So you want to be a science fiction writer. You might have already made a few sketches of characters and alien species you might include. Have you already thought about what kind of society those aliens might have? If so, you're doing pretty good, but creating a believable society can be tricky.

Some writers take the easy way out and clone societies that exist, or have existed, right here on Earth. David Eddings used societies that are recognizable Romans, Gypsies, and ancient Egyptians (sorta – what the Egyptians could have been if their society evolved in a swamp). Do you want to do that? Well, there's no harm in adding cultural elements that are familiar. However, you probably want to create distinct societies so you don't get accused of laziness. That means having some kind of grasp of what goes into forming a believable society.

Basic Elements

What goes into a society? It's pretty complex and it's easy to say that Klingons care about honor or Vulcans are logical. (That's where you can have some fun and remind your readers not to get hung up on stereotypes. Need a good villain? Create a dishonorable Klingon who is smart enough to disguise his dishonor.) Anyway, a believable society will have some pretty recognizable elements.

  • The Family. On Earth, most social structures are based on the family. Exceptions include the Spartans, who separated boys from their families at the age of five to raise them in military barracks. Your society may do something similar, such as raising children in communal settings with professionals in child development acting as “parents.” On the flip side, your society may value family so much that abandonment of younglings is cause for a considerable amount of consternation for those involved.

  • Social structure. Most societies have recognizable hierarchies even if they try to promote social equality. The menial laborer class is often at the bottom of the social structure, though one menial profession or another may be held in high esteem, such as farmers in ancient Japan. The ruling class can vary according to what is valued by certain cultures and usually consists of priests, intellectuals or warriors.

  • Morality and Manners. How does a society calculate right or wrong and what are the penalties for violating a widely accepted moral code? Some alien races may see nothing wrong with killing an enemy in a fair duel but forbid stabbing the same enemy in the back. In some ways, manners are tied into morality, as you can tell a little about what a society values by how they treat others. Klingons are warriors who are confrontational towards one another and have little respect for people who can't or won't stand up to them because they value physical strength and fighting skill.

  • Religion and/or belief system. This is a major factor in many societies. Your alien race might worship multiple deities similar to the Roman pantheon, no deity at all, or an advanced civilization that inhabits a wormhole. (Tip: That last one is taken.) Religion might even be the driving force behind an entire civilization's ultimate goal. When creating an alien race for my own novel, The Grebsa Network: Snow Puppies, I kind of backed my way into this one. Why would an entire civilization make an interstellar pilgrimage to a distant planet? To live beside their gods, of course. Never underestimate what people will do for what they genuinely believe in.

  • Technological level. For this one, I recommend looking up the Kardashev scale, which measures the technological advancement of a civilization. One could argue that humans are not even Type I, which includes mastery of the resources of our own planet. A Type II civilization will have mastered the resources of a solar system. A Type III civilization has mastered the resources of an entire galaxy. A Type IV civilization will have mastered the resources of all galaxies, along with powers that might seem magical to us, such as teleportation and time travel. Some examples of a Type IV civilization would be the Daleks of Doctor Who or the Guardians of the Universe from DC Comics' Green Lantern. A Type V civilization will have mastered the resources of multiple universes. Examples of a Type V civilization might be Star Trek's Q Continuum. Several experts have proposed variations of this scale. For instance, Dr. Robert Zubrin has proposed that a Type I civilization is one that has spread across an entire planet, a Type II is one that has developed substantial colonies across its own solar system, and a Type III is one that has developed substantial colonies across its own galaxy.

  • Arts, Entertainment and Fashion. In Isaac Asimov's novel, The Naked Sun, Detective Elijah Baley notes that abstract art is the dominant form of art in Solarian society. What forms of art and entertainment will your alien society favor? Your aliens will also need something to wear. While you might not be an expert fashion designer, you can use common sense to reason that a warrior race will obviously need some sort of armor and a senior priestess will have a different style of clothing than a common fisherman.

  • Language. This is not an easy one, but your aliens should at least have their own swearwords, right? Seriously, though, you may want your aliens to be able to talk to human characters in English and then make a side comment to one of their peers in their own language.

  • A government. You have choices here and a government should be a recognizable outgrowth of your society and what it values. The United Federation of Planets is a confederacy with each world sending representatives to a central headquarters. My own Grebsas are warriors with a military-style system.

In future articles, I'll cover each element in a more in-depth way. Creating a truly believable alien civilization is not easy, but it's worth it for any author who wants their stories to be both entertaining and consistent with what science fiction fans expect.