5 Things Star Trek has Taught Me about Writing

While I could write about this subject at most any time, I thought it would be appropriate now, while we’re still celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek. I’ve posted many times about the writing tips and techniques that I’ve learned from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, but since Star Trek was my first science fiction love, I thought it was high time I give it its due.

So here are five things, in no particular order, that Star Trek (mostly TNG, but really, all the series) has taught me about writing and storytelling:

The importance of supporting characters

Everybody loves the heroes of the story, but supporting and minor characters help round out the world. Whether your story has an ensemble main cast (like Star Trek) or just one main protagonist, you need other characters to serve specific roles and to provide more opportunities for interaction and character growth for your main characters. With a longer work (like a novel, a series of novels, or a TV show), you have the opportunity to expand on the minor characters that come and go, and turn some of them into recurring characters. Continue reading

Strong Women of Sci-Fi – Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5

This week I’m going to highlight one more strong female character from science fiction – and I have to discuss my favorite sci-fi show ever, Babylon 5. For anyone who’s watched Babylon 5, you would probably agree that the two main female leads – Susan Ivanova and Delenn – are strong women. But as much as I’d agree with you, and as much as I’d like to discuss either of those characters, I’m going to talk about the character of Lyta.

Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5

Lyta is a telepath, and she initially serves as the diplomatic aide to the enigmatic Ambassador Kosh of the Vorlon Empire. Throughout the story of Babylon 5, the Vorlons – at first allies, then enemies, but always mysterious – alter Lyta’s telepathic abilities. She becomes stronger than average telepaths, and by the end of the series she reveals that the Vorlons had intended to use her as a doomsday weapon in their war against the Shadows.

I believe that Lyta is a strong character, but unlike Delenn or even Ivanova, she has a negative character arc. At the beginning of the story she starts out “good,” as it were – she’s a good person, she wants to do the right thing, she readily sides with the Army of Light. But through both circumstances and her own poor decisions, her character arc descends from the positive to the negative. By the end, she is hated and feared by her friends, and she herself has become belligerent, distrustful, and a terrorist. Continue reading

Strong Women of Sci-Fi – Sam Carter, from Stargate: SG-1

This is the next post in my “strong female characters” series. Last week I covered the fantasy genre (technically YA fantasy, I suppose, because I wrote about Aravis from The Chronicles of Narnia.) This week I’ll switch to sci-fi, and I’m going to switch from books to TV. (I know, shame on me).

But even though I’m a lover of books and a writer of novels, TV shows and movies are great story-telling mediums, and highly important to our modern culture. How women are portrayed on the screen is perhaps even more important than how they’re portrayed in books, because that visual medium is more pervasive.

And again, true to my penchant for not covering the newest and hottest thing, I’ll be discussing a strong female character from an older TV show. And by “older” I mean the early 2000s. So, old but not that old.

Sam Carter from Stargate: SG-1

I’m not sure if I should preface her name with “Captain,” which was her rank at the beginning, or “Colonel,” her rank by the end of the 11 seasons she was on, or “Doctor” (as in Ph.D.) Samantha Carter is one of the four headlining characters of the interstellar travel team SG1; she and her compatriots (her commanding officer in the Air Force, a nerdy archeologist, and an alien warrior – all three men) travel around the galaxy fighting bad guy aliens and saving Earth repeatedly. Classic sci-fi premise.

Traditionally, science fiction is not always a genre in which women really take the forefront as complex and valuable characters (some notable exceptions are Princess Leia from Star Wars, and Lt. Uhura from classic Star Trek). Those women are the exception rather than the rule; many women in sci-fi (if they’re even in the story at all) wind up being either the “hot space babe” or the “tough chick with the ray gun.”

