This is topic What do you call a friendly alien? in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by axeminister (Member # 8991) on :
On various occasions, I've had critiquers point out that I use human terms to refer to my aliens, such as "man" and "people".

However, I don't know what else to call them. I have one story where I say male and female, but we don't spent any time with them, so that's fitting.

But if a human and an alien spend 10 years together on an empty planet Enemy Mine style, how else would the human refer to the alien? Or the alien society?

Picard called Worf a man...

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Been working through that in my latest story---literally, 'cause it's kind of the idea I was working on this past week and a half. (So much for originality, and, yeah, I thought of "Enemy Mine" a couple of days ago.)

Male and female are there (at least in my story), and I figure "man" and "woman" will do, as the notion that "people" are "people," however alien they might seem. However, I've reserved "human" for those of human stock, and I've come up with another name for the aliens.

If your POV character sees the alien as "people," then they should be referred to as "people."
Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
It depends on the alien. And it depends on your point of view and themes. If the aliens have male and female and especially if they are basically humanoid in shape, I don't see why "man" and "woman" would be a problem. Especially given that they'd have their own words their own language anyway.

With species that don't have our concept of male and female gender and/or are drastically non-humanoid it's a little different I suppose. There's person, being, sentient, individual...also, you could refer to them by their species name.

Of course Picard called Worf a man. First, Klingons (and most Star Trek aliens) aren't that different from humans because of, the second point, Star Trek is all about the idea that "everybody's human." Now that is a problem for me, the use of "human" (the name of our species) as a synonym for "sentient" and the like.

It certainly does bring up some interesting questions, writing speculative fiction...but without a bit more context its hard to offer specific advice.
Posted by genevive42 (Member # 8714) on :
I've used 'beings', 'creature', 'subject', 'two-leg', 'friend', and the name of the race.

While I distinctly avoid 'man', 'woman' and 'human', I see no problem with 'people'.

You might consider a nickname, especially if it's a human referring to someone else. It shows familiarity and can help make a character distinct.
Posted by Owasm (Member # 8501) on :
I've named the alien race before and use that. For a personal encounter, you can use person and their name. If the alien can't talk, then have the MC give him a name.

If the alien is very similar to a human, i.e. like an elf in fantasy, then I don't see a problem in man, woman as long as the reader isn't confused.
Posted by Crystal Stevens (Member # 8006) on :
I try to stay away from "human" myself in most instances, even when refering to someone from Earth. I know some Hatrackers don't like the term, but I prefer "Earther" to "human". "Human" can have too many connotatations depending on who's reading the story because of how we define humanity as a higher standard than animals. I think most of this comes from compassion and the ability to help and even change other people's lives for the better. We connect this with the term "human" and feel it should belong to no other species--alien or otherwise--than our own.

I usually stick with "male" or "female" if the term applies to aliens from other worlds. "He" and "she" makes it even easier if your POV character doesn't know their name's. Or calling them by what they are called on their home world.

"Peaple", to me, refers to any group of beings that live in a working society above an animalistic level. This would include the ability to use tools and to show signs of developing into something more than just animals. How they look or where they're from makes no difference. Peopla are people if they can continue to learn and grow to become more than they are.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Noun or name suffixes, for example, might mark masculine, feminine, or neuter gender. A Spanish term like la escuela means the (she) school (she), article-noun gender agreemeent. El gato, the (he) cat (he), while gato means cat in many denotative senses, it also idiomatically means jack, as in a car jack, a masculine noun.

A she or he school? Since a school nurtures, it generally has a feminine connotation. Gato, a jack does manual labor; therefore, it generally has a masculine connotation.

The she person, or the like, while awkward to read at first, might become easy for readers to read if the context is set up fluidly early on and consistency is maintained, like if the alien society is deeply status conscious.

I can't recollect how many times I've heard some kids talking about pets when some one of them said boy dog, or girl cow, or girl bird, etc.

[ December 04, 2011, 12:31 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
That's actually what I was thinking too. It sounds a bit archaic to some but adding "he" or "she" to, say, a species name could work.

