All I can say is thank God for Netflix's streaming service! Within the last month or so it's brought us a veritable deluge of Joss Whedon. The entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is there, along with Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Season 1 of Dollhouse and, my personal favorite, Firefly.
I was thinking about Firefly recently because of the recent posts about setting by Nathan Bransford and our very own Beth Revis.
For my money, Firefly is a perfect example of setting done right. For those that don't know, (Shame on you. Shame!) Firefly follows the crew of Serenity, a Firefly class cargo ship captained by Malcolm Reynold, a one time soldier on the losing end of a civil war and now a smuggler and thief. The universe they travel through is ruled by The Alliance, though their influence peters out significantly as you hit the outer rim of their territory. Reynolds and his crew do their best to get by, taking whatever job they can get and trying to stay a step ahead of the law.
So why is this show so instructive to us? Partially for the reasons Nathan and Beth talk about. Whedon constructed a dynamic world. A world in motion and in conflict. On top of that, the universe is richly imagined and unique, a sort of post-earth Chinese/American hybrid with elements of high-tech science fiction and old west rustic. It's unfamiliar but accessible and rewards in-depth exploration.
Another point in Firefly's favor is how it deals with the concept of utopia/dystopia. If you're a monied resident of the central worlds, sure you've got the Alliance's eye on you all the time, but we're given the impression that your life is pretty damn fine. Safe. Prosperous. Ample resources. If you live out on the edges of the galaxy you're free, but struggling to just get by in a place that is more or less lawless. Which is the utopia? Which is the dystopia? Depends on who you are. Depends on your point of view. The show never makes things black and white. Ultimately, this allows for more complex stories and characters and also brings in moral and ethical gray areas that we recognize as being part of real life to ground the fantastical setting. This raises another question to ask as you're creating a world. Is what I'm doing with the world building helping me? Is it supporting my goal of writing complex and layered stories?
The thing I most take from the show, however, (and what I try to keep in mind every morning at 6AM as I'm working on my next book) is that Whedon seems to know that ultimately, as important as world-building might be, it's actually a relatively minor concern.
An odd thing to say on a blog more or less dedicated to a kind of world-building, but it's clear that Whedon knows that what matters is characters, relationships, and conflict. World-building works to support those three things. Watch any show by Whedon and you'll always see that characters and the choices they make are front and center. I love the worlds he creates. But honestly, I think you could strip them all away and you'd still be left with compelling characters and narrative. For me, that's the real test. I find myself thinking as I'm writing…"am I leaning on the whiz-bang elements of this world to keep people interested or are my characters enough?" If I put these people on a bare stage, would people still want to watch?
I'm sure we can all think of plenty of instances where a writer has done some impressive world-building, yet neglected to provide us with the things that actually make us want to follow a story. Examples? The new generation Star Wars movies anyone? Any Matrix movie but the first one? Pretty and detailed but utterly lifeless.
All that aside, you should watch the show because it's a hell of a lot of fun. The characters are warm and real and incredibly funny. The stories are great. It also has the benefit of saying some really helpful things to people who are trying to write in a similar vein.
Oh! It also has the best opening and theme song ever. If I had to do my apocalyptic playlist post over again I'd totally add it.