Firefly Writing Lessons

Lesson #2: Every character is unique and important 

Firefly uses an ensemble cast, which means there is more than one character for you to follow and pay attention to. This can be something of a challenge for a writer, having to see through so many eyes and speak in so many voices. While the focus of the story might be on only one individual protagonist—Malcolm Reynolds in this instance—everyone on board Serenity is just as important and equally deserving of screen time.

If all of the characters in an ensemble cast are too similar storylines get confusing. If they all dress the same, act the same, and speak in a similar voice, it can be difficult to figure out what is going on and who’s story you’re trying to follow. In the end, you just don’t care, and that is death to any tale.

All of the characters on Firefly have distinctive traits and characteristics that set them apart from the others; male, female, clothing, hair style, ethnic background, sexual orientation, mood, religious beliefs, and so on. While some of the characters may share one or two traits, they have myriad others that set them apart. They all have their own backstories, their own beliefs, their own problems and their own goals. Some of these inevitably don’t line up, which leads to conflict and, ultimately, a much better story.

The other thing Mr. Whedon and his writing staff do so well is to present us with characters we can identify with no matter who we are or where we come from. We can see something of ourselves in at least one of these characters, if not all. We genuinely care about them and want them to succeed. If you took any character from Firefly and put them in their own show, I would watch that show. They’re all unique, interesting, well-rounded people and I love each and every one of them; even Jayne.

Who is your favorite Firefly character, and what is it about that person that speaks to you keeps you coming back for more?

Firefly Writing Lessons

Introduction

It is my personal belief that Joss Whedon is a master story-teller. I love his movies, his TV shows, his comics, and his screenplays. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along in 1992 I thought it was the weirdest and most wonderful movie I’d ever seen (and still Paul Reubens’ best performance). I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series. I loved Angel and Dollhouse, and am enamored with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Cabin in the Woods blew me away, and the two Avengers movies Mr. Whedon directed are among the best movies Marvel has done to date. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is shear genius and I’ve watched it at least twenty times. But, even now, after all these years, I feel like Mr. Whedon’s crowning achievement is the TV series, Firefly.

In my somewhat substantial movie library I have a well-worn DVD collection of the entire Firefly series. Recently, while under lockdown, I dug out the DVDs and watched them again, along with the movie, Serenity, which finishes off the story rather nicely.

While I was watching, it began to occur to me just how much I’ve learned about writing by watching this series in particular. As a writer I can’t help but pick apart plots and dissect storylines, both in books and movies. I’m always trying to see behind the curtain and figure out what the writer is up to. What tricks are they using and what devices do they employ in an effort to evoke an emotional response from the audience?

After re-watching Firefly and Serenity I sat down and compiled a list of, probably not all, but at least the main story elements I picked up along the way, so I thought I would share, beginning with this one:

Lesson #1: Nothing ever goes smooth. 

Nothing ever goes according to plan. Mal says it more than once. “How come it never goes smooth?” No matter how carefully the crew of Serenity plans, or what kind of precautions they take, things always go wrong. In every instance you can almost hear the writer asking, “what obstacle can I throw in their way this time?” It’s what some have called the “one damn thing after another” plotline. Our heroes overcome one hurtle just to have another one get in their way, until finally, after a great deal of pain and suffering, they manage to clear them all and cross the finish line, just in the nick of time.

What’s your favorite “it never goes smooth” moment from Firefly, or any other story you may have read or seen on film? There’s probably a million of them out there and I’d love to hear which ones caught your attention.

Review: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon is an extraordinary read and a remarkable debut novel for author, Steven Erikson. This book is rich in detail, fast-paced, and bursting at the seams with memorable characters. I particularly liked Mr. Erikson’s naming conventions used to effectively distinguish notable figures like Whiskeyjack, Tattersail, Crokus, along with many others. This book has everything you could want from an epic fantasy adventure; wars, intrigue, gods, monsters, demons, mages, thieves, assassins, and sword wielding heroes. My head is still spinning. It will probably take me weeks to fully digest the story I just finished reading.

Review: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools, the first installment in the Red Queen’s War, was a delightful read. The story centers around Prince Jalan, a cowardly young prince who, despite his intentions to spend his pampered existence doing little but drinking, gambling, and womanizing, finds himself thrust unexpectedly into the role of the hero. When Jalan crosses paths with a huge Norseman named Snorri ver Snagason, the lives of both men are irrevocably changed. The two unlikely companions set out on something of a comedic road trip, a raucous romp across the Broken Empire that turns many of the tropes of the traditional quest adventure on their head. There is plenty of magic and adventure along the way, but interspersed with a healthy dose of irreverent humor. Definitely worth checking out.

What would you say are your biggest influences?

Probably the first fantasy book I encountered was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien which was read to my class by a very astute English teacher in my first year of middle school. After that I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy which, to date, I have read at least twenty times. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories were another big influence as were the Elric stories by Michael Moorcock.

In high school I began to branch out reading a wide variety of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I soon discovered authors like Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Stephen R. Donaldson, and countless others. After high school I added contemporary fiction and non-fiction books to my list and also started reading books on writing craft and history. It seems like every book I read leads me to a dozen more. It was a very sad day when I realized that I will likely expire long before I get to all the books I want to read.

These days I read a little bit of everything, and try to mix things up so that I don’t get bored with any one genre. I really love George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and wish he would finish the series—I’m sure I’m not alone in this. A couple other authors I recently discovered are Joe Abercrombie, who pretty much defines the Grimdark genre, and Brian Staveley, who is a really gifted writer of epic fantasy. I just finished reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and thought it was an amazing book. I can’t wait to read the next one.