For instance, I have trolls and such in my Roads universe...I could see using "she-Troll" or the like.
Posted by enigmaticuser (Member # 9398) on :
I'm there with you. I'd also remind that Kirk said Spock was the most human soul, which I think added a huge stroke of adoption if you will.

For a less formal relationship, I call my aliens, aliens, male and female rather than man or woman. But in the adoption sense like with Kirk, I think of how I'm "family" even when I'm not really family with some people. Likewise, if I was sitting around a campfire with a good alien friend, I could see myself saying "Man, that was awesome." Or "You want a beer dude...well, I mean, do your people drink beer?"

In conversation, we anthropromorphise things, its a much smaller leap to relate as a human to a non-human. I mean in Castaway Tom Hanks has believable conversations and affection for a volleyball.

So I would say its a matter of the distance between the POV character and the alien, and I think that could and should change over time. They either became more alien or more "human". So it's a matter of how the POV thinks of them. Do they think of them as something strange or "one of us"?
Posted by genevive42 (Member # 8714) on :
I could see using "she-Troll" or the like.
Interesting, that this immediately made me think, 'well why not he-troll?' What this seems to indicate is a male-dominated society where 'she' is the other. Yes, much like 'man' and 'woman'. So if you have a matriarchal society, you should probably consider how the language may differ.

And the same goes for aliens. When I used 'two-leg' it was from the pov of an alien with six legs who resided on a planet where most beings had significantly more limbs than humans. So the lack of limbs was distinctive for the pov character to note. But the same could apply to the way one character smells to another, or the way they sound. An alien race that has a very melodic voice might end up getting called 'singers' or something like that. And if the relationship is antagonistic, something derogatory would be quite fitting.
Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
I'd also be using "he-Troll," more likely than not, just for the record. I was speaking about the adding he or she to a things species method in general (I think Lewis uses that method, for both genders I think, in Narnia somewhat referring to the talking animals.)
Posted by LDWriter2 (Member # 9148) on :
I have read books where aliens where called people or persons. Maybe not man or woman but still people even though individual characters may use the term man or woman under certain circumstances while the narrator still says people or person.

This could be one of those situations where you use what works for you. Your critiquers may not like using those terms for non-humans or may not be used to it.
Posted by genevive42 (Member # 8714) on :
I'd also be using "he-Troll," more likely than not
Equal opportunity labeling - I like it.
Posted by Smaug (Member # 2807) on :
Posted by History (Member # 9213) on :
How alien are your aliens?

I recall Asimov's THE GODS THEMSELVES where there were three genders required to reproduce. I found that relatively innovative. I have yet to write a story with aliens--well,at least not since my return to writing [I do recall I wrote a sf/alien tale over 30 years ago (inspired by another Asimov story) that was about how strange human sexuality is, even disgusting from an alien perspective].

Similarly, Jerry Pournelle's and Larry Niven's "Moties" in THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE.

If your aliens have earthly similarities in regard to sexuality and gender, then "he" and "she" would be appropriate. If they are a bit different, then I'd have your MC clarify how he/she qualifies the use of gender references. If they are truly alien, then you should use alien terms (create alien language by which the aliens identify each other: e.g. chtlal for one gamete (DNA provider), ryrzx for a second, alwst for a third (or for the one who incubates the zygote, which occurs with the combining of gametes).

Dr. Bob
Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
Ah, Moties. Haven't seen one of those for a while.

Niven's Pierson's Puppeteer race also have the three-gender deal...and of course he also has the Kzinti, whose females are nonsentient.
Posted by Teraen (Member # 8612) on :
I think History and Enigmaticuser are on the rightest track. It isn't a question of what to call your aliens so your readers don't critique you, it is a question of how your characters view the alien species. This will be reflected in how they refer to them, which in turn will be reflected to your readers.

If your characters view them as "people," it means the humans have begun to view them as equals. This is what happens in Star Trek where enlightened humans consider any sentient being as equals.

If your characters view them continually as "The Other," then they are more likely to refer to them by slang, derogatory terms, or their name as aliens (the Borg).

