Worldbuilding: The Why before the How

I’ve written several posts about world building for fantasy and sci-fi, but on this post I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. What’s more important than the how-to of putting together a new society or creating an alien race is why. Why do you want an alien species that can live on the surface of a sun? Why do you want steampunk airships powered by magic spells instead of gas or steam?

The coolness factor aside, what I’m talking about is getting you to look at the bones of your story and your world. Cultural habits, societal structures, technology and industry, animals both wild and domesticated – all of these elements of life are the way they are for a reason. It may not always seem logical or even right – like in the case of a society’s sense of fashion – but it still fits within the context of the larger world as a whole.

For example, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Talking Beasts are more than just cute anthropomorphized animals to make the story appealing to children. Even if they originally started out that way, C.S. Lewis develops the Talking Beasts into their own culture. The reason for the existence of this fantasy culture is revealed throughout the stories. In Prince Caspian, the children encounter a bear who had once been a Talking Beast, but after living like a wild animal for too long, he lost the blessing of his speech and intelligence. In The Silver Chair, the giants kill and eat a Talking Stag, which solidifies the giants as the enemy in the minds of the characters and readers alike. It is not until the sixth book of the series, The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis addresses the creation of the Talking Beasts as Aslan sets them apart from regular animals in order to live out a unique purpose in the world.

The how of fantasy worlds can be important – and the how is even more key in science fiction. But if there’s no reason within the continuity of the world or the story for something to exist, it will probably come across to readers as feeling contrived. What if C.S. Lewis had put the hrossa or the sorns of Mars from his sci-fi book Out of the Silent Planet into the world of Narnia? Those two Martian races are beautiful, gentle, intelligent creatures – but they aren’t Narnians. He designed them to live on a lush, cool, low-gravity planet, not a magical representation of Earth. As fantasy creatures, they’re every bit as engaging as any of Lewis’ creations – but he had his “why” in order in his mind, and so did not have to contrive some illogical reason to explain “how” the Martians were in Narnia.

A word of caution, though – it is not necessary for there to be a lengthy explanation of all the whys and reasons behind the creatures and customs. As in my Narnia example, all of those details were worked into the story itself.

I know it’s tempting, after you’ve gone to so much work to create this elaborate world, to share every little detail and bit of backstory. If a detail can be worked into the story without pulling the reader out of the plot and into a textbook, then do it; otherwise, it will have to live only in your head.

But the important part is that it’s there. You as the author must know and understand all these whys and details. Even if you don’t write it out in words, an astute reader is able to tell when a writer understands their world or not. Don’t hesitate to let your creativity flow while you’re building your worlds. Map out all the how’s and explanations of societal structures, magic, technology, and creatures. Just don’t forget to ask yourself why.

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For Writing and Life: Where Are You Going?

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:

Where are you going?

Each of the four questions in this “writing and life” series builds upon the previous one. If you’re figuring out what your purpose is, and what your goals and dreams are, then next you need to look ahead to see where you’re going.

Intentional action

Answering all of these questions for yourself is good, but without a plan of action, you will not get to where you want to go.

In Babylon 5, the Vorlons have a plan for defeating the Shadows. This plan, centuries in the making, remains a mystery to all of the other characters until it’s almost too late. But the Vorlons know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where it will take them.

Everything the Vorlons do, they do with deliberate intention: everything from the genetic altering of other races to create telepaths, to their involvement with the Rangers, to their assistance with Delenn’s transformation. Their questionable ethics aside, the Vorlons know how to be diligent in following the path they have decided upon.

Intentional writing, intentional life

If you are a writer (or pursuing some other sort of creative passion or career), deliberate action is necessary if you want to hit any goals. If you are pursuing your creative endeavors outside of a full-time job, then the intentional and consistent action is even more necessary. Creative bursts can come and go, but to actually finish a project, discipline is required.

Determine where you want to end up, map out a plan to get there, and then follow your plan. Do you want to finally publish that book, get that degree, take that trip? You can accomplish all of that and more with intentional action, backed by a secure understanding of who you are, what you want, and why you want it.

Enjoy your journey!

Who are you?

What do you want?

Why are you here?

Where are you going?

“All my life I’ve had doubts about who I am, where I belonged. Now I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitations, no doubts. The path is clear.” -Sinclair, “War without End, part 1”

 

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”