I would say I’m influenced in one way or another by just about every author I read, but Tolkien, Howard, and Martin are probably make the biggest impact on my style of writing.

Introduction to the Draakonor Chronicles

Recently, I was featured as the Reddit Fantasy Author of the Day. It was a fun event and gave me a rare opportunity to interact with fellow lovers of fantasy fiction. By the time it was over I had answered quite a few questions and thought it might be fun to share some of those here.

For anyone who hasn’t read the books yet, here is a brief introduction to the Draakonor Chronicles:

A Way with Magic is book one in a nine-part epic fantasy series called the Draakonor Chronicles. I have one other book, a novella called The Fabled Beast of Elddon, a prequel of sorts that takes place several years before the events of the Draakonor Chronicles.

The overall story arc for the Draakonor Chronicles is centered around the search for a series of magic shards that, when combined, make one powerful gemstone called the Draakonor. The shards have unique powers which can be exploited for good or ill and our heroes are not the only ones searching for them. Each book is a quest to find the next one and, as you might expect, leads the characters into dark and dangerous situations.

The plot for the Draakonor Chronicles was heavily influenced by a long running role playing game I participated in, and the stories include a myriad of races and monsters, including dragons, orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres, elves, and dwarves, to name a few, along with others of my own devising. To make sense of all this I created a mythology wherein, a long time ago, a powerful wizard opened a doorway into a neighboring reality called the Dreamland, unleashing all the creatures found in myths and legends. After centuries of war the people of Ninavar and the Dreamland have, for the most part, learned to live together. That is until a dark elf sorceress, for reasons that will become clear over time, decides to start a war and plunge both worlds into chaos once more.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting some of the questions I received, and their corresponding answers. As always feel free to chime in if there is anything else you’re curious about.

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I just finished reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and I must say I am thoroughly enamored with this impressive debut novel. I can see why it took 15 years to complete (and before anyone sends me a contradictory account, I pulled that number from an article on Tor.com—I blame them if it is incorrect). A book as rich and textured as this one doesn’t happen overnight and I appreciate Mr. Rothfuss’s time and attention to detail.

The Name of the Wind is the story of Kvothe, a near legendary hero who, by my reckoning, is part wizard, part musician, part scholar, part warrior and, at present, full-time innkeeper. It is told in both past and present with Kvothe himself narrating much of it. The tale spans a number of years. However, this is only the beginning of the story and there is much more to come (which I look forward to with great anticipation).

This is a fantasy story with little in the way of magical beasts or mythological monsters, although the few that wander into the story are handled deftly and in very unique ways. There is music to the language and, in fact, music plays an important role in the story, as does science and reasoning, and a wide range of human emotions. It is a tale of struggle and survival, of friendship and love. There was very little in the way of enchanted swords and epic battles, but a good deal of riveting story telling with some finely wrought characters at the center of it all. Good stuff. I highly recommend it.

Naming: Origin of Dreamland

Dreamland is not a particularly original name, but it is a name that evokes all kinds of emotions. I took the name from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, one of many I read in high school. The poem is filled with shifting landscapes and dark, brooding images, and seemed to fit well with the overall story arc I was envisioning for the Draakonor Chronicles. When I was building Ninavar I imagined a medieval world much like our own, but one bordered by other worlds, the most prominent of which would be a magical realm filled with all of the non-human races, the creatures of myth and legend that haunt our dreams and stir our imaginations. And what would happen if the veil separating those two places was breached and the two worlds came together in sudden, violent contact? Well, you’ll just have to read the story to find out.

Naming: Origin of Ninavar

The world in which many of the events of the Draakonor Chronicles take place is called Ninavar. Ninavar is a variation on the name, Nineveh. And, for those who may not have heard of it, Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia. I’m not sure where or when I first heard the name, but it got stuck in my subconscious and stayed there until I needed it. As with most of the people and place names in my stories, I found something that already existed and tweaked it just enough to make it semi-unique. I love words, and coming up with new and interesting ones is part of the fun of writing epic fantasy. Ninavar just sort of rolled off my tongue. It had that same kind of flavor to it as Narnia or Newhon—probably because it’s an “N” word. Ninavar just sounded like a fun place, a place filled with monsters and magic, and a good place to have adventures.

Naming: Origin of Draakonor

A question I hear often is “where do the names come from?” Giving people, places, and things unique names is one of the more challenging aspects of writing fantasy. So, I thought that over the next few weeks I’d take a few of the names I’ve come up with and offer explanation.

Draak (rhymes with rock) is a word I borrowed from Dutch. It means dragon. And onor is the elvish word for heart—okay, I’m making that part up, but it sounded good, right? In truth, once I landed on Draak I was looking for a way to extend the word and Draakonor sort of rolled off my tongue.

Originally the series was called The Chronicle of the Dragon Heart, a reference to a legendary gem that is an integral part of the story. At the suggestion of a friend, I changed it to The Chronicle of the Dragon Shards, because the story is really about the broken shards of that gem I mentioned. The problem with both these names is that there are quite a few books and movies that use dragon heart in the title, and there is a video game that uses Dragonshard. So, it makes my series harder to find if you search for it online and allows for the possibility that my story might be confused with another.

Draakonor was one of several options I considered. What sealed the deal for me was when I did a quick Google search and came up with absolutely nothing. Finding a unique name for your book or series can be a difficult task, but is essential if you want your story to stand out in an increasingly crowded market place.