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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Architecture of an Alien Planet

When you step into someone's home what's the first thing you do? Scan for exits and security cameras... right, of course, I forgot the audience. What's the second thing you do?

You make a judgment call on the style. Are there bright lime green walls or warm earth tones? Does the room suggest that the owner is cheerful or in need of serious therapy?

The worlds and cultures you create should have the same affect on readers. Or, rather, the designs and architecture you describe should.

Designing Cultural Aesthetics

1. Consider the Species: Human races are all built the same, yet we have had over the millenniums a wide variety of furniture. Some people sit on the floor, some lay down to eat, some prefer standing for everything. Now consider the variations if the species in question isn't human.

I love the part of Orphanage where they are looking for straight lines to find the enemy base on the basis that human doors all use straight lines. Another character points out that these are aliens, they don't use straight lines. Never forget that: Different species use different designs.

2. Consider the Environment: Early human cultures created buildings out of the local materials and that tended to resemble local features. As long as the culture in question is fairly advanced you can go crazy with the shapes, but remember the limitations of what the builders have. What material is available? How can the material move? How are they manipulating (cutting, gluing, bending) the material?

3. Consider the Function: This is always a hard one for me because I think "chair = sit" - not always. While working on Twisted Metal I realized I really needed to underscore the different cultures the MC is visiting by giving her different furniture. I love the Felinium, the cat people, because like cats they love to lounge. They're furniture is wide and edge free. Perfect for sprawling across.

By comparison, furniture in a militaristic culture tends to be purely functional. Raw metal with unfinished edges, utilitarian designs, monochromatic color schemes are all hallmarks of a society to busy with other things to think about enjoyment and comfort.

When you play interior designer for these alternate realities consider what the characters need them for. The background is part of the story too, it needs to have a purpose, and it needs to reflects the needs of the characters.

4. Consider the Personality: Just like individual homes on Earth have different colors and decorations that reflect the personalities of the people inside the architecture and interiors of your creation need to reflect the general views of the people living there.

Think of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings, houses in trees, right? Consider the fluted buildings in Nova War (I won't wait for you to go read but I suggest you grab a copy when you're done here. You'll need to order it from the UK), there are no doors, there are no roads. Why? Because the natives fly. They don't need something as mundane as stairs.

Funky chair found here.


  1. Nice post, Liana. :)

    Personally speaking... I go back to the old Riven/Myst computer games which I'm sure we ALL had (we did, right?) when I consider what I want to do for architecture and environment in my writing.

    I think the first instinct of a writer is to limit themselves to the familiar and what is easy to portray. That's why my alien characters live in houses that ODDLY look and feel like my own house. <- But as I become a better writer, what I want to do is to build a series of planet worlds like I experienced while playing Riven the first time. Or watching stuff like 'cities of the underworld' (fascinating archeology program on History program).

    I'm working on it. :[

  2. Great post, Liana! I haven't written much alternate-world fantasy so none of these thoughts have passed through my head. I can see how creating the environment could add a lot of richness...or leave a story flat if not well done.

    (As the resident architect, I have to tell you that you misspelled architecture. :) xo)

  3. Catherine - I'll have to see if I can find the program.

    Amy- I did that just for you! *blushes* My spelling can be quite atrocious, especially when I lack sleep in large quantities. I'll go fix that...

  4. Great reminder! I need to really think through the housing for my elves in my NaNo novel. It is so easy to go with the familiar.

    I loved the Myst games. Beautiful adventure games.

  5. That is a really excellent post that really got me thinking. I don't suppose I could put a post on my blog with a link to it? That way at the very least I can always have access to it!