do not put shepherd book in your book

[Internet access is back. 🙂 I would have posted this tonight anyway (I wrote it on my phone), but since I'm doing it on the computer I'm adding italics in the appropriate places.]

I've written before about how much I'm influenced by movies (and radio drama), but like everything else there are dangers. Novels are not movies (though there are connections and similarities).

Shepherd Book was a character in the TV show Firefly. He was a preacher ("Shepherd" is a title), and he came on the ship Serenity as a passenger. He had left the abbey where he had been living, and he was apparently eager to travel and see the universe again.

He boarded the ship as a passenger, and he just stayed through the rest of the series, somewhere between a passenger and a crew member.

He turned out to have a lot of knowledge of the criminal world – both its methods and its inhabitants.  He also had a lot of knowledge of the government, including its covert operations, and he carried an ID card that got him immediate medical assistance from a government facility when he was shot. And he was obviously very experienced with firearms.

None of this was ever explained (though the other characters certainly did ask). In the movie Serenity, the captain says that Book has to explain how he knows so much.

"No. I don't," was his reply.

This would be very problematic in a novel. Too much unexplained (and almost always convenient) knowledge, too many disparate character elements. Not that you have to explain everything that your characters know, as I've written about before, but you do have to explain some things, and the more incongruous the elements are the more you might want to consider explaining them.

On the show, though, the character works just fine (and better than fine – Book is a wonderful character). But the writers of Firefly had one advantage that novelists don't have: Ron Glass, the actor who played Shepherd Book. Glass made the character work and seemed to be having a great time doing it.

I don't say this as a criticism of the show's writers, by the way. They knew who they were writing for (the great advantage of writing episodic television) and they knew what he could do. But people who write on paper (or in pixels) don't have that, so we have to do things a bit differently.

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4 Responses to do not put shepherd book in your book

  1. Tiyana says:

    I always wanted to know more about Book’s past!

    But yeah, on the show and movie, that’s part of what made his character so interesting. In a book…it would just drive me nuts. I would expect to learn more in a sequel, most definitely. (I guess that’s because in novels you get to explore things more in-depth, whereas in movies you have to be a bit more strategic with what’s important enough to take up screen time.)

    Also, glad your internet is back. 😀

  2. I think there’s a comic book that gives some of Book’s history, but I haven’t read it.

    Watching the show again, I’ve realized how many times Book’s information proves convenient for the crew. The more useful the information, the more you need to explain why a character has it. Otherwise he’s just a deus ex machina. But you don’t notice the first time you see it, because it’s done so well.

    It is nice to have internet back, but it was also an interesting experience to write a blog post on a phone. 🙂

  3. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I remember hearing an interview with Joss Whedon where he said that one of his greatest regrets when Firefly was cancelled was that he wouldn’t be able to reveal Book’s history. And yeah, there is a comic book that tells a lot of the story. (because Whedon is cool like that.)

    You’re right, of course, it wouldn’t work in a book. Except that it kind of would.

    It works in Firefly because when you’re watching it, you know you’re watching a series. You know there’s going to more information revealed later. In the first episode, we don’t know Simon’s history, we don’t know Kaylee’s history (and I love when it’s revealed in Out Of Gas), etc etc etc. But little snippets are revealed about each character in each episode. If Firefly had continued (Damn you, Fox!), I have no doubt Book’s full history would have eventually come out. And I believe that if the story was originally done as a stand-alone movie, it would be harder to accept Book as is.

    By the same token, if you’re writing a series of novels/stories, you can introduce characters in the first one without a lot of backstory, with the unwritten agreement that more will be revealed later. I’m reading a series at the moment (Downside Ghosts by Stacia Kane) where that happens consistently. But again, in a stand-alone novel, it would be different.

    In fact, after reading your Jan Sleet mysteries, I’d say that you’ve done a similar thing. The first couple of stories (chronologically) reveal absolutely nothing about what U-Town is, where it came from, why Jan Sleet has the position she has, etc etc etc.

  4. It’s a balance, of course. For example, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the book) there is almost no explanation of why Lisbeth Salander is the way she is, and it works (the book doesn’t really “work,” but the characters aren’t the problem).

    As you say, more books are coming, and in any case Salander’s character seems consistent with what she is. There isn’t anything as incongruous as a preacher who has links to both the criminal world and covert government apparatus. Salander is a genius hacker (which is obviously convenient for solving the mystery of the book), but she seems likes somebody who would be a genius hacker.

    In the movies, it works for a much simpler reason: Noomi Rapace.

    Jan Sleet sometimes has esoteric knowledge (she’s obviously fluent in a variety of foreign languages, for example), but she’s the sort of person who would know esoteric things. If she suddenly revealed that she knew sports trivia, that would need to be explained. (She doesn’t. 🙂 )

    River Tam is another example, BTW. In a book, she could come across as a gimmick (super-genius, super-unstable, super-warrier, teenage girl dancer), but Summer Glau brings you right along with the character (I was watching “Safe” just last night 🙂 ).

    As for U-town (the place), I always think of what somebody wrote about Dashiell Hammett, that he wrote down-to-earth characters to take the reader through outlandish stories (The Maltese Falcon, for example). I think if you’re on board with the characters, you can learn about the surroundings more slowly.

    (Also, for anybody who wants to know more about U-town, there is already a whole novel about it, I try to fill in the backstory in the mysteries, but the more complete answer is already published.)

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