It wasn't too long ago in our history, and some crazy people still do, that we referred to people of other races as alien and less than human simply because they differed from the majority. It isn't too unbelievable to think that same prejudiced view would carry over if we discovered other life forms.

In fact, different people in your story may use different terms of reference, demonstrating how they view the others.

In short, you may be misusing the term "man" and "people" if your readers are noticing that is how the main characters refer to an alien species, but that is not how the main characters actually view them. Or, you may have done it perfectly and just found out that your readers don't feel comfortable with viewing aliens as equals.
Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
If your characters view them as "people," it means the humans have begun to view them as equals. This is what happens in Star Trek where enlightened humans consider any sentient being as equals.

If your characters view them continually as "The Other," then they are more likely to refer to them by slang, derogatory terms, or their name as aliens (the Borg).

I feel the need to mention that while I absolutely agree that how the characters view the aliens is a hugely important factor...perhaps in some ways the most important...issues beyond that of equality come into play, depending on the nature of the aliens. Especially as regard gender...if the aliens are aesexual/hermaphroditic or three (or more) gendered, that raises some linguistically issues, potentially, no matter how they are viewed. Likewise, for most people even if they see the being as an equal, referring to, say, an octopus with crab legs or a giant beetle or a dragon as a "man" or "woman" is going to feel off.

I think the key is generally going to lie at the axis between character perception and the nature of the species in question.
Posted by babooher (Member # 8617) on :
I think you can look to fantasy for an answer to this question. Are not elves and dwarfs (or dwarves) nonhumans? I would find it perfectly natural to read how "Ted looked at the elf and admired her taut frame and high cheekbones." So why not how "Ted looked at the klry and admired her taut frame and beautiful plumage?"

I don't think Ted in the above passage views the elf or the klry in a xenophobic way. In some work I've been doing I have something of an alien sidekick/best friend for the protagonist. The protagonist never ignores the alien's alien aspects because that would be insulting, rude, condescending, and whatnot.
Posted by Crystal Stevens (Member # 8006) on :
I just couldn't resist with all this talk of labeling trolls he-trolls and she-trolls that there are actual terms for the genders in trolls. Male troll are called trolls, but female trolls are called trollops (I hope I spelled that right.). At least that's the way I've been told it is [Smile] .
Posted by LDWriter2 (Member # 9148) on :
Crystal, Robert Aspirn uses those terms in one of his series. A light hearted one where brother and sister trolls are secondary characters and she is all ways described as being a trollop.

Not sure If I have seen Trollop anyway else.

Come to think of it I haven't seen all that many female trolls at all. Anthony has had a couple in his Xanth series but that's about it.

Besides one story here a few months ago.
Posted by Crystal Stevens (Member # 8006) on :
You guessed it LD. That's where I read it. The Myth-Adventures is one of my all time favorite series. Regardless, I think troll and trollop work quite well when describing their gender differences [Wink] .
Posted by genevive42 (Member # 8714) on :
Consider that a trollop, in human terms, is a whore, or at least a loose woman. So what does that say about female trolls?
Posted by Crystal Stevens (Member # 8006) on :
Makes you wonder, doesn't it [Big Grin] ?
Posted by axeminister (Member # 8991) on :
Dang. Well, thanks for the great discussion folks. I would have specified more but I was tear-assing out of the house yesterday, so I only had time for the basic question.

To use examples:

"Fred had worked with Zrax for twenty years over the stellar-com. He disembarked from the deep-space vessel, finally meeting, face to face, the man he'd spent so much time talking to."

In this case, would it matter what Zrax was? If he was a blob in a vat of toxic water and he's male, is he a man?

"Fred had fought for alien rights nearly a decade. Having been banished from Earth, labeled a dissenter, he stood among those he'd failed to help. He didn't like it, but they were his people now."

In this case, again, they could look like anything, but he wouldn't say "These are my aliens now." because he's among them.

Someone mentioned sentience. Indeed - if Fred fought for the alien rights of migrating crabs, then when he stood among them, he probably wouldn't say they were his people. He'd more likely make a comment about his life or situation or the bed he'd made to lie in.