Samantha Carter is neither of these. So what are some of the elements that go into making Sam a strong female character? Continue reading

10 Quotes about Life from Babylon 5

I’ve written another post of quotes from sci-fi and fantasy, but I thought I’d do a part two and make it exclusively quotes from the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m rather fond of that show. Not only is it one of my favorite TV shows ever, it’s one of my favorite epic fantasy stories, in any medium. The writing was brilliant, and the episodes were full of witty dialogue and quotes of wisdom.

As I asserted in my previous quotes post, we can learn a lot about real life from stories of fantasy.

It takes a rare kind of wisdom to accept change and redemption in another. Many would refuse, seeing only what was, not what is. – G’Kar, “The Hour of the Wolf”

You seek meaning? Then listen to the music, not the song. – Kosh, “Deathwalker”

We are all born as molecules, in the hearts of a billion stars – molecules that do not understand politics or policies or differences. 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”

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little, and the ground is not fertile and nothing can grow there. Too much, and the best of us is washed away. – G’Kar, “Objects in Motion”

Touch passion when it comes your way, Stephen. It’s rare enough as it is. – Marcus, “Lines of Communication”

I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not explained everything. – G’Kar, “Mind War”

We are dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers. – Elric, “The Geometry of Shadows”

Fighting a war is easy, destroying is easy. Building a new world out of what’s left of the old: that is what’s hard. – Delenn, “Lines of Communication”

Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel farther with both than you can with just one. – Brother Alwin, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars”

Now we make our own magic. Now we create our own legends. Now we build the future. Now we stop being afraid of shadows. – Delenn and Sheridan, “Into the Fire”

Happy Valentine’s Day from a Few Fictional Couples

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, here is a brief post about romance. I’m not a reader or writer of the romance genre, but I like a good love story as much as the next gal. So here are four of my favorite couples from sci-fi and fantasy.

Éowyn and Faramir – Lord of the Rings

I could have picked Arwen and Aragorn from this series, but I actually like the story of Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship better. There’s less romance, since they don’t actually get together till the very end, but I like how these two tragic characters who have faced death and lost loved ones find healing and joy with one another. And their union helps to re-forge the ties between the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, so that’s always a plus, too.

Helen Rossi and Paul – The Historian

This couple is from a book that I recently read called The Historian. (I discussed this book briefly in another post here). These two people wind up together on an unexpected quest to find a common loved one who’s gone missing (Paul’s professor, who is also Helen’s father). Since the story is told in the first person by Paul, we get only his feelings for Helen, but the author did a beautiful job of showing Helen’s growing affection for Paul even without getting the reader into her head. Although the actual “love scenes” in this book are minimal, the characters’ passion for each other is evident on every page.

Gomez and Morticia Addams – The Addams Family

I mentioned the Addams family and love in another recent post. Gomez and Morticia are well known for their propensity to drop whatever they’re doing at any random moment and engage in a passionate encounter. But in addition to their chemistry and sweet murmurings in French, they have a solid, deep love that is never shaken by external or internal conflicts. They are a together-together couple who raises their family with strong (albeit bizarre) values, and they show unconditional love to everyone in their family.

John Sheridan and Delenn – Babylon 5

This pair is probably my favorite fictional couple ever. There’s a lot to say about these characters and the way that their relationship is written into the story. Their romance grows slowly and naturally – it takes a year and a half before they begin to realize their feelings for each other. They’re from different races (which used to be at war) and so the cultural tensions are always subtly present, even after they’ve been married for years. I also like how these two stay happily married, even through the rough spots, and they always make decisions together as a couple. (Short-term romances seem to be very popular in TV shows, and almost expected in sci-fi TV shows, after the precedent set by Captain Kirk in classic Star Trek.) Also, all of the other characters (well, most of them) love Sheridan and Delenn as a couple, and are constantly supportive of their relationship. Their goodbye to one another at the end of the series is one of the most poignant partings ever (can anyone watch the finale “Sleeping in Light” without crying?)

Delenn and Sheridan, from "Babylon 5"

Delenn and Sheridan, from “Babylon 5”

So who’s your favorite fictional couple? Please share!

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.