Everything I Need to Know About Writing, I Learned From Firefly

Posted: January 12, 2012 in Uncategorized
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It’s probably no surprise to many that I love Firefly.

Yes, the series has its weak points. Yes, there are worldbuilding inconsistencies and nonsensical retcons and meaningless character deaths (mostly in Serenity, which is a movie I love, despite its flaws). In fact, quite a few people I know despise Firefly.

To which I ask them: why?

Firefly is/was/will forever be a beautiful show– definitely one of the high points of science fiction in the early 21st century. Not because of the acting, or the set design, or the SFX, or the writing, or anything else. (Admittedly, all of those things are great.)

It’s because Firefly, both in its individual episodes and as a (semi-)whole series, is simply one of the best stories ever.

I love Firefly so much that I’m even willing to make a fool of myself on the internet for it.

Observe:

You know… this is probably the first picture of myself that I've put up on Axolotl Ceviche. Huh. First time for everything.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say: everything I need to know about writing, I learned from Firefly.

Let’s step into the TARDIS for a moment and go back to 2003.

I was eleven. The Iraq War was just beginning. The top song was “In Da Club” by 50 Cent (for reasons which I cannot fathom).

I had just begun my first novel.

And I’ll go right ahead and say it: it sucked. It sucked major ass.

It took me a while to understand why this book sucked, but I didn’t realize it until years later:

My main characters didn’t have any agency. They were led around the world map on a generic fantasy quest. The plot had a rhythm as unchanging as the seasons: they would walk some, and then FIGHT; walk some, and then FIGHT; walk, fight; walk, fight; walkfightwalkfightwaaaaaaaaagh.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it: my characters were led around the world by the plot. The PLOT was all I had in mind when I wrote my first novel, and I neglected everything else. Like many newbie writers, I had confused “plot” with “story”.

Now, I’ll admit: plot is important. It’s the engine that drives the whole story. But it’s not everything. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles with just an engine. You need a chassis, wheels, a fuel tank, a way to steer, a way to go faster and stop, seats, cupholders, a good navigation system, all of those.

The plot is the engine, but the car is made of story.

There are so many other things that make up a story than plot. Worldbuilding. Dramatic tension. Backstory. Humor.

And, maybe most importantly…

Characters.

Because my characters were being led around by the plot, they didn’t have any agency. They never had a point when they had to make a choice– instead, they simply did what the plot said they had to do.

This is because I had failed to appreciate the first rule of good writing…

COMMANDMENT THE FIRST: THY CHARACTERS SHALL DRIVE THE PLOT, AND THE PLOT SHALL NOT DRIVE THY CHARACTERS.

I don’t think I really understood that, though, until I saw Firefly. In “Serenity” (the pilot episode, not the movie), Mal makes crucial decisions that influence the plot from that point forward. When the Alliance commands him to give up Simon and River, he has to make a choice between getting paid a reward and Kaylee’s life. Later on, his decision to land on Whitefall and do business with Patience, a woman he has a not-so-good history with, forces the crew of Serenity into three completely separate but interlocking climaxes. And that final moment of the episode, where Simon and Dobson the Fed are in a standoff, it’s Mal who steps onto the ship, pulls his gun, and in one lightning-fast movement, shoots Dobson in the head.

Or, look at other episodes: in “Shindig”, everything is going fine until Mal’s hubris and his semi-unrequited passion for Inara lead him to assault her date, putting him directly into the main plot of the episode (Mal gets into a swordfight!). Or when he throws Niska’s henchman into the engine of Serenity in “The Train Job”, leading straight into the events of “War Stories” (and indirectly to “Objects in Space”). Hell, it’s not just Mal who gets to make important choices– just look at Jayne’s role in “Ariel” and “Jaynestown”, or Zoe’s in “War Stories”, or Inara’s in “Trash”, or Simon’s in “Safe”.

In all these cases, one thing is clear: it’s the characters’ choices that matter. It’s not the plot pulling the trigger at the end of “Serenity”– it’s Mal. The characters’ choices mean something in the world of Firefly, and that’s what makes their stories so interesting. Because they make a difference. Because, through their actions, they influence the plot and the world.

Of course, there’s also the fact that we care about the characters in Firefly. Which brings me to rule two:

COMMANDMENT THE SECOND: THOU SHALT MAKE CHARACTERS WORTH CARING ABOUT.

When I wrote my first novel, all the characters fell into the same basic roles as any other crappy Tolkien ripoff: The Reluctant Orphan With A Destiny. The Powerful Wizard Who Has Nothing Better To Do Than Mentor The Reluctant Orphan. The Annoying Sidekick. The Tough Girl With A Heart Of Gold. The Wise Dwarf Warrior. The Angry Dwarf Warrior. The Warriors Who Follow The Hero Around For Some Reason, I Guess. The Beautiful Warrior Elf Chick. The Douchebag King, Symbol Of The Oppressive Old Order. The Nubile Princess, Symbol Of Budding Female Sexuality. The EVIL BAD GUY OF EVILLY EVIL, Symbol Of DARKITY DARK-DARKNESS.