So it seems the lines are drawn at sentience and familiarity.

Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
In this case, would it matter what Zrax was? If he was a blob in a vat of toxic water and he's male, is he a man?

I think most people perceive "man" and "woman" as relatively human terms. It'll work fine for a Klingon or a Minbari perhaps but I think it would strike a lot of folks as odd to call something whose physical form is totally non-human a man or woman.
Posted by Smaug (Member # 2807) on :
I'd agree with that, Merlion. That's how I'd feel about that kind of thing in something I was reading. Humanoids=men and women, non-humanoids probably don't.
Posted by aspirit (Member # 7974) on :
Hi! I think of "man" as an abbreviation of "human" when the focus isn't on gender. Zrax could be a guy, engineer (or whatever his professional title is), Borg, or anything else but a man.

In your second example, "people" makes sense to me. That word implies sentience and familiarity, and in speculative fiction, it does not specify humanity.
Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
enigmaticuser said:
I'd also remind that Kirk said Spock was the most human soul, which I think added a huge stroke of adoption if you will.
Kirk said that when Spock was "dead" if I recall correctly. I believe McCoy once even said, "Everybody's human." This was said in reference to all sentient beings. However, Spock replied, "I find that statement insulting." - or something of that sort.

We have a natural tendency to want to place others with whom we have close bonds into our own group, our team. However, those others may desire to maintain their cultural or planetarial identities and could find such references as derogatory.

I am caucasian, but if I refer to an African-American friend as being "white", it would most likely be perceived as insulting. Similar feelings abound across many various divides, even such as politics and religion.

I see "people" as a better term, because it is not human-specific. Same goes for "male" and "female".

I am certain Spock would prefer to be referred to as a Vulcan, and even though Picar called Worf a "man", I would presume Worf preferred to be referred to as Klingon considering his continuous efforts to identify with that heritage. Whatever race of being your alien is, I would imagine it would prefer to be called that. In fact, being an exiled human, I wouldn't be surprised if your man wasn't referred to as a "keplan" or whatever the people from your planet are called.
Posted by enigmaticuser (Member # 9398) on :
Philocinemas, I'd agree. I was speaking to perspective how the human might see a friendly alien. But you are right the alien may consider it derogatory. Though they might also find it friendly and reciprocate in kind.

For example, while calling an "african" American white might be insulting, it is somehow perfectly not insulting for a "african" American to call a "white" black if he has 'adopted' him. I myself have been adopted black on more than one occasion by my brother from another mother =)
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
"What do you call a friendly alien" reads so much like a gag setup line I keep checking to see if someone has a punch line.

What do you call a friendly alien?

I don't know. Early for dinner?
Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
Enigmaticuser, several people had used the Star Trek analogies, so I wasn't picking on you in particular. Yours just happened to be the best example for my "insulting" comment.

The problem with assigning centric qualities to another "person" (possibly the best generic substitute word) is that it could diminish the other's sense of identity.

The recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good example. Caesar was raised essentially as a human. However, once encountering his on "people", he resented this, partly due to how his "people" were being treated by humans.

If one's sense of identity is secure, centric references would be less offensive in small dosages.
Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
Leave it to extrinsic to tell a joke! - lol [Big Grin]
Posted by Merlion-Emrys (Member # 7912) on :
It's interesting that usually in instances or works where alien individuals are referred to by their race, there is often no distinguishing between the genders (we, day to day, use "human" to refer to our species as a whole and may use "person" or "people" for broad statements, but when referring to a specific individual we usually use "man" or "woman") or if there is it's done by using the species name with "man" or "woman" added. This is similar to how we will sometimes refer to someone in terms of "race: gender" like "white man" or "Asian woman."

Part of the issue here as well is the simple fact that bringing in "people" who are not "human" adds a third dimension that we don't actually deal with in day to day life to any meaningful extent...the concept of "race" is as close as we come. We've yet to have to deal with people who are truly of another race, who are other than human. And it's further complicated by that tendency to use "human" and "humanity" as a synonym for many other things...for sentience, for life, for free will and even morality.

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