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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Love Joss Whedon; I Want More Firefly

I just finished rereading Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy, Creator of ... Firefly and am even more enamored with Whedon than before. I've got multicolored tabs looking like four layers of fringe sticking from all three unbound edges of most of the 171 pages of this book.

Afterward I handwrote the best from my flagging efforts and further distilled those 4.5 double-sided pages by underlining the best of the best. Here is my overview of that condensation:

Joss, The Person

He's incredibly smart, deeply and widely read, loves to learn, with a superior imagination. Found his true happiness/passion in writing, while finding acceptance and a place where he could be himself at college. He has both a childlike fascination with his surroundings and yet a worldly view. His own dichotomy makes him interesting. He's responsible for so much yet so generous with his time. Joss inspires loyalty. And fandom, I might add.

His honesty pulls me to him. He calls a bomb of a movie a bomb. He has been known to tell people in his script-doctoring days that this script doesn't need doctoring, it needs to not be done period. He's not afraid to address run-ins he's had with various people.

IMO, he stands tall.

Joss, The Genre-Buster

He has created new genres by mixing and blending his faves. He loves sci-fi; he loves Westerns; it follows that he would blend the two (and more) into Firefly. Supposedly NYPD Blue had three genres in its makeup, but Joss upped his own mix to be four for his Buffy series, combining horror, action, comedy and heart-wrenching emotional drama. When well balanced, the seasons were accepted readily by the fans. When too darkshowing a definite imbalancethe fans were not as connected to the characters.

Yet the main impetus seemed to be to bring legitimacy to fantasy and humor, as Joss sees the individual genres as meaningful.

Joss, The Stereotype Annihilator

Besides genre-busting, he's a stereotype annihilator. Like with Buffy, in the opening scenes of the series, he took the typical blonde walking in a cemetery to be attacked by the vampire and turned her into a blonde vampire. Ha!

He made Willow, Buffy's BFF and pseudo-sister, into a complex woman, not the typical nerdy sidekick. Zander is the "everyman" persona, all about loyalty, while Giles, the father-figure and mentor, rounded out the main characters.

Joss made a "silent" episode (entitled "Hush") which was a compilation of twenty-nine minutes without a spoken word. That takes guts and genius. He pulled off a musical in Season 6. Then in Angel, he had an opera episode. Joss attacks the notions of stereotypes head-on.

He made those same twists in Firefly. Made no sound in space so the thrusters are silent. Made no aliens. Those reavers are men gone bad. No alien planets, just Earth over and over again.

Joss, The Plot Developer
  • Joss is about details, making continuity important to his series and his fans.
  • Alternatively, he foreshadows main events, some two years in advance. Talk about a big-picture planner.
  • He avoids too much background info on his characters so there is room for them to grow, in whatever direction.
  • Real and universal issues invade his plots that all ages enjoy. There is a true reality to his work, no matter the genre(s).
  • Joss finds the heart of the story, the emotional intensity, which became the core strength of the Buffy series. While we may all admire Superman and the heroic action, with Buffy, we have a sixteen-year-old we can all relate to [as once having been a teen (or for younger fans, yearning to be a teen)] and your heart breaks for her as she becomes a runaway, for instance.
  • Like taking Angel with all his evil deeds and endearing him to his audience once more by having Angel seek redemption. Another foreshadowing example setting up the spin-off series.
Joss, His Mythology aka Series' Mission Statements: The Core of Things
  • In Buffy, the dark side of Buffy emerges in reaction to the intensity of her fear.
  • In Buffy, her victory has consequences and shows us a superhero with scars; she's human and vulnerable, no matter how strong.
  • In Buffy, family can be difficult and cruel, but you have the power to create your own family. "It's not about blood."
  • In Buffy, it was about strong independent women and a lot of pop culture thrown in.
  • In Buffy, the joy of female empowerment was a recurring theme.
  • In Buffy, "make them cry" was Joss's advice.
  • In Buffy, the ultimate sacrifice comes with a price.
  • In Buffy, the underdog tries to save the world.
  • In Buffy, one of the questions was: how does one get from childhood to adulthood? Addressing teen angst, alienation and feeling like an outsider.
  • In Buffy, the series grew along with its characters, so a later question was: how does one negotiate the periods of adulthood? All about adult life and relationships.
  • In Buffy, Willow's story was about weakness, addiction, loss. How life hits you in the gut right when you think you're back on your feet.
  • In Buffy, the mantra was bigger than life.
  • In Firefly, life was portrayed actual size.
  • In Firefly, it was about politics and economic depression and a civil war in outer space. No pop culture allowed.
  • In Firefly, it is about life when it is hard, the struggles. Note that Joss recognized the hand-to-mouth viewers were not represented on TV. [Funny, because then later came a US version of the British series Shameless (another fave series of mine) which delved even deeper into this no-collar crowd.]
  • In Firefly, the harder things are, the more times your ethics and moral structure are going to be tested.
  • In Angel, twentysomethings are looking for meaning in a confusing world.
  • In Angel, his own purpose was to find redemption.
Joss, His Thoughts on Creating a Cult Show

