writing lessons from the mandalorian

Lesson number one: be Disney.

Lesson number two: be Star Wars.

Lessons number three through ten: Baby Yoda.

baby-yoda-1200

Okay, so there’s more to it than that. Listen, I’ll admit it: I’m on the bandwagon. I’ve anxiously awaited each episode release since we got Disney+. I am just as captivated by how freakin’ adorable Baby Yoda is as every other person on this gosh darn planet. I’ve seen all the memes. I can’t get away from it. If you even somewhat follow social media, then you probably can’t, either.

And while I understand the zeitgeist, the commercialism of it all is really starting to get to me. But I digress. The cash cow must be milked, that sweet, sweet cream of capitalism.

While I fight to stay aware of the vice grip Disney has on us and our wallets, like a well-written supervillain, I can’t help but admire their cunning. They really got it right with this Disney+ shit. And The Mandalorian? In my not-so-humble opinion, it’s fucking brilliant so far. But that’s mostly because a) it’s Jon Favreau and b) Star Wars is a hot tamale right now and, most importantly, c) it’s got some great storytelling.

I think you can probably guess which one of those interests me the most.

Because at the end of the day, yes, Baby Yoda is cute and all, and Star Wars is Star Wars, but I think there’s more to it than that. And as writers, I think we can look past all the commercialism and franchise… ism… and dive into what really matters: the story.

 

1. it’s a samurai space western

Three concepts you probably didn’t expect to hear in the same sentence, and that I didn’t think I’d see happen outside of Firefly. If you don’t know what Firefly is, it’s a great show that ended too early. But that’s another topic for another time.

Let’s break this down. Why is it samurai? Well, I’m not the biggest Star Wars nerd in the room, but I know enough about the Mandalorians to know that they’re a society of warriors–the best warriors in the galaxy, apparently. And what with the code of honor and all that, they’re pretty samurai-like right from the get-go. But wait: there’s more.

The plot of The Mandalorian, at least so far, is more or less the plot of an old, Japanese manga from the 60s called Lone Wolf and Cub. It was later made into movies and then dubbed for American audiences and renamed Shogun Assassin. This may ring some bells. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve definitely heard of it.

The plot of Lone Wolf and Cub is that a samurai is betrayed and framed for murder by the shogun’s enemies. He finds his family slaughtered, all except his infant son. So he travels the countryside looking for work and tracking down his enemies, pushing his son around in a cart of weapons.

Sound familiar?

I love the riff on this old, Japanese story. I love the heart behind it, and I love how The Mandalorian is pulling from these other sources while still staying true to the Star Wars universe. This is a prime example of taking a story and reworking it for a new audience in a respectful way, not a plagiaristic way. What I mean is, no one’s going to point and say, “Hey! The Mandalorian is copying Lone Wolf and Cub! How unoriginal!” What they will say (and what I’m saying) is, “They’re drawing inspiration from older, relatively unknown source material. That’s awesome.”

Because as gratifying as it is to watch Mando be a badass, at the end of the day, what you really want is a story with some emotional stakes. And at this point, we’ve seen it all, but how heartwarming is it to watch this hardened warrior rendered vulnerable and human by this adorable toddler? In other words, become a father? It’s a tale as old as time, but for good reason. It’s universal, it’s endearing, and it enriches the story.

Also, at my age, watching a man–fictional or otherwise–embrace his paternal instincts is oddly attractive. Must be one of those biological things. I don’t even know what The Mandalorian looks like, for crying out loud! Actually I do, because I accidently saw pictures of the actor. And let me just say, Pedro Pascal is not bad-looking in the slightest. But I digress.

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What about the space western part? Well, the space part is pretty damn self-explanatory. As for the Western, Mando’s got that lone ranger vibe, and I read somewhere that Pascal was inspired by Clint Eastwood films when developing the character. So was much of the production team, I think. A lot of the shots and the set design really hearken back to those Westerns of old. Once again: in a good, paying homage sort of way.

This just goes to show that you can reconcile seemingly disparaging elements into a coherent narrative that doesn’t feel hodge-podged together. Now, if you’re going to do this in your writing, it has to be intentional. You have to know how all these different themes are going to work together. The Mandalorian obviously has the advantage of having the heavy lifting done for them in terms of worldbuilding. But this can also be done from scratch. See: Firefly. 

