Firefly: Cast Personae (how to create character-driven science fiction)

I hold to the belief that most entertaining fiction, whether found as television, cinema, stage plays, comic books, video games or print media, is highly predicated by two main requirements.

The first of these is competent worldbuilding. A story’s settings must be realistic within the fictional milieu. The back story, the reasons why the story takes place where it takes place, has to have just enough detail for verisimilitude. Also, just enough detail to leave some questions temporarily unanswered, to inspire future story threads. Tiny pockets of mystery to keep the minds of both the author and the readers engaged.

In my previous Firefly post, we discussed worldbuilding in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It is a thing of beauty. The ‘Verse of Firefly seems like a real, tactile place to me. The back story sets the stage for potential conflicts of myriad types, with conflict being the motivating force of all stories.

The second fundamental ingredient for superior storytelling is a compelling cast of characters.

For decades, I’ve read that the two main fiction writing styles are character-driven and plot-driven stories. I envision this character/plot duality as more of a continuum than a true binary situation. The more snobbish contingent out there will tell you that character-driven fiction is more prevalent in literary fiction. The character or characters in a story will undergo changes during the story, and they aren’t the same people at the end that they were in the beginning. Most genre fiction, such as science-fiction and fantasy, is typically considered plot-driven. The suggestion in this sort of fiction is that the plot is more important than the characters, who essentially come full circle in the story, unchanged by the events, status quo maintained.

I reject the premise that these clearcut categories even exist. All stories have a plot, even so-called literary novels. And no story can take place without characters, human or otherwise. Ideally, we want our stories to have interesting characters involved in exciting plots.

I get what is meant by plot-driven. This is the story type where there’s a lot of action and the characters are two-dimensional, unchanging. A lot of series characters are like that, such as Conan,Tarzan, James Bond or Doc Savage. The character’s consistency is a part of the appeal. I’m not putting down plot-driven stories. They can be an exhilirating experience. Disaster movies are another good example. The star of the show is the disaster. We seldom become fully invested in the characters who experience the disaster. The comic books of my youth are also good examples. Back when Hector was a pup, the DC Comics heroes were cardboard characters, and the stories were primarily episodic, not serial. Three issues ago, Superman was fighting the Parasite, but that really has no bearing on the current issue, in which Mr. Mxyzptlk returns. You can read or see episodic content out of series order without missing much in the way of overarching storylines.

In my quest to know myself, I’ve discovered some things I like in stories. First, I like serialized content. The events of a single television episode should have an impact on what happens five episodes later. In a fiction series, such as, for instance, The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, the events of Leviathan Wakes should have consequences that are felt three novels later in Cibola Burn. And they do.

Second, I prefer character-driven stories, even in genre entertainment. If the worldbuilding is on point, it often suggests character types that could populate the world you’ve created. In Joss Whedon’s planning for Firefly, he needed characters to crew the midbulk cargo ship Serenity. If you were writing this story, you would do the same. Sure, a ship needs a pilot, a captain and a first officer. What else? Maybe some passengers? As you’re casting your characters, you think about the interpersonal relationships between them, as well as each character’s motivations for doing what they do. As the characters become more fleshed out, they begin to generate potential story threads themselves.

You may begin to watch a series because of its pedigree or premise, but you stay for the characters. I began watching Firefly because I like science fiction and I enjoyed the stuff Joss Whedon created prior to the show. But, it was the characters who made me watch the series’s only season, from beginning to end, while still imagining other adventures the crew could get involved in, between episodes and after the finale. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to pretend that the movie Serenity doesn’t exist, because it didn’t back then. Plus, it’s been a while since I watched the movie and the only thing I really retained was that a couple of my favorite characters died. I didn’t care for that.

I’m going to list the main characters of Firefly. I was going to say that these characters are listed in no particular order, but that’s not exactly true. If I were writing a story set in this quadrant of the Whedonverse, and I had already written the back story and settled on the cargo ship Serenity as my one “home base” setting, I would expect certain characters to be on board the vessel. This list is in order of “most expected” to “least expected.”

Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillian) — “Mal” is the owner and captain of Serenity. He fought in the war between the Alliance and the Independents (AKA Browncoats), on the losing side. The ship’s name was inspired by a famous battle he commanded in, the Battle of Serenity Valley. He is fiercely loyal to his crew, and his main mission is to keep his crew alive and his ship flying, by both legal and extralegal means. Mal remains on the fringes of civilization in order to stay far from Alliance control. If he were driving a ’68 Dodge Charger, it would have a Confederate battle flag painted on the roof. Of his crew, he has known his first officer, Zoë Washburn, the longest. He was her sergeant in the Battle of Serenity Valley, the loss of which led to the end of the Unification War. He also has strong feelings for Inara Serra, the Companion who travels with the crew on the Serenity, one of its shuttlecraft converted into her private suite/workspace.

Zoë Washburn (Gina Torres) — After creating the captain, my next thought would be that I needed a second-in-command. A first mate, first officer, Number One — whatever the position may be called. That post is held by Zoë. She has known Mal Reynolds longer than anyone else on board, and is fiercely protective of him, which at times causes some jealousy in her husband, who is also a member of the crew. Her bond with Mal is a strong one, however. The two of them were the only survivors of their platoon in the Battle of Serenity Valley.

Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Tudyk) — The ship needs a pilot, doesn’t it? That’s where Zoë Washburn’s husband comes in. Zoë and Wash haven’t known each other as long as she and Mal have, and the two didn’t get married until sometime after Wash joined up as Serenity‘s pilot. He is the ship’s resident joker and sometimes comic relief. Because he seems so laid-back, slightly crazy, and often risk-adverse, he is frequently underestimated. This is a mistake. He is a crackerjack pilot and is capable of tremendous bravery, especially when his wife is threatened.

Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) — Kaylee is Serenity‘s mechanic. She has a natural affinity for machines, though no formal training. She is kind, trusting, and overwhelmingly positive, which is refreshing when her crewmates are often sarcastic and cynical. She is the heart of Serenity. She tends to personify the cargo ship, talking and listening to her as if she were a sentient being. While her sunny disposition and eccentricities sometimes make her seem younger than her years, she desires to be seen as a fullgrown woman. She develops a romantic attraction to one of the passengers that seems destined to become a real relationship even prior to the end of the season.

Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) — The man called Jayne is the muscle, the big bruiser of the ship. He is a mercenary hired on the spot by Mal Reynolds when the gang Jayne was running with tried to rob Mal and Zoë. You’re familiar with the archetype. He claims his loyalty is to whomever is paying the most money, and this seems to be true. But, Jayne becomes more humanized as the season progresses. He sends money home to his mother and wears a ridiculous-looking knit cap with earflaps and a poof on top just because his mother made it for him. Over the span of a few episodes, the viewer understands, through Jayne’s actions, that he is loyal to the crew, and especially has a soft spot in his heart for Kaylee. Jayne personifies his weapons the way Kaylee does the ship itself. They have names like Vera and Lux.

Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) — Inara is technically a passenger on Serenity, I guess. She leases one of the ship’s shuttles, which serves as both her living quarters and her mobile workspace when they are planetside. Inara is a Companion, which is a high-society courtesan licensed by the Union of Allied Planets, a position represented by a guild. Although Mal often refers to her as a prostitute, Inara’s occupation is much more complicated than that and has an Asian cachet that had to be intentional. Companions belong to a guild and are highly educated, part of the social elite, at home among the wealthy and powerful. While sex is involved in her work, Inara can often be considered a psychological counselor as well. Having a Companion on board often gives Mal and his crew access to places they would otherwise not be allowed. There is a mutual attraction between Mal and Inara, but Mal often seems in denial, frequently insulting Inara or acting as if he has no feelings for her. It is soon apparent that Inara is a member of Serenity‘s crew, not just a tenant. And, she has a secret.

