I love space opera and sci-fi, which means I love Joss Whedon’s short-lived space western series Firefly, and I especially love Malcolm Reynolds. The Mal Reynolds character is what you get if you made a TV series about the adventures of a renegade Han Solo before his character’s redemption (and subsequent gentrification) at the end of the original Star Wars movie. In the subsequent Special Edition of the film, George Lucas famously retconned the iconic scene introducing Han Solo so he didn’t fire first, thus making him safer but less interesting. Joss fixed that with Mal, who was forever firing first (and last, and…).
As a smuggler / tramp freighter captain, Mal thought of himself as a kind of Confederate Robin Hood against the Union-like Alliance. Of the captain, savant River Tam sagely observed “Mal. Means ‘bad.’ In the Latin.” Mal didn’t even know he needs redemption, or if he did, he ran from that awareness. He might be an uncomfortable character for many Christian authors, and yet he is precisely the kind of character that readers identify with, and thus valuable to try to write. During the course of Firefly, Mal remained largely unrepentant, and thus fascinating. If you can, lead up to your character’s redemption through the course of the work and make that a climax element late in the story. Pull that out too soon and you remove much of the moral tension.
And another thing — mistreat your characters. Often, many Christian writers are afraid to be dark, or they rescue their characters too quickly. It’s an old but venerable expression: kill your darlings. The more conflicted and mistreated our protagonists are, the more compelling they are. Conflict drives the engine of Story, and clever dialogue is always better than exposition. Therefore, here are some tips (and accompanying examples from various Firefly episodes) on how we can improve our writing by shaking it up a little, space western-style:
- • Get Religion – Don’t be afraid to embrace or be critical of religion. Either tactic creates lots of opportunity for conflict and discussion. Faith is more interesting when it is demonstrated than when it is preached. I love stories that display the cause-and-effect of one righteous man in the midst of a gang of ruffians.
- Mal: Well, what about you, Shepherd (a kind of cleric)? How come you’re flying about with us brigands? I mean, shouldn’t you be off bringing religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies or some such?
Book: Oh, I got heathens aplenty right here.
Mal: If I’m your mission, Shepherd, best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.
• Cuss ingeniously – Don’t be afraid of allowing your characters to swear (as long as it’s in a language the majority of your readers don’t understand). Carole McDonnell, author of the Christian speculative multicultural novel, Wind Follower, has noted that whether it is culturally correct or not, it is not uncommon for people of all religions and temperaments to reach a point where they need to vent. How you handle this can resonate with and entertain your readers.
- Mal: Confronted by a bar full of Alliance sympathizers. “Oh, zhe zhen shi ge kuaile de jinzhan [this is a happy development]…”
- Mal: Da-shiong bao-jah-shr duh la doo-tze … [the explosive diarrhea of an elephant]
• Hit something – In many Christian novels, violence is considered bad, but in Speculative Fiction, violence has a purpose and a place. Don’t be afraid of a little violence, as long as it serves the character(s), is comic, or happens off-screen. (Or, best yet, all three.) You can do a great deal by suggesting violence without graphically depicting it. While watching The Dark Knight, itself a very dark film, I noted just how little actual violence was shown on-screen. A great deal was suggested but not actually shown. Use that in your fiction, and then show the cause-and-effect of resorting to violence and the consequences of doing so.
- In the ship’s infirmary after fighting in a bar on the anniversary of the end of war that the Independents lost.
- Simon: Need a weave on that?
Mal: It’s nothing.
Simon: I expect there’s someone’s face feels differently.
Mal: You know they tell ya, never hit a man with a closed fist. But it is, on occasion, hilarious.
• Explore the difference between laws and morals – Feel free to allow your characters to break “the law of the land” but always keep an eye on your character’s personal moral code. This is not to say that the character’s personal code is like that of the Christian author, but broken moral codes (if the character breaks his own code) is a great opportunity for self-reflection. And when a character breaks the code of the land, there is the conflict of the good man against the evil in the world, which is a venerable Christian theme.
- Sheriff Bourne: You were truthful back in town. A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.
Mal: I don’t believe he does.
- Seeking to return prepayment money for the train job to the henchmen of a vicious mob boss.
- Mal: Now this is all the money Niska gave us in advance. You take it back to him, tell him the job didn’t work out. We’re not thieves. (Beat) Well we are thieves. Point is, we’re not taking what’s his. Now, we’ll stay out of his way best we can from here on in. You explain that’s best for everyone, okay?
- Crow, Niska’s 1st henchman: Keep the money! Use it to by a funeral! It doesn’t matter where you go or how far you fly! I will hunt you down and the last thing you see will be my blade!
Mal: Darn. [kicks Crow into the intake engine]
- Turns to 2nd henchman.
- Mal: Now this is all the money Niska gave us in advance…
Niska’s 2nd henchman: Oh yeah, I’m good! Best thing for everyone! I’m right there with you!
Here are some other thoughts from Mal and Firefly.
- • There’s a difference between banter and bickering. The former is hilarious, the latter is tedious. Firefly did banter very well. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow resorted to bickering between the main characters. There’s a reason why Firefly is so quotable and Sky Captain, sadly, isn’t.
• Don’t be afraid to be dark, and be willing to relieve that darkness with sporadic comic moments.
• Always leave room for mystery or long-running unresolved plot points. (I’m thinking here of the example of Inara’s hinted immortality “I don’t want to die at all!”)
• Work from an outline if you can (Joss is a self-described ‘outline nazi,’) but don’t be afraid to fly by the seat of your pants to break out of a rut or a slump.
• Don’t skimp on fleshing out a wide variety of colorful, believable villains.
• Don’t be afraid to listen to the inane ramblings of your cast or crew. And don’t be afraid to ignore them.
Feel free to add your own Firefly-for-writers tips in the comments, and thanks for reading!
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Johne Cook is a technical writer by day and creative writer / editor at night. His interests include prog rock, film noir, space opera, and racquetball. Johne is older than he looks but acts younger than he is.
His short fiction has appeared at Deep Magic, The Sword Review, Wayfarer’s Journal, and Digital Dragon magazine.
In 2006, with L. S. King and Paul Christian Glenn, Johne founded Ray Gun Revival magazine, devoted to space opera and golden age sci-fi. They refer to themselves collectively as the Overlords, and are often vaporizing someone’s puny planet for various arbitrary infractions.