I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.—Shepherd Book, Serenity
I love Serenity. It is not the deepest movie ever made, not the most tightly-plotted, and part of me still can’t get over a world where characters constantly drop phrases in Chinese but there are no characters of Asian descent. Still, it is smart for space opera. (It’s also clever, though that’s a different post.)
While the plot involves human experimentation, conspiracies, and life at the edge of the law, it also hinges on belief. When the movie begins, Mal Reynolds is not a believer—at least he won’t admit to himself that he is one. He tells everybody who will listen that he’s just a captain trying to keep his boat in the sky and his crew fed. (“The wind blows north, I go north.”)
Against that, we have the Operative, a creature of pure belief—his cause is his only moral compass. The Operative is one-dimensional. He’s more a symbol than a character. Especially in the context of a movie, we don’t have to know why he believes as he does. (We might vaguely assume that he’s a product of brain-meddling himself.) What matters is that he is single-minded and implacable. He’s a Terminator of belief.
Mal can’t help but come into conflict with the Operative. The Operative is a legitimate external threat, but he also threatens the story Mal tells about himself, that he is “just a captain.” That internal conflict is nothing new to fans of the series, where the battle between Mal’s pragmatism and his idealism colors most of the jobs the crew takes. In Serenity, though, Mal is eventually forced to believe again, to believe in a way he hasn’t since the Browncoats lost Serenity Valley. Embracing belief leads him to victory: not just a physical victory over the Operative, but actually punching a hole in the Operative’s previously impenetrable faith.
It works because we can see it as redemption. Malcolm Reynolds, who has embraced cynical pragmatism as a bulwark against the war he lost, rediscovers belief to become, for as long as it takes, “properly” heroic (yes, a Big Damn Hero). His beliefs are a logical consequence of his experiences during and after the war. (I assume they follow from his experiences before the war, but we don’t get much of that.) Serenity is thus a story about belief as much as it is about conspiracies and space cannibals.
Not all stories feature belief so close to the surface. As writers, though, we still have to know what our characters believe. Belief is a slippery word. We use it in turn as a synonym for faith, as a synonym for principle, as shorthand for giving credence to. All of those things matter for our characters. Whom do they trust? What are their principles? Where do they put their faith? We need to think about the answers to those questions.
Then we have to follow up: how do we, as writers, challenge our characters’ beliefs? Most internal conflicts can be viewed through the lens of belief. Do we challenge faith with counterfactuals? Do we challenge trust with jealousy? Do we challenge one belief with another? Do we drag them, kicking and screaming, to a point where they have to choose between beliefs? Do we run them into a character whose contrary beliefs are more successful?
We never have to explain to the readers why characters believe the things they do. As writers, though, we have to know. There are differences between a devout middle-aged man who was raised in a faith and a devout middle-aged man who came to faith after trauma. This doesn’t mean that we need exhaustive backstories for every character who crosses our page. Even a thumbnail sketch ought to provide clues necessary to infer beliefs, though.
Chief Inspector Mukul, who is at times an ally and at times an antagonist in Ghosts of the Old City, doesn’t have much of a backstory. I know that he was an officer in the Shehru military before he took over Sakurdrilen’s Watch. I don’t know where he was born, or who his parents are, or even, for sure, whether he has living family. (He probably does.) I know he believes that order is the path to public safety, though, and takes threats to it seriously. The single belief suits his role and colors his personality; it’s sufficient for a background character.
Protagonists and, hopefully, primary antagonists, should have more complicated networks of belief. Their richer internal lives help create the inner conflict that makes us care about them. And that, ultimately, is the reason we connect with stories: whether or not we agree with a character’s decisions, we see how he or she makes them, imagine what we might do in the same situation. That’s how we get characters we can believe in.
Without Mal’s reluctant embrace of belief, Serenity is just another little guys versus authoritarians space story. With some believable beliefs, Firefly and Serenity become something people are still writing, thinking, and cosplaying about years later.