Everybody loves Chewbacca from Star Wars, and if you don’t, you mustn’t be a very nice person (I kid, I kid). He’s that huge, lumbering, fluffy Wookiee that accompanies Han Solo around and growls a lot. Now, think of the actual Wookiees. Recall all the scenes where Wookiees appear, and how they’re all just lumbering, fluffy creatures that growl a lot. Wait a second…all of them? Every single one is exactly the same. Now that I think of it, every single alien of every species are exactly the same, except the humanoid creatures, which apparently act exactly the same way as each other. Is that realistic?
I wrote a blog post a while back about how extreme nostalgia can really change how we view the present. Don’t worry—I’m not going to tell you that it’s wrong to be nostalgic. No, really, I’m not. It’s this nostalgia which will probably have you disagree with what I said before: “It doesn’t matter that Star Wars is unrealistic, it was the first of its kind!” you shout at your computer screen, hands furiously wrung into the air. “The original Star Wars trilogy—not that God-awful prequel—is a pure masterpiece!” I’m not disagreeing with you there.
It’s just, is it realistic for all Wookiees to act exactly the same as each other, and the Twi’leks, and the Naboo, and the Tattooines? And it’s not just Star Wars. It’s in Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, and other fictional works. The humans are all different, unique, precious little snowflakes, but the aliens and other creatures are just cardboard cutouts.
As a writer, it’s my aim to create realistic worlds, to show that these worlds have their own characters, and the characters have their own voices. We all put so much effort into our own main characters—in Star Wars‘ case, Luke, Leia and Han—but what about the supporting characters? In the case of science fiction, it’s about making planets with histories and characters with backstories that differentiate themselves from other characters of their species. In romance, it’s about making both male (or females) love interests have a rich backstory, not just Guy A is dark, smoldering and sexy, and Guy B is just a generic guy with no discernible personality. You just seem lazy if you’re not doing it. Star Wars at least has the excuse of being the first in its genre, but you don’t have that.
Going back to my example from the start, all Wookiees are exactly the same, with no difference in personality depending on where in Kashyyyk they’re from. It’s like if you wrote a story where humans were from a planet called Humania and they were all brutal, warmongering thugs, and not a peaceful bone in their body, with one common religion and language. The planet Humania, by the way, is half the size of the United States, which is exactly how big most science fiction pieces seem to think other planets are. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Like I said, you just seem lazy if all the planets in your fake universe are just 99.9% water. The only science fiction piece I’ve seen that has subverted this outdated trope is the Mass Effect trilogy of video games.
And before you think I’m only criticising science fiction, this Generic City (for lack of a better term) is visible in other genres. Remember that crime novel about the retired, jaded detective who returns to the force because a killer he’s been hunting for years has struck again? That romance novel about a decidedly average woman who has constant parade of guys who just want her, even though she has the personality of a wet sponge? The horror novel about a man with writer’s block who goes to a small town to cure it and finally finish his second novel?
These stories also have the lazy setting, just like in science fiction; it’s just people don’t pay attention as much to them, so they can be forgotten. That crime novel will be set in the thick of the big city. Everyone the detective meets has a shady past, and isn’t very nice (basically: assholes) The horror story is set in a small, quiet town in the middle of nowhere. Everyone’s friendly on the outside, but are hiding big secrets.
This is just lazy writing.
If you’re going to set yourself apart from the crowd, you have to put in the effort. Every single alien from the planet Cszkjsjfdbuk-IV won’t be arrogant, jealous assholes with blue horns. They’ll have slight deviations in appearance, personality and actions just like humans. They’ll act differently. Some of them will hate each other, and others won’t comprehend their compatriots. The Mass Effect trilogy does a good job of showing this. Everyone is unique. Even aliens. Even that jaded detective, who you could subvert by not making him divorced and stuck in the past. Maybe he’s a new cop on the force, who is intrigued by this serial killer. Maybe the woman in the romance is jaded by love after one too many bad boyfriends, and the sexy billionaire has to gain her trust.
Overall, you shouldn’t just give your characters, and background characters, lazy personality traits. Where they’re from shouldn’t define them. The kid from the Bronx could be a genius. The elderly German woman who lived through WWII probably secretly hated the Nazis. All Wookiees aren’t exactly the same.
Characters and settings matter. Make them too standard, and you’ll soon be forgotten, just like one of Chewbacca’s compatriots… Wait, which one?