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 Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards.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”