Writer Wednesday – Familiar vs Alien: Finding a Balance Pt.1

There is a delicate balance required when creating alien cultures and strange worlds. If you create something truly unique, it is unlikely to be well received. As much as everyone complains about worlds where things tie back to our own in very clear ways or how alien cultures are always re-hashed versions of earth cultures, that is what sells. The closer to either extreme you go, the harder it is to sell.

If you lean too heavily towards the familiar, it comes off as amateur. If you move too far into the alien, it becomes so distant from our own experiences that we simply can’t grasp it readily. Walking the balanced path is key and not at all easy when you consider that different audiences will accept different things as being acceptable.

A good example of leaning heavily on the familiar is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. From the very start, there are references to things we are aware of and they are woven throughout. Trolloc is a term taken from troll. Rand al’Thor is a fairly clear reference to a rather familiar heroic name. There are even a form of Gypsy in the world modeled after the history of our own. Even so, there are many unique aspects of the world blended in as well. The balance allows one to feel like they already know something about the world and the characters, but without feeling like it is childish.

On the other side, some writings offer us unique worlds with something understandably alien. H. P. Lovecraft wrote often of strange beings beyond our comprehension. The way that we are able to bring ourselves into the worlds he wrote of and feel like these strange beings work is because of the human element that is familiar to us. The strange things we don’t understand are largely hidden from the reader until very near the end. We are given tiny tastes of what is there, but the writing focus’ on the human being(s) who are dealing with the strangeness.

In the future, I will focus in more closely on how to apply the familiar and the alien to achieve the proper balance. For now, focus on your own writing. When reading, does it remind you heavily of the world created by another author? Does it seem difficult to know what a being in the world is doing and thinking or what prompted their actions without already knowing the information you have created in the background?

Your readers will not have the benefit of your insights. They can only go by what is on the page. If your world is a mirror of Tolkien, it isn’t going to stand out at all among the hundreds of others who did the same. If it is so foreign that the reader requires an encyclopedia of data to grasp what is going on in your world, it isn’t going to draw them in. Seek always to find a solid balance that draws people in, but offers something new to pique their interest.

What are your thoughts?

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