It’s almost impossible for me to talk about Steven Universe without gushing. The show is, to put it as simply as I can, one of the best things I’ve watched in years, if not ever. Creator, Rebecca Sugar, has built such a compelling, layered program with dense, lyrical worldbuilding and characters you love to death, even when they fuck up.
If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s about three aliens called the Crystal Gems, a trio of old, tired revolutionaries who are raising their leader’s son, Steven, after she fell in love with a human, Greg, and gave up her physical form to give her and Greg a son (a clear metaphor for dying in childbirth). And so Steven lives in an old, alien temple with his three surrogate mothers and tries to master the powers his mother left with him.
It’s the best, and hey! You know what that means! Here are a few things you can learn about story from Steven Universe.
Your story world is your story.
A lot of the best worldbuilders are often great storytellers, but that doesn’t necessarily always translate to the writing itself. I’m particularly thinking of writers like George Lucas and George R.R. Martin who write stories I love, but who’s stories can get murky or even outright bad when it comes to characterisation, dialogue or plot progression. This is really, really not a problem Steven Universe has.
The writers on this show understand that a story is, more than anything, a gift, and every layer you unwrap reveals something pretty damn magic. The story world of Steven Universe is integral to the way this plot progresses, to who the characters are, to the conflict of the narrative, to the way these characters exist together. The story world of Steven Universe informs the story at every turn.
The way your world is revealed should be organic.
And that story world unfolds organically always. The first few episodes of Steven Universe are fun, loud things with awesome visual design but a really young story. There’s almost no exposition at all, and, instead, you learn about the world of Beach City and the Crystal Gems entirely organically – through offhand remarks, through songs, through things that go bump in the night. It makes for a thrilling and compelling story experience that you’re engaged with at every turn too.
There’s no such thing as a good war, kiddo.
The world of Steven Universe may take place thousands of years after an intergalactic war, but the repercussions of that war are still felt through our central cast of characters. The effect of that is both heartbreaking and joyous. Our guys won, after all, but that win came at a cost. There are so few of them left, and many of the good guys still did terrible things to secure that win. This show is constantly toeing the line of good and evil, light and shade, and no character in it is infinitely good, just like no character is infinitely evil.
Your war might not be quite as literal as the one in Steven Universe, but your conflict needs to be complicated and it needs to have depth that both hooks the reader and has a pay off that satisfies, even if it’s in an unhappy way.
There’s more to relationships than romance.
It’s almost impossible to sum up the relationships between the character’s of Steven Universe in a small way. The thing is, they’re long and complicated things, even the ones that seem generous and gentle, or new. All of them are typically informed by the long history of the Gem World and the intricate relationships of others.
Take Pearl and Greg for instance, who’s relationship is essential as they take on the roles of parenting Steven – Greg as Steven’s actual father, and Pearl as the most nurturing and obsessive member of the gems, as Steven’s surrogate mother. There’s a tension between them that exists from the start, and as the story progresses you find out that Pearl was a servant gem, who was rescued by Steven’s mother, Rose, and given purpose. She fought alongside Rose in the gem war and fell in love with her, and when Greg came around and Rose fell for him, Pearl felt like she was losing in a lot of ways, and then, when Rose died to create Steven, she lost all over again. That tension goes beyond a cliche romance, and feeds the narrative in a compulsively compelling way that enriches every scene they’re in.
I’ve read a lot of stories recently which tend to either focus solely on romance, or by cutting out relationships all together, when relationships between characters can be so, so interesting and utilised in ways that go beyond the typical.
In an era of antiheroes, a true hero can still feel original.
So many stories these days in books, TV and film love a hero who embodies most of the characteristics of a villain. What’s been refreshing about Steven Universe is that the show wears it’s colours proudly. Steven is good. Sure, he messes up sometimes, but his intentions are always good, and his kindness is never mocked or never even really taken advantage of. It’s his kindness that fuels the narrative, it’s what saves the day, it’s what makes the Gems, despite they’re own occasional ruthlessness, good too.
Point is, don’t feel like you need to write an antihero to be interesting. Your hero needs to be flawed, of course they need to be flawed, because they need to be rich and compelling to hold attention, but that doesn’t mean you need to dirty them up. Their flaws can come from places of youth or of hot-headedness or even out of an unwillingness to see things for what they are, but if the character of your story is a hero, let them be.