You don’t care about these people. Do you know why? Because they’re not people. They’re archetypes. You already know all about them. You’ve seen them a million times before.

Looking at characters from Firefly, though…

Well, let’s just take one. The Hero of Canton, the Man They Call Jayne.

Looking at Jayne Cobb for the first time, we assume he falls into the Brutal Tough Guy role. But he really doesn’t. He is tough, and not very bright. He has a slightly sadistic streak, as is evidenced by the way he tortures Dobson in the pilot. He’s greedy, too– as is evidenced by his attempt to sell Simon and River out to the Alliance in “Ariel”. And he loves weapons– mostly guns and knives.

But this isn’t all there is to the Man They Call Jayne. He has relationships with the other characters. He looks to Mal as a leader, even as sort of a big brother figure. Mal is the only one Jayne goes to for advice on heroism at the end of “Jaynestown”, at a point when Jayne seems to be at his lowest. And Jayne even wants to be like Mal– in the Serenity graphic novels, it’s revealed that Jayne wants to someday be the captain of his own ship. He cultivates an adversarial relationship with Simon, and seems to be a little afraid of River. He lifts weights with Shepherd Book in the later episodes– a bit of an odd relationship, there, between the preacher and the thug. And there are even hints that he has a bit of a thing for Kaylee.

We know that Jayne has a softer side, too. He names his guns– witness his lady-friend “Vera”. He corresponds with, and receives gifts from, his mother– apparently even sending money home to her. He lusts after women, even if he never kisses them on the mouth. He even has fears. Jayne is terrified of Reavers, and the mere mention of their name is enough to send him into a panic. (While this primarily serves a story purpose– if the biggest, baddest dude on Serenity is afraid of Reavers, well then, they must be terrifying!– the fact that he believes in Reavers is an indication as to his cultural background, since it’s shown that Simon, from the big cities of the Core, doesn’t believe in them at first.)

Like I said. You can’t sum Jayne Cobb up with just a pithy, short sentence. He’s not just a bloodthirsty thug; he’s Jayne Cobb. He’s not an archetype; he’s a character.

People care about characters. They don’t care about archetypes.

COMMANDMENT THE THIRD: READERS CARE NOT ABOUT THOSE WITH NOTHING TO GAIN.

SIMON

(smiles)

Are you always this sentimental?

MAL

Had a good day.

SIMON
You had the Alliance on you, criminals
and savages… half the people on the
ship have been shot or wounded
including yourself, and you’re
harboring known fugitives.

Mal looks out at the black sky.

MAL

We’re still flying.

SIMON

That’s not much.

Mal answers, almost to himself:

MAL

It’s enough.

People want characters they like to succeed. That’s a plain truth.

But what does that really mean?

I think that it isn’t actually about success. I think people want their favorite characters’ successes to mean something. They want their characters to profit somehow– either monetarily, or spiritually, or romantically, or simply by somehow having changed their lives for the better.

And do you know what? It’s hard to do that when your characters already have everything.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. To be fair, most newbie fantasy and sf writers don’t. They assume that their story must be about kings and archmages, starship captains and space emperors.

But kings and starship captains already have everything. If they lose the fight they’re in, then yeah, they lose a lot. But if they win, then they don’t get any noticeably richer. They’re already rich. They don’t gain more power– they’re already in command.

The crew of Serenity aren’t like that. They don’t have power– they’re nobodies. They have nearly nothing. They just scrape by on whatever jobs they can do, never really getting any richer, doing what they can to survive.

And you know what? This makes them more interesting.

We don’t just want Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Simon, River, and the rest to succeed. We care deeply about the outcome.

This is because people with nothing to lose are more interesting than people with nothing to gain.

I could go on forever about story theory and how Firefly is awesome, but I’m sure that this post is going on for way too long. I have a few geeky posts coming up in the future, about Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and other things, so keep watching this space. Happy Thursday, and I’ll see you later.

Love,

~ Ian

P.S. This selection of dialogue from Firefly is ©Twentieth Century Fox. Just letting you know. ~ Ian


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Comments
  1. […] In case you’re wondering, this is the second installment of the ever-growing chronicle of Ian Photographing Himself Wearing Strange Hats (the first being, of course, my Jayne Hat picture). […]

  2. […] thing, I feel that good storytelling stems from characters, and not from plot, as I stated in one of my earliest blog posts. When I write, I tend to go character first, plot second. That being said, the plots of books 2 and […]

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