We remember the strange things. When we discuss science fiction, we marvel over the bizarre landscapes and creepy creatures that crawl from the author’s imagination. Suspension of disbelief, however, rests a heavier burden on science fiction than similar genres, like fantasy, that also parade the unseen through the eye of imagination. Inspiration and realism, however, are not as far removed as you’d think.
Find Your Creatures
Features we find uniquely horrifying and wonderful come from nature. Too many long, spindly legs? Spiders. Giant, adorable eyes that project untainted innocence? Bush babies. To create unique creatures, it’s best to start with reality and work out. Ask yourself what features you like about your dog. Then ask what changes might transform your sweet pup into a nightmare beast. Longer legs? More eyes? A secondary pair of jaws? Here’s more on creating an awesome, terrifying monster: Writing Monsters.
Develop Your Creature’s Landscape
Every creature is ultimately defined by their habitat. So, once you have your beastie – intelligent or otherwise – figure out what evolutionary advantages it’s grown. In an alternate history, stork-like terror birds that tower on ten feet over narrow, splayed toes would do well in marshes. Your spider dog’s extensions may also make it a good fit for the fringes of a swamp.
Remember, plant life is just as strange and variable as your creatures. What would the world look like without angiosperms (flowering plants)? Are there trees? If so, what kind? You may not even have grass in your strange new world.
Weather, seasons, and astronomical events deserve consideration, too. How are nights different from days? What adaptations help your creatures survive in the face of extreme heat, cold, or frequent rain?
Look at Your Ecosystem
If you have one monster, you need a supporting cast of creatures. Predators need prey, and you’ll need a mix of both herbivores and predators. Omnivores have a place in the system, too. Where do scavengers come into play, and what horrifying differences do they feature from the norm?
Keep in mind, even apex predators have competition. Humans rule our version of Earth, but we still lose individual members to animals like lions, sharks, and – of course – microbes.
Drizzle Your Fiction with Science
The fact is, an alternate universe or alien planet is ultimately unknowable. Even the best scientists can only postulate the exact details of ancient ecosystems and far-flung solar systems. That doesn’t mean they have no pieces of the puzzle, though, and it’s important for your readers’ suspension of disbelief to know at least a little bit of the science.
For example, if you plan to have massive insects or spiders, your human protagonist will notice a distinct difference in the air. To sustain the massive dragonflies of old, the air had much more oxygen, among other things. Do a little sleuthing to see how this would impact a human’s stamina, focus, and even lifespan.
What is your favorite science fiction creature? Which alien world stands out in your mind’s eye? You can create the same terror and wonder in your own work, and you can help your audience believe it, too.