by Belinda McBride
Many years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to chat briefly with the late Majel Roddenberry. It was at a Star Trek convention in San Francisco. I confess, I’d never attended an event like this before, and when a friend told me she was going, I went along mostly out of curiosity.
The take-away from that chat was something I’m sure she shared often throughout her career. She told me that her late husband Gene Roddenberry had one important rule for the aliens that appeared in Star Trek: No matter how strange and bizarre they were, they had to have human eyes. He felt that the viewer would be better able to relate to that character if they could connect through the eyes.
We all know that old saying about the eyes being the windows to the soul. In a sense, I believe this was what Roddenberry was demonstrating. As a writer, I don’t have the luxury of using a visual medium to enable a reader to connect to an alien character. An author has to use other methods to “Humanize” a character. I don’t mean an alien has to be or seem human. Rather, they must have elements that make them real, so the reader can relate to them, regardless if they are a hero, an antagonist or a supporting character.
Do you remember that old song “Russians” by Sting? It was released in 1985, and political commentary aside, there was a line that cut through the hostility of the era and forced us to recognize and understand that the Russians were human.
“What might save us, me and you, Is that the Russians love their children too.”
In writing science fiction settings, I’ve created quite a few non-human characters. In the “Uncommon” series, our heroes grapple with several various alien species, most significantly, the Landaun.
When I initially created the Landaun, I simply envisioned them as big, cruel, vicious warriors. They invaded the home planet of our heroes, and literally obliterated it. They were no more than a tool to push the plot along. As the series developed, I realized that as a species, they had to have a reason for doing what they did. Behind the brutality, there had to be culture, ethics and a species-wide paradigm, regardless of how horrible they are on the surface. And those reasons had to be something we can relate to.
Ultimately, the Landaun are a tragic host of people, they are facing extinction, and they know it. Their “take all” perspective no longer works and they are shut out of larger alliances and coalitions. Their planet is dying; their internal honor system is resulting in the elimination of entire family lines. If the parent is dishonored, their children die. Thus, the Landaun must not lose. Ever.
I don’t think I made them sympathetic in the books, but I hope there was a thread of something we recognize and relate to. Perhaps in future books members of that species will show up and I can develop the Landaun a with more care and individual detail. Theirs is a doomed culture, in time, their entire system will collapse. At the end of “When I Fall,” one of their leaders is captured, stands trial and is imprisoned, knowing that all of his family…parents, siblings, spouse and children will commit suicide because of his shame. When I wrote that, the horror of that character’s fate struck me hard.
We have many tools as writers, and as speculative fiction writers, we have unlimited worlds to explore. But to effectively reach out to the reader, our characters have to be relatable, whether they are strange creatures with tentacles or villainous fae. If you’re writing a character who seems difficult to relate to, look for that chink in their armor, their Achilles Heel. Discover what makes them laugh and cry. What do they like to eat, what games do they play? What they care about more than life.
After all, even Grendel had a mother who loved him more than life.
Belinda McBride is an award winning author of romantic speculative fiction. Her newest release is The Tenth Muse, in which Eros, the God of Love falls hard for Rees, a young human scholar.
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