, how you put them together, or what they do.  Just keep in mind that if you have an entire race of winged beings and they don’t fly, you’d better have a good reason why not – otherwise, why would they develop wings in the first place?

Building the Perfect Beast

At the moment I’m working on building onto an existing species that I wasn’t able to get into much detail about in a previous book – the natives of K-2, the ‘Zangians.  Originally I envisioned them as an amphibious, ambulatory cross between an orca and a dolphin (at the time, the thought of sharing an E.R. with a walking, talking Shamu the Killer Whale was too much fun to resist).  Now I have to expand on that species for my BioRescue books – not just present readers with a glimpse of my orca/dolphins, but their entire life cycle, habitat, natural enemies, and so on.  I’m going back to hit the biology books, not just to reacquaint myself with the species, but to see what advantages they have and what challenges they face here on this planet.  I think my ‘Zangians will be more believable and enjoyable for the reader because I’ll adapt what really happens to their “cousins” here on Earth for them.

When you set out to construct your alien life forms, don’t simply look at biology – look at their biosphere, too.  If you have a desert world, you’re going to need beings who can survive in that type of environment.  Obviously, not orca/dolphins.  Also, at what evolutionary stage are your aliens?  If you have a civilization with the capacity for light-speed space travel, they’ll probably have a highly developed, sophisticated culture as well.  On the other hand, not every species evolves out to the stars.  Some may remain at certain levels and never progress beyond them.  Some may be facing extinction as a result.  These are all questions you need to ask yourself when you’re world- and alien-building.

Being Practical, Having Fun

It’s extremely practical to use Earth animals as foundations and guides toward creating your alien life forms, but have a good time with it, too.

One of the SF books I enjoyed reading the most was Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.  Piper obviously had a lot of fun creating his Fuzzies, which seemed to me to be a cross between monkeys and raccoons.  Although this book is long out of print and the author sadly committed suicide in the ‘60’s, I still recall the main Fuzzy character learning to communicate with the protagonist, “Pappy Jack.”  Fuzzy did so through food, sorting stones by color, and other delightful behaviors (all very chimp-like).  That’s a hallmark of creating excellent aliens – when someone like me who read the book once can remember the characteristics thirty years later (and I vaguely recall some local pest Jack called “damnthings” too).

Give your reader that point of reference, and then use your artistic skills to build up to something they’ve never seen before – but won’t get lost trying to imagine.  You’ll end up with aliens you love to write, and stories people will love to read.