Welcome to the Worldbuildbulding Series! This collection of posts discusses the art of SFF world-building, from armor, to culture to creatures. In this installment, we look at the more “cosmic” end of fantasy creature/race design. For those of you who like your fantasy races on the weird and wild side, this guide is for you!
While this might seem like a really weird idea at first, really stop to think about it. While we mostly consider aliens as strictly sci-fi fare, quite a bit of UFO lore focuses on ancient civilizations, and the occult. Psychics, ancient magical technology, and all sorts of crazy and decidedly non-scientific ideas have been associated with aliens for decades now. To a point where I almost think many alien archetypes actually fit better in a fantasy setting.
And yes, I get that not everyone’s so gung-ho about that sort of stuff in their fantasy settings. I however, like my fantasy settings very weird. So for those of you tat feel the same, I decided to draw up some rules for some popular alien archetypes that can be used in either classic fantasy or a sci-fi tinged sorcery story. Enjoy!
RULES FOR CREATING A FANTASY ALIEN RACE:
Obviously these are subjective and can be tweaked as needed, but I find these guidelines really useful when writing fantasy-themed alien species.
+ The terminology must change. Instead of calling them space invaders or aliens, you call them “astrals” or something to that effect. Feel free to use the word “alien” in your fantasy setting if dealing with squiddish, Lovecraftian things, though. Those have been a fantasy staple for decades. Otherwise settle for “astral ancients” or “the foul void-beasts from beyond.”
+ Technology must take a backseat to magic. UFOs may exist, but should have some sort of magical explanation (revolving stone discs, elemental warpgates, divine/demonic influence, etc). Magitech may be used, with a very clear emphasis on the “magi,” lest you stray too far into full-blown sci-fantasy territory. When in doubt, remember that ancient civilizations and/or Lovecraftian Horror are always great ways to bridge the sci-fi stuff over to full-blown fantasy.
+ They must be creatures of legend, perhaps misunderstood but nevertheless beings of great power similar to Elves or other semi-godlike entities. So immortality, super-intelligence, the whole kit and caboodle.
EXAMPLE 1: SPACE ELVES/ANNUNAKI/NORDIC ALIENS
Let’s start off with a REAL easy one. The Nordic Aliens, aka Annunaki, aka space elves. Basically something like like the Eldar from Warhammer 40k with less of a focus on tech. An angelic, blonde or white-haired creature from beyond who may or may not want to start some kind of crazy wizard cult on the world of your fantasy setting. They could be beings from another dimension, monsters in disguise or…y’know, just elves, man. Creepy, creepy elves who occasionally probe butts (no, not like that).
While it may be tempting to make heavenly-looking spess elves be some sort of kind, vegan carebear race, I honestly think the idea of making them bad guys is way more appealing. Like, imagine a fantasy novel or RPG setting where you have to deal with crazed cultists talking about “rings of fire” and using things like magic-powered rifles against your band of curious heroes. Or perhaps the denizens of your fantasy world accepted “angelic astrals” as the leaders and kings in exchange for powerful magic, and now your plucky band of heroes must expose them, They Live-style.
Hell, depending on how crazy you want your story to be, you could even have these guys use technology and UFOs, and explain it all away as some sort of planar magic or dimensional voodoo. Or just go full-blown sci-fantasy. Either way Space Elves basically make for a great antagonistic wizard/sage bad guy with mysterious origins. And well…they’re friggin’ elves. This one’s an easy addition.
Alternatively, feel free to spice it up and do a variation on the concept. Cosmic Dwarves could actually get away with constructs like UFOs and guns in a fantasy setting given their more recent steampunk influences. Cosmic Rakshasa or other D&D-style monsters on the other hand, could perform a similar function to spess elves, but may have a more menacing, beast-like presence.
Speaking of which, here’s one a certain water filter merchant may know a thing or two about….
EXAMPLE 2: REPTILIANS/LIZARDMEN
Reptilians are another conspiracy theory-flavored, potentially fun take on aliens that lend themselves well to fantasy settings. Especially the kind where mysterious things are going on, and the Lizard People really run the show.
It’s also been done before in fantasy. There was a Conan series for kids (yes, really) where our favorite Barbarian fought Reptilian beings who took over the world. Also going back to Warhammer, there’s the Lizardfolk, who while less “sophisticated” than most lizardmen/reptilian alien concepts, could make for a very threatening orc-like soldier species if used as fantasy aliens. So in summary, Lizard people can either be cunning world leaders or soldiers for another, more dastardly species. Or perhaps summoned forth to your world by the Big Bad.
