Why do aliens look like us?

Aliens Week is here!
I’ve got some great stuff lined up for you. Later today I’m going to throw out an open thread that I hope we can use for discussions throughout the week. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I’ve asked Thomas Evans to provide a counterpoint to my bias for talking about sexy male aliens (which I do often on the blog) with his three-part post on the appeal of female aliens in fiction. On Thursday, SFR author Lilly Cain will be visiting. I have a great interview to post and a giveaway. On Friday, I’m interviewing my resident superhero aficionado in preparation for (hopefully) a review of The Green Lantern on Saturday.

Why do aliens look like us?
To kick things off, I wanted to talk a bit about why many aliens in fiction look like humans. Star Trek is famous for the many forehead appliances applied to human actors to make them look more alien. They explained this away by, at some point in the series, suggesting that all these human-like alien worlds were seeded by a benevolent group of aliens as they were winging their way through our universe. Not a bad explanation as far as it goes.

Many SciFi tales simply follow people who spread out from Earth, colony stories being one popular off shoot. The Firefly movie, Serenity, starts out talking about Earth That Was as part of the history. Of course, many tales in the SciFi Romance Genre don’t even attempt to explain why most of the people in the book look like we do, even though there is no mention of Earth. Why? Because SciFi Romance readers, for the most part, are eager to suspend disbelief on that aspect of the story from the moment they pick up the story. I’ll talk more about why in a moment.

The practical reason for human-like aliens.
First, let’s look at the more practical reason for human-like aliens—at least in movies and TV. Historically, if you wanted an alien character to be main character (not a monster) you needed to have a human actor playing the role.

Make-up could be used to make the actor look a little different, but the more make-up the more onerous the experience for the actor and the more distorted their performance might become. The actor’s best tool is their face. Hide or distort that and you seriously handicap them. With modern CGI and motion capture making aliens character look more alien is becoming more doable, but there is still cost to consider.

Being a gelatinous blob just doesn’t interest me.
When you begin to discuss books, none of the practical considerations apply, but you will still find many, many alien characters that look human. Why? Because we the readers relate better to humans. Generally, the goal when you read is to identify with the characters and go on the journey as if you are them. If you have to imagine yourself oozing across the floor as a gelatinous glob, well, that is hard to do.

Hard for the author to write in a way that is going to put you in that characters head. Further, most books boil down to human relationships. Even in a plot driven book, human interaction generally plays a huge roll. A being with a very different physical form is bound to have very different ways of relating to others. And while we might delight in characters with different cultures and ideas, the extreme difference that would go hand in hand with a different physical form takes things to a whole different level. That will work in some hard SF, but not in more character driven stories, like space opera, military SF, and SciFi Romance. SciFi Romance is all about the love relationship and we want characters that experience love, both emotional and physical, like we do.

The twist!
To wrap things up, I’d like to twist my original questions and ask why wouldn’t aliens look like us? When I decided to include aliens in my last novel, I decided they would be similar to humans but with some small differences. As I was contemplating that decision it occurred to me that humans evolved into our physical form because it provided the optimum chance of success in what we humans do: reasoning, planning, tool wielding, etc. It seems logical to me that any being that is out in the universe doing similar stuff to us and that might take an interest in us, would have evolved similarly.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Why do aliens look like us?

  1. I think that aliens looking like us, in film, is because the actors are human. Also, as humans we will relate more directly towards other humans. There are theories I heard in grad school that we evolved as we did to facilitate communication. Our eyes face forward, and we are standing so speech in possible. To advance and evolve as a society one needs to have the ability to communicate, even if you are the ruler you need to be able to communicate. I believe the steroscopic nature of our eyes and ears allow us to locate things and the person(s) with whom we are communicating.

    • Great observation on communication. Yes, our type of communication is very important to civilization–one that might build space ships. Frogs, for instance, have a great communication for locating other frogs in a huge rainforest. Great for finding a mate when they are not located near you and great when that is you number one goal. Not so great for telling other frogs how to build something.

  2. Excellent post, Charlie. We want our alien visitors/love interests to be different enough to make the story exotic, but similar enough to envision the relationship without squirming. In SFR, especially. A potential love interest who is “oozing across the floor as a gelatinous glob” just does not do it for me 🙂

    I enjoy reading about alien/human interactions but haven’t written any yet. Maybe some day.

    • The glob doesn’t do it for me either! But then again, maybe you have to kiss a few globs before you find your prince. 😉

      • oooo, a glob that becomes a prince after you kiss him… gives a whole new twist on the old fairy tale about the frog prince… and an adult version might have the glob able to morph into a physical duplicate of whatever “prince” or “princess” you like, if you think *hard* about that person while kissing the glob… but wow, what sort of misadventures would the main (presumably) human character have to have before discovering this… OK, i think i just blew my own mind with that one!

      • Actually, for what I find the most revolting “love” scene I’ve ever read, I’d suggest looking at Wyrms, by Orson Scott Card. It’s not a blob, but it is torally repuslive and no, they don’t turn into a good looking man at the end.

        On a related note, what about Odo from Star Trek Deep Space 9? Does he qualify as a globular lover?

  3. I do enjoy the occasional gelatinous blob for variety, I do prefer my aliens to look more human. 🙂

  4. I think we want our aliens to have the same problems, hopes, dreams and aspirations we do – otherwise they aren’t heroic and there can’t be any interaction, at least not positive interaction. It would be more like Independence Day. It’s a set up for an adversarial relationship.

  5. It all depends on how far we want them to develop as a society. Do they have opposable thumbs? That’s an important evolutionary advancement to facilitate the use of tools and building.

    And you can take it farther by letting them have more than one set of arms like in the John Carter of Mars series.

    Or they could have superior mind control where they don’t need the use of limbs. Not much fun, but another option in alienness. But no blobs, please. I do enough mopping already.

  6. Actually, in a story I recently ran through the Wordos for review, I found some very interesting responces to the non-humanoid aliens I created. People did sympathize with them, but not willingly. Of course, that could be because I set them up from the beginning to look like they were the bad guys, but hey….

    As for romantic interest though, I must admit that I prefer anthropomophic aliens.

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