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 Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards.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.
Good and Evil
It’s a struggle truly as old as time itself, and therefore the basis and framework for our stories – fantasy and otherwise. The Good versus Evil battle can range from great wars that span kingdoms or galaxies to the inward personal struggle of morals versus one’s darker nature.
Like most fantasy epics, Babylon 5 covers both. As the character of Delenn notes: “The war is never completely won. There are always new battles to be fought against the darkness. Only the names change.”
War in Macro – Epic Battles
Fans of fantasy and science-fiction expect a few good fights scenes. And the more long and epic the story, the more opportunities for battles. While not a requirement for fantasy in the broadest sense, the “epic” storytelling style usually involves numerous plot threads, places, and characters – all of which provide the fodder for large-scale battles.
Battles usually increase as the epic story moves towards the climax. Babylon 5 features more than a few large dramatic space battles as the Army of Light fights the Shadows (note the archetypal names for the two sides of the war, making it clear – at least at first – who is Good and who is Evil).
If you’re writing a book trilogy or series, this increase in tensions between Good and Evil applies to each individual book as well as the over-arcing storyline. In Babylon 5, each season was like a novel, with the episodes as the chapters. Each season (or “book”) had its own plot and set of conflicts, but all were part of the overall plot of the series: war encroaching on peace.
War in Micro – Internal Conflict
While less flashy than space battles or sword fights, the internal battle of an individual character can be just as important for the story. A well-rounded character – even the most perfect of good guys – should have darkness or imperfections lurking deep within. This is not only realistic, it provides another sort of tension and conflict for the story.
The character of Londo Mollari is one of the main protagonists of Babylon 5 – but calling him one of the Good Guys might be a stretch. He is one of the most conflicted characters of the story, one who is constantly at war within himself. The Good in him wants to serve and protect his people, but the Evil in him drives him to make dangerous choices and hurt many people. Though the Good in Londo causes him to feel tremendous guilt about his actions, ultimately the Evil triumphs and leaves him a broken man with a wake of destruction behind him.
In contrast, G’Kar starts out violent and filled with hate, giving free reign to every Evil aspect of his nature. But during the story, he grows as a character and begins to listen to the Good within him; in the end, he finds personal peace and overcomes the internal conflict. These two characters of Londo and G’Kar are almost reflections of one another, or opposite sides of a coin. Their personal stories within the larger story are every bit the archetype of Good versus Evil.
Good vs Evil – Sometimes it’s Gray
In real life, Good and Evil aren’t always so black and white. And even in an archetypal Good versus Evil fantasy tale, having that gray in-between area brings depth and realism to the story. In Babylon 5, there is never any doubt that the Shadows are the bad guys – they’re bent on war and destruction, and nothing will change their minds.
But even the evil Shadows have a reason for their actions – and it’s guided by their belief that they are right. Right and Good are not necessarily the same thing, especially in a story, but this brings a humanizing element to the bad guys.
Similarly, the Vorlons – touted for the first three seasons as being the good guys and creatures of light – turn out not be as pure and Good as everyone thought. The battle is still about Good versus Evil throughout Babylon 5’s story. But the lines often blur into gray and the characters struggle to decide who or what they are fighting, and why.
“War encroaching on peace” – the main overall plot of Babylon 5 – does not have to be the main plot of your epic fantasy tale. But the Good, the Evil, and the Gray in between should be present; explore that tension in the macro and the micro, and you have the foundation for a tale of epic proportions.
“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last best hope for victory.” -Susan Ivanova, third season intro