Or maybe a wizard accidentally summoned eggs from another world, unleashing a plague of lizard-men upon your world. Now the lizard-men rule over everything, possibly from the sewers. Because honestly, who would think to look there?
Or who knows? Maybe in your setting the lizardmen are the good guys? Maybe the High Holy Church of My’rac has ordered the common folks to “slay the scaled beasts wherever you find them”…and it turns out the ‘scaled beasts” just came to your world to cure cancer or stop world hunger. And in a shocking twist, the High Church is run by the Spess Elves.
EXAMPLE 3: CLASSIC ALIENS
Traditional bug-eyed “Greys” are a bit trickier to work with, but while doing my homework, I actually found some Magic: The Gathering artwork that seem to fit the bill of “fantasy aliens” quite nicely. Pathfinder also has stats for them, and casts them as mythical creatures exploring the ether. Honestly, it’s not as hard as you might think to get the classic B-movie alien working in a fantasy setting. And after racking my brain for some ideas, I came up with a few ideas for either Grays or classic green aliens in a more “magical” world:
– Old-school aliens as yet another fantasy monster in the world with little or no reference to their cosmic origins. They could perhaps live underground and have occasional feuds with the dwarves. Bonus points if you call them “Tommyknockers” in reference to the Stephen King book.
– Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-style “Aliens Guy” ancient aliens with powerful magic. Possibly the originators of magic, and/or civilization, and might be harvesting humans, dwarves and elves for food. Add Cthulhu-style Old Ones to the mix if you really wanna dial it up to 11.
– Basically wizard ET. Magical little friendly space-man lands in a cold, unforgiving world and heals the injured. Will most likely be burned alive for his heresy, prompting his people to wage a war with the offending fantasy planet. the result? Wizard Aliens vs Knights. Maybe add some more pizzazz to the concept, but if Jim Butcher can pull of “Roman Pokemon” in Codex Alara, you can easily pull this off.
– Summons. A character uses a summon and pulls either a psyonic gray (if you wanna keep your aliens fantasy) or a full-blown Raygun Gothic Kill-All-Humans green mars man (For sci-fantasy fun) from space. Chaos and/or hilarity ensues.
You’ll have to get creative to make it work, but it certainly can be done! Again, see Jim Butcher for a great example of that.
EXAMPLE 4: EVERYTHING AND THE KITCHEN SINK
When all’s said and done though, you can do literally anything with aliens, as the only real requirement is that “they come from space/another world/a different dimension. That’s it. There’s no law written in stone that your setting must have orcs, elves, dwarves and hobbits. It’s your story and you can do whatever you want with it.
Heck, Orcs and Draenei from Warcraft are basically aliens already (Coming to Azeroth from the planet Draenor via magical portals), so it’s not like it hasn’t been done. And honestly, if you like the idea of an otherworldly alien race but don’t want the slightest semblance of sci-fi mucking up your setting, this is the way to go. They come from another world with wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey magic. Boom, fantasy space aliens.
Also, implying that creatures from other worlds visit your characters’ planet via magical means opens up a galaxy of possibilities for cool settings. Does magic have different properties on other worlds? Do cultural differences mean “Black Magic” is “White Magic” in a different world? Are there pantheons of alien deities that can help or hinder our heroes? And what sort of bad-ass dragons come from a world with ten times the gravity of ours?
Honestly, you can go nuts with this stuff, and many well-known franchises have (See Star Wars, Elric, Conan, Warcraft, and more). It is however, not a plot device many readers associate with fantasy, despise major franchises making good use of it. I’ve always maintained that fantasy can and should be about creativity. Sometimes that creativity can come in the form of re-imagining old mythology and history for a standalone world. That’s what Tolkien and Jordan and George R.R. Martin did, to great effect. But it can also be about coming up with weird new stuff for creativity’s sake. That’s how we got Lovecraft’s horror mythos, and it can be the key to making your story just as unforgettable!
Anyway, those are just a few applications for fantasy uses of space aliens I was able to come up with. It’s not a trope every fantasy writer will use, but it’s fun, and one I love as a fan of John Carter and Cthulhu. I’m of the opinion that fantasy should be weird and surprising, and maybe this list’ll be of some help, unchilseling the old writer’s block.
What kind of fantasy aliens, if any, would you add to your setting? Let me know below!