Elizabeth: What I Learned About Character from Buffy

Buffy_and_SpikeHere we are in the midst of February with hearts and flowers and love stories springing up left and right.

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?

Wait, what?

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:

Relatable

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

Sympathetic

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.

Week1

11 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What I Learned About Character from Buffy

  1. I’ve been re-watching some Leverage – various seasons – and been noting the same thing, and you get to see it in a group dynamic. So preassure and choices show & create change, but so do our interactions with people, strangers and even more so, the ones our characters keep spending their time with. As they rub off on each other, share with each other, solve problems together, and learn to trust each other, they grow, & those same interactions reflect that change and growth.

    • Penny – that’s a good point about how a character’s interactions can show growth over time. I hadn’t really thought about that, but it makes good sense. I’ll have to explore that with my current characters. Thanks.

  2. I binge-watched Buffy when we were at McDaniel (I never saw the show when it was originally on). I need to go back and watch it for character development.

    • Jeanne – I didn’t watch it when it was originally either, but once I started watching, I was hooked. The show is very strong in a number of craft areas, not just in character development. I think I learn something new each time I watch.

  3. I loved Buffy, and I have a complete set of only slightly damaged discs; I could binge on this again. That show got everything right: fun characters, conflict, and humor. It’s a writer’s workshop to watch it—you’re right about that! I like Leverage, too, for the same reasons. Characters grow, some more than others, but the team evolves as a whole.

    I’ve been thinking about how to show the increasing commitment that my hero and heroine feel for each other in the second book of the three-part series. In book 1, they’re attracted. In book 3, they’re getting married. Book 2 is supposed to show the increasing level of commitment. How to do that and make the book standalone has been rough so far. The other day, though, I thought I’d introduce my heroine’s mother as a lightning rod. She was in book 1, too, as more of a comic figure. But in book 2, I could make her shenanigans impact my h/h more directly. That might work. I’m trying it, anyway!

    • Kay – I too have a complete set of disks, just in case Netflix ever drops it off the lineup. You’re right about the show being a writer’s workshop to watch. It really got a lot right. I haven’t watched Leverage, though I have heard a lot of good things about it. I may have to remedy that.

      I’d love to hear how you resolve your “increasing commitment” in book 2. I’ve been wrestling with the same thing in the middle section of my contemporary story. Right now I’m using external forces to have them react and make choices that draw them together, but I’m open to other ideas.

  4. One tip I would have is “Don’t be afraid to let your characters suffer”. Anne Bishop shows exactly how not to do this in her Black Jewels series, where she seems to be unable to allow a character to suffer for more than a few pages. Contrariwise, Stephenie Meyer did a very decent job in letting Bella’s depression last long enough to build sympathy, while not dragging it out long enough to become boring.

    • Scott, “letting characters suffer” is sound advice but I think we’ve all found that easier said than done in the past. It’s kind of like having kids, where you want to smooth the path out for them. Not a good choice there either 🙂

    • Thanks. Also, you were right last week about the daily accountability vs. weekly. It was very tempting to put things off until the weekend and just do it all at once. I’m hoping the next chart will have fewer flat areas more upward lines.

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