Language & Culture: The Alien in Fiction


This week I thought about how we portray alien cultures in our writing. How do you handle different cultures, or alien groups. Should we use the spelling and pronunciation of names to distinguish the cultures we want to write about? Do we create a dialect, a patois that sets the culture apart, that conveys their foreignness? How do we indicate this is a different culture?

I believe an advantage for science fiction and fantasy writing is that we can infuse our stories with different creatures and peoples. This opportunity to explore different types of beings is wondrous. But the challenge is complex and difficult to clearly show aliens in ways that are understandable and interesting to the readers. We must carefully approach the steps we take, the words we use, and the names we choose in our writing. Too much detail and accuracy could bore the reader. Too little information could hide the difference and confuse it with our normal culture. To help me think about how we handle these topics I asked two writer friends their thoughts.

Stephanie Barr responded, “All but one of my groups are “different” as in not conforming to any particular time or place on earth. The culture for these groups is given as we go. Things that familiar or different are noted in passing as part of the discussion or demonstrated via action, all taken as a given rather than justified or explained.“

Since I’m character driven, generally the parallels between one culture and a human culture are deliberate, but different. Say, prejudice against shapeshifting/magic rather than skin color or religion. I try to keep the cultures a collection of characteristics that have been demonstrated actual past cultures so that I can say, if challenged, “Yeah, people really did that.” Naming methodologies are often indicative of the cultures (using my own ideas). I usually have handful of culture specific terms but use terms people would recognize to denote similar objects for clarity.”

Jason Nugent described his approach, “I use names to indicate it’s different. I sometimes will use a certain dialect however I feel like if it’s radically different, readers won’t deal with it for long.”

In my book Asante’s Gullah Journey I try to portray a different culture where the language and behavior are different. It was important for me to show an unfamiliar group of people. I made an effort to demonstrate with names, language, foods, and other cultural attributes how that society stands apart from the reader’s world. As writers we must communicate difference while keeping the reader in mind so we don’t lose them. We writers are fortunate to have such an interesting task, which makes the act of writing an always new and pleasurable experience.


Stephanie Barr: and

Jason J. Nugent:

S. A. Gibson:


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