For Writing and Life: Why are You Here?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

Why are you here?

I believe that every person was created for a specific purpose. Whether you share the belief of a loving Creator with divine intent, or you believe humanity’s presence is more random, most people agree that to feel fulfilled in life, you should try to find your purpose.

Destiny, choice, or a combination of both – the details don’t actually matter that much. I believe what matters is your pursuit of your purpose or calling. Or the pursuit of discovering your purpose.

“Why are you here” builds upon knowing the answers to the previous questions discussed in this series. If you know who you are and what you want – or are actively learning and discovering these answers about yourself – then it follows that you may soon understand why you are here.

The journey

Discovering your purpose is a valid life pursuit. If you’re a writer or other creative type, you’ve probably been on this journey of self-discovery most of your life. What I find sad is that so many people believe that they are accidents or mistakes and have nothing of value to contribute to the world, and so they never even try to discover who they are, what they want, or why they are here. Who’s to say that your journey of discovery itself isn’t your purpose? You can grow as a person and add value to the world all along the way.

In Babylon 5, some of the character actively engage in the journey of self-discovery more than others, but all of the main characters pursue their purpose – even if they don’t know that they are. The characters of Sinclair and Sheridan, who both commanded the Babylon 5 station, have destiny and purpose thrust upon them. Zathras lays out their callings as “The One Who Was” and “The One Who Will Be” in the episode “War Without End, part 2.”

But it’s still up to Sheridan and Sinclair to walk out their journeys. Sheridan doesn’t know everything that’s involved in being The One Who Will Be – what he’ll have to do, have to sacrifice, or what the results might be. Still, he decides to embrace this destiny, and he continues to do what he believes is right, for himself and his world; and he uncovers his purpose more and more with each step.

It’s your choice

Even if you have an idea about what your purpose is, you can choose to ignore it. The capacity of free will gives us that right.

Londo Mollari is one of the most tragic characters of the series, largely due to the choices he makes involving his purpose. Right from the beginning of the story, Londo knows the answer to the question of “Why are you here?” He believes he has a destiny to do great things – great things for himself, for the Centauri empire, and for all of history.

He does accomplish great things that change the course of history, but not in a positive way. Londo willingly makes choices that propel him to the greatness of an architect of disasters. In his journey of self-discovery, he finds himself to be a guilty, weak, and broken man.

Your choices, more than anything, I believe, determine your destiny. If you know why you are here, then pursue that calling with wisdom. If you don’t know, then choose to begin the journey of discovering.

Why are you here?

“You’re not embracing life, you’re fleeing death… Your friends need what you can be when you are no longer afraid, when you know who you are and why you are, and what you want. When you are no longer looking for reasons to live, but can simply be. … It’s easy to find something worth dying for. Do you have anything worth living for?” -Lorien, “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?”

For Writing and Life: What Do You Want?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

     What do you want?

We all want things: money, fans, ice cream, sleep, friendship, new shoes. We express hundreds of wants every day, from the fantastically wishful to the mundane.

In Babylon 5, it’s the Shadows and their servants who most often ask this question. For all their faults (the Shadows are the main antagonists of the series), they know how to pull the answer to this question from the deepest parts of a person. They do not ask this question because they’re curious about what a character wants for dinner or wants to do tomorrow – they are searching for the driving force at the core of each person, their deepest motivations.

Goals and Dreams

These two things are not the same, though they go hand in hand. A dream is the calling of your heart, your deepest desires and your highest wishes. A dream can be motivation, even when circumstances are against you.

A goal is a dream with a deadline. If you’re a writer, your goal might be a publishing deadline, a trip across the country for hands-on research for your next book, a daily wordcount, or maintaining a consistent blogging schedule.

Set a date, plan your action steps, and do the work. This is how goals – for writing, and for life – are pursued and accomplished. But a goal is useless – and usually unattained – if it’s not backed by a true want, a dream.

Never stop asking the question

As life goes on, you change and your writing changes. And sometimes your dreams and wants change, and that’s okay.

It’s important to keep asking yourself what you want. Periodically analyze your dreams and goals, and see if they are really what you want. It’s a good thing to change a goal because your deep desires and motivations have changed over time.

The Shadows, though they were masters at asking the question of others, had forgotten how to answer it for themselves. They could no longer be the guardians they were originally intended to be. They were so busy pursuing the same goal they had always pursued that they never stopped to explore their own desires. They became creatures of habit instead of dreams.

Make sure that you’re always writing about what you want to write about. This keeps your writing genuine and your voice unique. Never lose track of your dreams.

What do you want?

“The question is its own purpose. What do you want?” -Morden, “Signs and Portents”

For Writing and Life: Who are You?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

     Who are you?

