Naturally it has caused my thoughts to turn to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After all, what says love better than a good old Vampire vs. Slayer story?
It had been a while since I first watched the Buffy series, but this past holiday season Grown Son and I spent some time relaxing and watching musical episodes from some of our favorite shows. Naturally, the Once More with Feeling episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of those episodes.
One thing led to another and I wound up watching a number of Buffy episodes over the next few weeks. Some may see it as procrastination, but I prefer to think of it as engaging in a study of character development.
Really, it was.
Watching random episodes from various seasons let me take a 1000-foot view of the story, rather than being engrossed nitty-gritty details. What stood out was how the characters changed and grew over the course of the show’s seven seasons. It’s something that I’m still struggling with in my own writing, so as I watched, I tried to figure out what it was that the writers/actors did that caught and kept my interest even though (a) I’m not a fan of vampire stories and (b) I’m pretty sure I’m not the target demographic of the show.
Looking at the character of Spike, for example, a few basic things stood out:
Sure Spike was a vampire and, likely to burst into flame (or at least smolder) in direct sunlight, but underneath he was someone you could relate to, even if you’d never been a vampire yourself. He had friends (albeit somewhat strange ones), a home (okay, a crypt), and some very basic human desires. He tried to fit in, made mistakes, was thwarted at times, and kept on trying – all things that made him seem familiar and relatable, despite the fact that he was a vampire.
“We like to talk big… vampires do. ‘I’m going to destroy the world.’ That’s just tough-guy talk. Strutting around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You’ve got…dog racing, Manchester united . . . ” ~ Season 2
As the series progressed, there were some signs of a solicitous and caring Spike. We saw him taking care of his girl friend Drusilla, when she was weak and ill, we saw him taking care of Buffy’s little sister, and we saw him helping Buffy and her friends despite the whole “mortal enemies” thing. We find out that he was a sensitive poet-type before he became a vampire and, although we do see him going after people from time to time, he’s presented as a nice vampire rather than one hunting for sport or going after people vindictively (at least not as the show progressed).
“So, we got to Brazil, and she was… she was just different. I gave her everything – beautiful jewels, beautiful dresses with beautiful girls in them, but nothing made her happy. . . So I said, ‘I’m not putting up with this anymore.’ And she said, ‘Fine!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got an unlife, you know!’ And then she said… she said we could still be friends. God, I’m so unhappy!” ~ Season 3
Empathetic and Vulnerable
Spike had a crush on Buffy, but she liked someone else. Many people have played one or more of those roles in their lifetime, making it possible to empathize with how he was feeling and root for him to be successful. When he tried to stay away from Buffy but couldn’t, you just felt for him, especially when they eventually got together and his feelings for her were stronger than hers were for him.
“I’ve been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I’ve seen things you couldn’t imagine, and done things I prefer you didn’t. I don’t exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood, which doesn’t exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes, a lot of wrong bloody calls. A hundred plus years, and there’s only one thing I’ve ever been sure of: you.” ~ Season 7
He may have been tough, undead, and deadly, but he was also sensitive and vulnerable at times, making him a complex and interesting character.
“”All I did was hold you and watch you sleep. And it was the best night of my life”” ~ Season 7
Layers and Pressure
The attributes above were effective because they were layered into the story a little bit at a time. We learned more about him as the story progressed and we were able to see how he changed and grew when he was put in situations where he had to make difficult choices. As a result, we went from Spike-the-evil-vampire at the beginning of the story to save-the-world-Spike at the end.
It’s back to my own story for me now, armed with a few insights. Hopefully I’ll be able to put them to good use.
So, what additional ideas to you have for how to create engaging characters that change and grow over the course of the story?
Edited to add: As I mentioned in last Wednesday’s post, my goal is to write 500 words a day. How did I do this week? I didn’t quite hit my goal, but I came close at 3,334 for the week.