And as always, here’s your warning that…
Buffy lasted for seven seasons. Seven seasons they thought a supernatural story with a female lead would never make it. Seven years of gaining traction with a devoted fan base that would last and refresh itself for years after the show’s end.
So why do people stick with it? What was it about that little heap of seasons that inspires people to still convert people to Buffy fandom almost a decade after the show left the airwaves?
Well, a lot. But here’s what Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me about great writing.
1. Never Let Characters Stagnate
The picture that opened this blog post is Buffy Summers in season 1. The one above is Buffy Summers in season 7. Even though you can’t see the writing in these pictures, you can tell that the woman in the second picture is sure of herself. She knows her place in the world, and she knows that she has the power to change that place.
The characters who stood over the crater of Sunnydale after battling the First? They’re not the same people who sat in the library bitching about Cordelia. The writers of the show created characters who you got to know, bit by bit. When they did something out of character, you knew it, and the writers almost always made sure there was good reason for it.
Each character had a distinctive voice, a way of speaking, and a personality unique to the others. What came out of Xander’s mouth probably wouldn’t come out of Buffy’s — or Giles’. The characters grew and changed and faced challenges that pushed them into becoming different people. The arcs of the characters across seven seasons — that’s the mark of great writing.
2. The Antagonist is the Spine of Your Story
One of the biggest keys to keeping characters in flux and developing is an antagonist who continually challenges them and forces them to adapt. Antagonists should be the single most important characters in your stories after your protagonist, and an argument can be made to make them almost more important.
You have to get inside their heads, find out what makes them tick, why they do the things they do. Give them something to sympathize with. Give them truth to tell. Bad guys telling the truth almost always throws off a protagonist. Find that truth and make it as true and as important as anything you can give to your protagonist. Mayor Wilkins is right about Buffy and Angel. And he’s right about Faith. Also, his love for Faith makes him sympathetic. It adds layers to his evil and makes him one of the best villains on television.
Season after season, the writers gave us antagonists with heft, from Angel in season 2 to life and the Trio in season 6.
3. Make Dialogue a World Builder
Fandom is full of Joss-isms. Dawn tells Riley that he can’t go patrol because he’s all weak and kittenish. “Kitteny,” Buffy corrects her.
There’s a fine line with this, but finding little dialogue quirks for your world helps create that world and make it its own. The expressions in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are another example. “Light!” “Blood and ashes!” They fit in with the ideology of the world he’s created. The same with Buffy. The way the characters speak to one another helps delineate the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from, say, the world of Jack the Tax Accountant.
4. Tell Human Stories Through The Lens of Your World
This goes for any genre, but primarily supernatural/paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi. One of the greatest things about Buffy is that if you strip away the paranormal aspects of her life, you still have a compelling story of a young woman growing up, accepting herself, and making a concerted effort to change her path.
I remember when I moved to Poland. I brought all seasons of Buffy with me, packed in a huge CD case. When I went to Poland, there had been very few times in my life where I felt like I belonged anywhere. But there, I had a circle of friends to run amok with. I found a place there where I was happy and active — and when I had to leave, I felt completely lost.
It was on my return to Colorado after my almost two years in Poland that I started to love season 6 of Buffy. Because even though I hadn’t died and my life in Poland wasn’t heaven, being forced to come back to a city that made me feel lost — well, I could relate. I’d been happy.
In fact, a lot of season 6 hit home for me. Working crappy jobs to pay the bills? Check. Feeling like some cosmic force was messing with me? Check. And it’s the same with all the seasons. Human stories. Supernatural setting.
I could probably keep going, but let’s stop there.
What lessons have you learned from Buffy, writers?
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