In the Babylon 5 episode “Comes the Inquisitor,” the character of Delenn is held prisoner by the Inquisitor who repeatedly asks “Who are you?” She quickly learns that the correct answer is not her name, her title, her family history, or her career.

Your name, your job, the different hats you must wear throughout your life – spouse, parent, leader, student – all of these help define what you are, but not who you are. If all of that were stripped away, and there was nothing left but you and your words, who would you be? This is not about what other people call you. What do you call yourself?

Your voice

As a writer, it’s important to know who you are. It is from this understanding of yourself that your best writing will come. This does not mean that you must write nothing but memoirs. Knowing who you are is what helps you to develop that indescribable yet vital aspect of writing: your voice.

I can’t give you a step by step guide to discovering your voice – if there even is such a thing. I’m still discovering my own voice. I have learned, though, that writing – as much and as often as you can – is the best way to develop your voice.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, it’s okay if your style and voice mimic that of your favorite author – that’s how we learn. Just know that even if you can spin a better tale than a famous author, if your voice is not your own, your writing will fall flat. Readers have an amazing ability – whether they can articulate it or not – to sense if a writer does not know who they are.

The right place at the right time

I believe that if a writer – or anyone – knows who they are and why they exist, then whatever they do in life will be impactful. “In the right place at the right time” is as much a matter of self-understanding and self-discipline as it is luck. A writer who has found their voice and writes from the heart will always be a powerful writer.

Every day I’m discovering more about who I am. I’m becoming more comfortable in my own skin, as a person and as a writer. I’m confident that I’m in the right place at the right time to live a fulfilled and happy life. I’m learning more and more every day that my writing matters, because I matter, and the people who read my words matter.

Who are you?

“How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame. For one person. In the dark, where no one will ever know or see. … When the darkness comes, know this. You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.” -Sebastian, “Comes the Inquisitor”

Storytelling Tips from Babylon 5: Fantasy Creatures and Alien Species

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.

I’ve written a couple of posts about creating alien races and magical creatures for sci-fi and fantasy. This post is more of an analysis rather than instructional, but I think that if you’re struggling with your invented species in your story, this post can help clarify some thoughts in your mind.

I believe there are two main considerations to factor in when inventing a sentient race: qualities that make them non-human, and qualities that make them human. The non-human part is obvious – you’re using Elves or Wookies or talking trees because you want something Other in the story. Otherness can drive conflict, create wonder and exploration, and is an important part of world building.

Otherness – the non-human element

One of the most important alien races in Babylon 5 is the Minbari. The story begins 10 years after a brutal war between humans and Minbari, and relations are still strained. The Minbari are very much the Other.

Physically they appear quite human, except for the large elaborate bone on the back of the head. Also, several references are made to them being physically stronger on average than humans. Since they are very human-like in appearance, their Otherness mostly comes from their emotional behavior and mindset, and the culture in general.

Minbari pride themselves on the fact that they do not lie. Lying is – for better or for worse – a very consistent human behavior. So when the human characters are faced with blunt Minbari honesty or their elaborate logic strings to avoid telling a lie, it can cause confusion and tension. And confusion and tension of course are vital for character development and plot advancement.

The Minbari culture is based on rituals and tradition, and they have little interest in change. According to the world of Babylon 5, the Minbari were a space-faring race when humans were still writing on parchment by candle light. But 1,000 years later, their ships look the same and their level of technology has increased very little.

Despite how much humans can be resistant to change, as a rule we embrace it. New clothes, new technologies, new experiences. The idea of actively avoiding change in every area of life is not something we relate to well. An alien race that doesn’t even understand the concept of change makes for an interesting dynamic in a story. As the character of Delenn (a Minbari) remarks to John Sheridan: “Curious thing about humans – Minbari cities remain untouched and unchanged for centuries. I leave for three days, and you redecorate.”

Similarity – the human element

The human aspect of your non-human fantasy race is, in my opinion, just as important. Giving your aliens some kind of humanizing element gives your human characters something to relate to. And of course never forget that your readers are human.

In Babylon 5 the Vorlons are perhaps the most alien of all the fantastical creatures – in appearance, behavior, and culture. I picked them, though, to illustrate the human elements because even the mysterious Vorlons have something in common with humanity.

Physically the Vorlons appear as beings of light and can manifest many different ways. In this regard they are most certainly Other. However, as mysterious and powerful as they are, they are still mortal. Just like humans, they can die; and just like us, they fear death and loss, and grieve for those who are gone. Death is a powerful equalizer, and this brings an important human element to this extremely Other race.

While traditions and cultural rituals are not revealed to the characters or audience, the Vorlon racial mindset and belief system is explored. The Vorlons hold fast to the belief that they are always right, and that because they know more than others do, that must mean that they know everything.