 

2. the helmet

I should probably address perhaps the second most captivating aspect of The Mandalorian: the helmet. Or, rather, the fact that he refuses to take it off. I know this is basically part of the Mandalorian code, but there seems to be a really particular emphasis on it with our titular character.

In fact, in nearly every episode so far, someone either asks him if he ever takes it off, makes fun of it, or tries to take it off by force. This was a creative choice, I think. Because they could’ve just ignored it, right? It could’ve just been taken for granted, kind of like Darth Vader’s mask (granted, it kind of allows him to live and breathe and all that). So why draw attention to it all the time?

Sometimes it feels like the writers are just throwing the audience a bone because they know how badly we want to see that helmet come off. I feel like at some point, it will. Because otherwise, why tease us so much? When it does finally come off, however, I feel like it’ll be at a really pivotal moment. And it should be. Why? Because the helmet is a symbol, a duh!

Ah yes, let us traverse back to high school English, where we got to spend time unpacking the oft-arbitrary symbols in all our favorite literature. Bear with me while I do it again, but hopefully with some tact.

It’s not just about the Mandalorian’s code. If that’s all it was, then we wouldn’t have so much focus on the helmet. The ability to hide his identity means something specific to this character. It probably has a lot to do with his backstory, which we’ve gotten glimpses of throughout the show. Any time a character wears a mask, it says something about them, right? Think the Phantom of the Opera or Zorro. Or, heck, any masked superhero, really. Maybe I’m reading too much into it here, but what I’m saying is, it’s significant. When (if) the helmet does come off, it will (or should) be at a turning point in the character’s arc.

And if it doesn’t come off? Well, heck, I guess it’ll mean something totally different then.

Also, I know this is visual media, so you really can’t apply everything to your writing in exactly the same way, but I just gotta commend how well this show characterizes the Mandalorian without ever showing his face. I mean, think about it: in visual and written media, facial expressions are so telling. Heck, so is the character’s appearance. Without the face, every gesture, every mannerism, every line they say becomes that much more important. In The Mandalorian, the helmet could’ve easily become a handicap for his characterization, making him seem dry and robotic. Instead, it becomes an asset. It’s intriguing. Mysterious. Unique. And thanks to good writing and acting, his body language does a lot of the work.

The whole Baby Yoda thing helps with that, too.

So what does that tell us? When you’re writing, pay attention to more than just what your characters look like and what kinds of facial expressions they have. Think about things like gestures, mannerisms, way of speaking, all that good stuff. Even if they don’t wear a helmet, your reader doesn’t have the luxury of being able to Google the name of the actor to see what they really look like.

 

3. other notes

Now I’m just going to nerd out a little. Big props to the practical effects (puppets, makeup, and prosthetics especially) in this show. Also, the score. The score is amazing. That’s courtesy of Ludwig Göransson, who also scored Black Panter. The end credits theme sounds like a mix of that John Williams heavy-on-the-horns music and the end credits from Avatar: The Last Airbender. (There’s some kind of wooden flute of East Asian origin in there, I think!) I’m a sucker for a good score, and though that admittedly doesn’t help any of us much with our writing, we can draw inspiration from anything, right?

I’m also pleasantly surprised by the characters that pop in for an episode and then pop back out. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of some of them, but for the time being, the show’s doing a pretty good job characterizing them in a short amount of time. They’re all there to serve a purpose in the plot, and none of them so far seem too forced (though there are corny moments). I’m curious to see who else they’re going to introduce.

I guess it goes without saying, but even for minor characters, it’s worth it to flesh them out a little. Here’s an area where I, personally, could be better. I think that in general, it’s about the details. Whether it’s the way a character walks or the way a character speaks or whatever, you gotta think about these things. Even in a world as rich as Star Wars, if the people are boring and flat, there’s only so many shoot-outs and space battles that an audience can take.

But I guess as long as they keep giving us Baby Yoda, we’ll put up with just about anything.

yodatea


Have you watched the show? What are your thoughts? For real, I want to talk about it so bad!

Featured image copyright Disney and Star Wars and basically, none of these images belong to me whatsoever.

 

5 thoughts on “writing lessons from the mandalorian

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