This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.
The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.
All the Characters
Babylon 5, like any good epic, has a huge cast of characters. Minor characters add spice and realism to scenes, and the supporting and main cast take turns in the spotlight as plot threads weave in and out. But even in an epic saga with a large cast, there are usually just one or two main protagonists. This is the character who has the most to lose, for whom the stakes of the story matter the most.
In Babylon 5, the two main protagonists are John Sheridan and Delenn. Coming in a close second, as the two main supporting protagonists, if I could use the term that way, are Londo Mollari and G’Kar.
These two pairs of characters exert the most affect on the overall story of the series. And just as they drive the plot, the twists of the story affect their lives more drastically than the other characters.
No character (at least, in most epics) functions in a vacuum—at some point the protagonist must interact with other characters. And this interaction fuels character development. I paired these four main characters of Babylon 5 this way because they drive the plot, and are affected by the plot, together.
Sheridan and Delenn’s power as a character duo comes from their love. Not only are they the main romantic lead in the story, but they have a great love for the people that they lead. Together they spearhead the war against the bad guys, and together they build a new alliance dedicated to peace. And they have to figure out how to overcome cultural differences and haunted pasts in order to have a successful marriage and raise a baby while doing all of this.
Londo and G’Kar’s power as a character duo comes from their hate. At the start of the series, these two represent the epitome of blind racial hatred. The shaky peace treaty between their two races is one of the subplots. And a force that drives the main plot is Londo and G’Kar trying to figure out how to work together for the good of entire galaxy without killing each other. Through the overcoming of their hatred towards one another they grow as characters.
Put your protagonists in a tight spot, raise the stakes, use another character to test their limits. Give your protagonist someone to love, someone to hate, something they want to do. Not every character development technique (these, or any others) has to be used, but if you’re writing a long saga, there’s plenty of time to introduce new pressures to further grow your protagonist. Sheridan and Delenn’s romance grows over the course of three seasons. And Londo and G’Kar, though eventually calling each other ‘friend,’ never do stop trying to kill one another.
Whether your epic is action-oriented or paced a little slower, whether you have a cast of hundreds or just one obvious hero, remember that other characters, not just the plot, can be the catalyst for character development.
“I am grey. I stand between the candle and the star. We are grey. We stand between the darkness and the light.” -Delenn, “Babylon Squared”
12 thoughts on “Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Character Development – the Power of Two”
I love the article. Quite useful and it gave me memories. I really don’t think that they had “bad 90’s hair”, they were aliens, they supossed to have “alien looking” hairdoes. Also, I wouldn’t call “low budget CGIs”, since in that moment the CGIs weren’t so developed as now, so, for TV, I think that they had the best possible CGI effects available. I still miss a lot Commander Sinclair, the original main protagonist, he has attitude and character written down in his face. I don’t hate Sheridan. I just thought insulting that after a whole season developing the relationship between Sinclair and Delenn, bam, no more Sinclair, and Delenn starts to love Sheridan like pulling out a plug and connecting to another. Ugly man comes out, pretty boy comes in. Who cares for the poor Sinclair if the ratings are in the stake, rush in to hire a good looking actor. Also, Delenn was truly “alien” looking in the first season, but since it was a bother for her the make-up, bam, she passes through a “transformation” and, bam, now she has human hair and no more make-up sessions are needed. Forget the Mimbari pride. She is the most important Mimbari character and she doesn’t look like them.
Again, I love the article, please don’t hate my reply 😛 You well know that I always support whatever you do or write, my commentaries were directed to the B5 Production, not against you.
Sorry if my disclaimers of “bad 90s hair” and such seemed over-the-top – my intent was to remind a new viewer that this show is, by current standards, very old. But good story-telling doesn’t change! 😉
I liked Sinclair, too, but the what made the series such a masterful piece of epic storytelling was how Sinclair’s life actually did entwine with Delenn’s after all, as explained in the two-part time-travel episode with the Babylon 4 station.
Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂
Don’t be sorry about any disclaimer, I totally understand what were your intentions about that, yes, some people don’t think about in which time was made what they are watching or reading and that’s esential to be fair at the moment of judge it.
Indeed the Babylon 4 episode was amazing 😉
I really like your key tips indicating how important it for the protagonists to define what they love, what they hate and making plots to put on test their limits.
Thank you! I’ve learned so much about how to tell a good story from that show. Stay tuned for more posts about storytelling tips from B5. 😉
My husband was really into Babylon 5 but I could never see past the funny hair/names/sci fi generally. He is also always going on about how good the plot was. 🙂
Your husband has good taste! 😉
Yeah, if you’re not really into sci-fi, then Babylon 5 is not the best show to use as a gentle introduction to the genre. But it told some great stories! 😉
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I am currently working on a script for a live Babylon 5 game and your articles have been very thought provoking. I’m keen to construct the game script in a manner similar to that of an episode and in turn for this to then form the first part of a short story arc comprising three games. Your insights into both the writing process and the series itself has been invaluable. Thank you.
You’re most welcome! I’m always glad to meet another B5 fan. I’m glad you’ve found my posts about the series to be helpful! JMS is a brilliant writer. 🙂