Derrial Book (Ron Glass) — Book is a Shepherd, a Christian missionary who becomes a passenger on board Serenity. He is a walking contradiction, a man of peace who also reveals a capacity for violence that speaks of a storied past. It’s established early on that he is a man with many secrets. The Shepherd is a grandfatherly presence on board the vessel, and seems to find some common ground with all of the crew and passengers. He and Mal seem to respect each other, although Mal lost his faith during the war and seems to have little patience for religious talk. Book’s mysterious past allows him to become somewhat of a fictional contrivance, with skills or past experience dictated by the needs of the story.

Simon Tam (Sean Maher) — Dr. Tam was a top trauma surgeon on one of the central planets when he gave it all up to rescue his sister from the Alliance-run Academy, where they were performing torturous tests on her and others. This makes him a fugitive on the run from the Alliance when he boards Serenity, with his sister, as a passenger. He soon becomes the ship’s doctor, which apparently not every ship is lucky enough to have. In spite of his personal sacrifice to save his sister, Simon is not an easy person to like. He is snobbish and often dismissive. Easily my least favorite character on the ship. But, a necessary one. He is proof that you don’t have to like a character to appreciate his contribution to the team. Kaylee develops a strong romantic attraction to the doctor, and he seems to return the feeling.

River Tam (Summer Glau) — River is, of course, Dr. Tam’s sister, who was turned into a mentally unstable psychic weapon by the Alliance. She brings a mostly benign chaos to the ship. River has moments of lucidity in which she understands the sacrifice her brother has made for her, but most of the time she seems to have regressed to a childlike state, with unpredictable behavior and little impulse control. She still manages to develop relationships with the people on board the ship. She and Kaylee often act like teenaged girlfriends. Shepherd Book babysits her on more than one occasion. True to form, Mal acts like he regrets accepting River as a passenger, but it becomes obvious that he is protective of her. In return, River seems to look at the captain as a father figure, and Serenity as her “home.”

If you’re anything like I am, reading these brief character sketches inspires dozens of potential story threads. The interpersonal relationships, the character back stories (both known and unknown), the individual motivating forces, all seem to be fertile ground for the imagination.

The fictional worldbuilding on the series also includes specialized language used by the characters. I’ve mentioned the casual usage of Mandarin Chinese (“gorram”), but there are other deft touches that I enjoy, such as the word ‘Verse as a stand-in for “universe,” and the adjective “shiny” used the way we might use “cool” or “good.” Details such as these help make the characters seem real, more flesh-and-blood than words in a script.

That’s the ultimate result of the character-building carried out in this series. The feeling that each character has their own past, their own thoughts and feelings, their own lives separate from the actors who portrayed them. It begins with the writing, but the performances of the actors themselves are the lightning that bring the characters to life.

I never want to see a reboot of this series. At this point, I don’t want to see a reunion show either. We already know a couple of the characters didn’t survive the movie, and the actors are all nearly two decades older and have moved on to other things. No, Firefly is a work that stands alone. It is the type of television that the phrase “lightning in a bottle” was created for.

I agree with the prevailing opinion that the series was cancelled too soon, but that doesn’t diminish what Joss Whedon and his own crew were able to accomplish.

Find a crew . . . find a job . . . and, keep flying.

5 thoughts on “Firefly: Cast Personae (how to create character-driven science fiction)

  1. True, a reboot would be close to sacrilege because these characters are burned in our imagination as we saw them on screen, but if you want to recapture some of that screen magic I can recommend this recent series of books:
    I’ve enjoyed the first one and I’m reading the second these days, and it’s almost like hearing the characters’ voices – and they are ALL there, which is a huge plus… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A beautiful tribute to a beautiful piece of work. Like you, I was bummed when it ended, but also like you, I wouldn’t want to see it restart at this point. But if you’d like to pursue probably thousands of those potential storylines, allow me to suggest Firefly: The Game. Populated by characters met in the series, you take the role of a captain of your own Firefly, outfit your ship, hire a crew, all individuals that come with skills, issues, and backstory, and take jobs from Patience, Niska, the Space Bazaar, and all those familiar faces we all know and love. Then you set out to make your fortune. I’ve never seen a game, from Dragonslayer to Lord of the Rings, that captures its source material like this one does. It’s a huge favorite around here!

    Liked by 1 person

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