A superiority complex is something that we humans almost universally detest – and, on a large and small scale, we continue to practice. Most people can probably identify with both sides of the “I am always right” dilemma. As alien and Other as the Vorlons are, their fear of death and their desire to be right gives a way for humans – characters and audience alike – to understand and appreciate them.

Babylon 5 explores the similarities and differences between humans, Minbari, and Vorlons in great depth. The two main characters of the series are John Sheridan and Delenn – a human and a Minbari. They fall in love and get married, which of course adds another element to any cultural confusion they encounter. The Vorlon character Kosh serves as a mentor and guide for Sheridan and Delenn.

Your story does not have to have a romantic relationship, or a mentor/protégé relationship. But the closer the characters from different races are, the more opportunities you have for developing the Otherness and the Humanity of your fantasy people.

“We are all born as molecules, in the hearts of a billion stars… Over a billion years, we, foolish molecules, forget who we are and where we came from. In desperate acts of ego, we give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps, and pretend that our light is better than everyone else’s.”
 – Delenn, “And All my Dreams, Torn Asunder”

Storytelling Tips from Babylon 5: Ending an Epic

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.

I don’t know if there are hard and fast “rules” for writing the conclusion to an epic story. And I have no personal experience in doing so myself, since at the time of this writing, I’m still in the first draft stage of book two of a trilogy.

I have ended individual stories before, and I know that can be challenging. Beginning an epic is sometimes easy by comparison to ending a long tale, but it can be done well. Here are a couple of elements that I’ve observed in well-concluded epics.

Tying up loose ends

This is the most important element to ending most any kind of story, in my opinion – unless the point of your tale is to leave readers with more questions than answers.

Because of its length, and its multiple sub-plots and side threads, an epic’s conclusion can often be relatively long. In Lord of the Rings, several “endings” were gone through before the actual conclusion of Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens and Sam returning to his family.

Similarly, Babylon 5 had several moments when the series could have ended: the ending of the Shadow War in “Into the Fire,” the liberation of Earth in “Endgame,” or the thoughtful, time-spanning fourth season finale “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” But there was still more story to tell, and many questions still open.

Yes, even after the series’ conclusion, some details went unanswered. What was Lennier’s ultimate fate? What happened to David Sheridan and the Keeper that Londo left for him? Whatever happened to Lyta? But despite these small hanging details, all of the plot lines were brought to a close – all of the sub-plots, and the main plot of war encroaching on peace.

A sense of conclusion is important for an epic, I believe. Even if there’s room for more story, the main plot has reached an end and the goal has been accomplished. In Babylon 5, the wars are won, and a new era of peace has been ushered in. The tale of war, for now, is over.

Saying Goodbye

This is another important element in concluding an epic fantasy tale. Epics frequently feature a large cast of characters, many of whom are thrust together for the duration of the plot. By the end, some characters may be dead, and all of them have been changed.

It may be appropriate for the story for the characters to return to their lives that were interrupted by the main plot (such as happens in the Lord of the Rings). Or it may be that the characters need to move on to new lives, now that the adventures of the main plot have changed them (this is the case in Babylon 5).

Some characters part on friendly, tearful terms, excited about their new lives – like Sheridan and Delenn’s goodbyes to Garibaldi and Lochley. Other characters part with less joy and hope, because of who they have become during the course of the story: Lennier’s parting with Sheridan and Delenn, or Lyta’s parting with the entire cast.

Spending some time with partings and goodbyes is important for the reader, too, not just for the characters or for the sake of plot. In an epic tale, the reader (or viewer) has spent countless hours and hundreds of pages falling in love with the characters and their world. Goodbyes within the story give the audience a chance to say goodbye, to find closure and contentment in knowing the final path of the favorite characters.

The final fifth season episode of Babylon 5 – “Objects at Rest” – is all about partings and goodbyes, as the characters leave the Babylon 5 space station that had been their home and the crux of the plot. The series finale “Sleeping in Light” – which takes place twenty years after the plot of the series – is the ultimate of goodbyes.

At the end of Lord of the Rings, both the characters and the reader experience the conclusion of a final farewell as the main protagonist Frodo says goodbye to the other characters and to the main world of the story. Likewise, Babylon 5 ends with the main protagonist Sheridan saying goodbye to the other characters, the world of the story, and the audience. Both are bittersweet, but quite conclusive endings.

Never underestimate the power of a well-presented farewell to wrap up an epic story. What is one of your favorite epics and how did it end?

“Every part of this station has somebody’s fingerprints on it, layers and layers of people’s lives. There were times I thought none of us would get out alive. Some of us didn’t. But we did everything we said we were going to do, and nobody can take that away from us.” – Zack Allen, “Sleeping in Light”

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Good versus Evil

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