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?”

Advertisements

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Foreshadowing

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.

Foreshadowing can be used in any sort of story—not just epic fantasy or sci-fi. Foreshadowing means to show or suggest something in advance, to leave hints and clues for something coming later. Here are three aspects of foreshadowing that are used in Babylon 5, and that can be used in a saga or series that you may be writing, too.

1.       Foreshadowing can be subtle and easily forgotten.

In a long saga or a series, foreshadowing can be taken to an extreme—something mentioned on page three may not prove important for another 800 pages. While this can be exciting for the reader, if they catch or remember that detail, the foreshadowing can easily be lost if too much time passes.

In the first season of Babylon 5, a Centauri seeress comes to the station. She gives several prophecies, including a prediction that the space station will be destroyed in fire. When the station doesn’t blow up immediately, everyone relaxes and scoffs at her prediction. The character never appears again, her prediction is not mentioned again, and the whole thing is quickly forgotten by the audience and the characters.

Until the final episode of the series. The story of the last episode takes place twenty years later, and Babylon 5 is destroyed in fire—but not in the way that everyone expected years before when the moment was foreshadowed.

2.       Foreshadowing can be emphasized by repetition.

An example of repetitive foreshadowing is the telepathic character Lyta Alexander. Periodically during the course of the series, references are made to the fact that Lyta is a P5 telepath, meaning she ranks with just average strength and skill. This emphasis on her “average” ranking foreshadows the ending of the series, when Lyta has changed into a telepath stronger than a P12 (the highest ranking of strength and skill).

It’s important to note with this repetition technique, it still must be subtle. Characters comment on Lyta’s “average” P5 ranking only a handful of times—both before and after her powers start to change and increase. This is just enough to remind the audience that Lyta is either a) normal at the time, or b) ceasing to be normal. It serves to get the audience’s curiosity up about Lyta without making her the focal point of every episode and without beating the audience senseless with obvious clues.

3.       Foreshadowing is not the same thing as prophecy.

Destinies, prophecies, visions, and time-travel are often staples of sci-fi and fantasy. And while these story elements can be used with foreshadowing, it is not the same thing always. My first example did involve a character giving a prophetic vision; however, it served as effective foreshadowing because neither the character nor the vision appeared to be important at the time.

If the main plot of your epic fantasy is about an old wizard who tells a vision to the young farm boy and says that the gods have chosen him to be king and it’s his destiny, that’s not foreshadowing. In that example, prophecy and destiny are the plot, not a clue or hint leading to one specific element of the plot.

In Babylon 5, the storyline involving the Babylon 4 space station relied heavily on not only time-travel, but prophecy and destiny, as well. Both Captain Sheridan and Delenn are told by the alien Zathras that they have great destinies, and Commander Sinclair’s great destiny (which had been foreshadowed earlier in the series) is revealed. But that storyline is not foreshadowing, because destiny, prophecy, and time-travel is the plot.

Foreshadowing can sometimes be tricky, especially in a long tale. Hopefully these guidelines can help you if you’re wanting to utilize the technique. Read some of your favorite stories over again, paying attention to the little details that turn up later.

What are some other good stories that use foreshadowing without it being either too subtle or too obvious?

“The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us; we know only that it is always born in pain.”
-G’Kar, “Z’Ha’Dum”