|We love Star Wars aliens, but can we relate to them?|
Towards the end of the cute and well-crafted Guardians of the Galaxy, Quill shouts at Yondu, the alien who took him in as a boy:
Oh, will you shut up about [not letting the others eat me]? 20 years you've been throwing that in my face. Like it's some great thing: "not eating me". Normal people don't even think about eating someone else, much less that person having to be grateful for it.It's hilarious because it changes the entire dynamic of the encounter. Yondu and his bandits are no longer some crazy alien race that "doesn't think like us humans." They are those crazy uncles at Thanksgiving who threaten little kids with fake eyeballs and scars and stuff.
Fantasy and science-fiction rely on that human connection. It's a dance between things being alien enough to indicate "no, this is not another drama about angsty people" and being relatable enough to keep us caring--because otherwise, the fantasy or sci-fi feature turns into a sociological National Geographic special.
In many ways, this is the same problem that anthropologists, sociologists, and businesspeople face every day. Every culture is unique in its history, lore, traditions, and business practices. At the same time, every culture understands and produces the six basic emotions of disgust, happiness, fear, hate, anger, surprise, and sadness. We are all different. Yet we are all the same. Hence, art travels; moreover, it travels remarkably well (if Law & Order: U.S., U.K., Russia, France, etc. etc. etc. are any indications).
This is likely one reason I've always appreciated the humanoid aliens of Star Trek more than the crazy-creatures-in-a-cantina approach of Star Wars. On the other hand, as Plinkett points out, the audience is able to handle Star Wars because we see everything through the human eyes of Luke Skywalker.
So it helps that the "guide" of Guardians is not only human but a very normal human with a taste for 80's soundtracks. How relatable is that?! It also helps that the "aliens" who join him are completely comprehensible in their facial features and personalities.
This is yet another reason that "types" work so well. Artsy literary folks often demand utter uniqueness from every fictional character (it is debatable whether this is achievable--but never mind): i.e, a "fully fleshed out character" whose biography has been carefully crafted to explain all personality flaws and psychological motivations. The end-product is usually not all that different from a really horrible job interview where the interviewee actually bothers to answer the question, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" with any degree of accuracy.
And yet throughout history, literature from Odysseus to Dickens has survived quite well by utilizing "types," such as (circling from left to right), the affable yet firm leader type; the loyal type, the "dumb jock" type; the woman with a troubled past type (this is different from the "fully fleshed out character" above--the troubled past is simply a troubled past, not an excuse for long-winded exposition); and the sarcastic guy with a heart of gold type.
The pleasure and power of types is that they shortcut the need for a sociological treatise. We can get on with the story! They also provide fodder not only for recognition but for further development.
The latter potential is what artsy folks often miss. Picasso learned to paint like a classical master before producing Cubism. T.S. Eliot could discourse on any poetical form, including free verse. Freedom doesn't come when a writer or painter or poet starts from scratch. Freedom comes from mastering and building on types and forms. Guardians of the Galaxy characters are types; they are also completely recognizable and distinct as individuals. But the typing, I'll bet, came first.
Characters with a potential for depth with whom an audience can relate: any writer is lucky to get that!