Don't think about that; think instead about what is the most compelling thing to me right now? Like with Firefly, it was first the adolescent metaphor. With time it became getting a chance to look at life from a lot of different points of view. "That's why we have nine regulars."

Joss, The Writer

In addition to all of the above, here are more writing tips to be gleaned from Joss's successes:
  • When you kill off people the fans do not know yet, the writing has no emotional value and it bombs.
  • We are not to give the fans what they want but what they need. Thus Joss's compulsion to kill off much loved characters.
  • Make the characters interesting, complex individuals. Buffy had four main characters (MCs). The Angel spin-off had five. Firefly had nine.
  • Joss said that with his nine Firefly MCs, each had their own agenda and that made for easier writing: nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.
  • Foreshadow. Give subtle clues. Make more layers. [Break the supposed "rules."]
A Rabbit Trail: Archetypes

What about archetypes?

There are many variations, but I happen to like these eight for their alignment of four pairs of opposites. One online site said that we carry all eight within us, in varying degrees depending on circumstances, which is an interesting concept. That they represent:

Protagonist = our initiative
Antagonist = our reticence to change
Contagonist = our temptations
Guardian/Mentor = our conscience
Sidekick = our self-confidence
Skeptic = our self-doubt
Emotion = our passion
Reason = our intellect

For those fellow authors who like the archetype example, I thought it'd be fun to align the standard eight with the nine Firefly characters and see how they match up.

Protagonist = Mal mainly, with Zoe and Jane, even Book, the Man of God, had a gun 3x or so
Antagonist = the Alliance, the centralized government
Contagonist = Jane/various episodic villains/Mal & Inara's ongoing fake antagonism /reavers
Guardian/Mentor = Book/Zoe/Inara/with Mal as a protector to his crew
Sidekicks/Humor = Jewel/Jane/Summer/Walsh/Mal can be quite humorous also
Skeptic = Jane/Doc/Zoe/Walsh (Mal is largely a huge skeptic)
Emotion/Chaos = Jewel/Summer/Inara (as a mother figure)/Walsh (at times)/Doc (at times)/Mal, for all his crusty curmudgeonistic ways, has great heart
Reason = Inara/Walsh/Doc/Zoe (Mal's is more like street smarts/experience talking, when he knows the reavers set up a bomb when Serenity docked with that seemingly empty ship in space, or that Patience is gonna shoot him again, etc.)

Granted, you may assign them differently. But compare the above personal example from me to an online example with another nine MCs, this time from Star Wars:

Protagonist = Luke Skywalker
Antagonist = the Empire
Contagonist = Darth Vader
Guardian/Mentor = Obi-Wan
Sidekicks = R2D2 + C3PO
Skeptic = Hans Solo
Emotion = Chewbacca
Reason = Princess Leia

They all fit into one slot, with the exception of the two droids. But look again what Joss did for his nine. They crossed over within the generic eight archetypal categories.

What can I say? Joss is the master of mixing it up, shooting it down and linking up interesting combos.

We should do the same.

P.S. I'm rewatching the Firefly DVDs and realized that Mal easily has seven of the eight archetypes resident within and visually portrayed in the series. And when you think of him refusing to acknowledge his feelings for Inara, well then he becomes his own worst enemy, fulfilling the eighth stereotype of the antagonist. This may well be the best writing advice from Joss: make your hero human. Don't hesitate to show his faults. And if he has many (don't we all?), then each one serves to snag the attention of particular fans based on differing fan bases. Absolutely brilliant!

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor


  1. Another amazing post, Denise. Thank you so much! I'm going to have to digest this but it's perfect timing as I'm plotting and building characters for a new novel.

    You are one in-depth blogger. Wow.

    1. Thanks, Nia. Glad you enjoyed it. Guess I'm meant to be a teacher in some form, huh? Best wishes with your new novel! Keep us informed... db