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?