The Big Idea: David D. Levine

The circle of inspiration: The work of others inspires creators to make work of their own, which in turn inspires another set of creators. David D. Levine is here to talk about a work that inspired his latest, The Kuiper Belt Job, and how it came to make a difference in his own creation.


My new novel The Kuiper Belt Job began at the Chicago Worldcon in 2012, where I participated in a panel in which we brainstormed a sequel to Serenity, the Firefly movie. I don’t recall who was on the panel, or who contributed which ideas, but I do remember the basic premise: ten years after the events of Serenity, Mal’s son (of course Mal had a son) shows up out of nowhere to say: dad’s in jail, and I’m putting the gang back together to break him out. 

It was only a tossed-off idea at a science fiction convention panel, but for some reason that premise stuck in my head and would not let go. I kept thinking that I should file the serial numbers off and make a novel of it. So in 2017, after handing in the final edits for Arabella the Traitor of Mars, that was one of three new projects I pitched to my agent and editor. And that was the one they both liked the best.

I knew from the beginning that this project would be all about found family, and specifically about putting a broken found family back together again. But I’d never written an ensemble cast before — all of my previous projects had focused on one or two viewpoint characters. So I started by thinking about what made the characters in Firefly work as an ensemble, and also the characters in Leverage (TV series, 2008-2012, in which a crew of con artists work together to help those who have been hurt by powerful people) which I also wanted to use as a model. And the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that the two ensembles are both implementations of the same basic design.

  • Mal, the leader, corresponds with Nate, the Mastermind.
  • Zoe, the second in command is Parker, the Thief.
  • Kaylee, the engineer, is Alec, the Hacker.
  • Jayne, the muscle, is Eliot, the Hitter.
  • Inara, the Companion, is Sophie, the Grifter.

The correspondences aren’t exact, of course. Zoe is much more self-confident than Parker, and Kaylee is more innocent than Alec (though Alec is a bit of a naïf in his way). But looking at the two sets of characters I began to get a sense of how their strengths and weaknesses combine to make a group that can’t help but become tightly-knit and independent.

So I came up with my main cast: Strange the mastermind, Alicia the thief, Tai the hacker, Kane the muscle, and Shweta the negotiator. Now, to be sure, Strange isn’t just Mal or Nate with the serial numbers filed off; he is his own person. But thinking about the existing characters helped me to make my own characters richer and more plausible, and especially to shape the relationships between them.

As I began drafting, my characters began to evolve beyond their origins, to become more themselves. I spotted places where they could conflict and places where they could support each other — often those were two sides of the same coin. And I realized that there were other models I could call on to help flesh out the gang.

There’s a concept in anime known as the “five-man band.” (You could look it up in TV Tropes, but I warn you, if you go in there it’ll be a long time before you come out.) The basic idea is that the main characters form a group of five:

  • The Leader: the main character, the one in charge
  • The Lancer: the leader’s second in command and foil
  • The Brain: the smart one, often also the weird one
  • The Brawn: the strong one, often also the dumb one
  • The Heart: the emotional core of the group

(The Heart used to be called The Chick, obeying the Smurfette Principle that no group can contain more than one female, but we’re better than that now, right?)

The Five-Man Band concept underlies a lot of anime teams, a lot of superhero teams, and a lot of other fictional teams as well. The concept can certainly be overlaid on — or force-fit onto — an existing team, but I’m sure that some more recent teams were created with this model in mind. And why not me? So I decided to apply this idea to my own characters. Strange was obviously the Leader, Alicia the Lancer, Tai the Brain, Kane the Brawn, and Shweta the Heart. 

Looking at my characters from the perspective of this model helped me to understand that Alicia, my Zoe character, was not only the Thief (Parker from Leverage) but also the Lancer — the emotional complement and foil to Strange, my Mal character. And Shweta, my Inara character, was not only the Grifter (Sophie from Leverage) but also the one who was everyone’s auntie, the one who helped everyone through the gang’s darkest places. And there were some dark places indeed.

There was one more place where my study of existing teams affected the structure of my novel, and that is that I decided to give each of my five main characters a single long stretch of point-of-view rather than repeatedly switching from one POV to another as is typical in ensemble novels. This permitted me to give each character a good long turn in the spotlight and also to showcase how the characters and their relationships change as the broken gang reassembles itself over the course of the novel. It’s a bit of a risk in terms of writing craft, but I believe it works.

Then I decided to put an interstitial between those five point-of-view sections: a four-part flashback to the moment the gang broke up, ten years in the past. And, because the gang was closer than family back then, basically one mind in five bodies, I put it in the first person plural. Yes, it’s told from the perspective of “we.” Is it a stunt? Maybe. Does it work? 

Well, I’ll leave that up to you.

The Kuiper Belt Job: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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5 Comments on “The Big Idea: David D. Levine”

  1. So of course my first thought as a Firefly fan is, what about Wash? I accept that Book, Simon, and River are kind of separate from the central core, but Wash is at least as central as Inara. He’s part of the actual crew; she isn’t.

    Sure, take your five, or however many, roles and run with them: if it helps you come up with solid characters and a good story, the more power to you. But it’s not the key. There’s plenty of great ensemble stories that don’t fit those character types. (The Fellowship of the Ring?)

    To my mind what makes a good ensemble story is that the characters all have interrelations. There may be a central character, like Mal in Firefly, but despite the brevity of the show’s run, each of the nine has a relationship with each other one of the nine, even if it’s distant or antagonistic (Jayne and River): you can see any two of them together. And that gives it its richness.

    I’m looking forward to the same from David’s novel.

  2. Very interesting. I think of these groups as archetypes, following Jung and recently Caroline Myss. I’ve got a lot of insight about myself from sorting out my various archetypes, in Myss’s model, as well as an overview from Jung, beginning with his ideas about personality, that led to the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator. Complaints may be made about labeling people but it’s a handy beginning, especially if the labels aren’t the usual stereotypes. Thanks for this post.

  3. DB: There is definitely a Wash character in the book! But he doesn’t have an equivalent character in Leverage and didn’t fit in the five-man band structure so I didn’t mention him in this essay.