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Marginal Notes

Everything I need to know about Character, I learned from Buffy

Which is more important, plot or character? It’s one of life’s great dichotomies, like the question of nature vs. nurture or Coke vs. Pepsi. And like most great dichotomies, the answer is ‘all of the above.’

So it didn’t surprise me when a recent Writer Unboxed column on Joss Whedon’s gifts with plot triggered a discussion that quickly strayed over into his gifts with character. I thought the question deserved attention.

To recap for those of you unfamiliar with the Buffyverse, Buffy Summers is the Slayer – a young woman chosen to fight against vampires and other creatures that go bump in the night. The slayer is given enhanced strength and agility and is supported and mentored by the Watchers Council. In addition, Buffy gathers a group of friends and allies around her, not all of whom are human, who call themselves the Scooby Gang. Like much in the Buffyverse, the characters in the Gang are often campy and a little over the top. Yet they remain coherent, always interesting, and often beloved. If you’ve never seen the series, you have a treat ahead of you. But if you want to avoid spoilers, I’d stop reading this article now.

One thing that makes Whedon’s characters so memorable is that he doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity. Even his darkest characters have balancing characteristics that make them interesting and often redeemable – the Scooby Gang has included at times two vampires and a demon. D’Hoffryn, for instance, though a Lower Being and Lord of the Vengeance Demons, is always unfailingly polite. Once, on being summoned by Willow (one of the Scooby Gang who is a powerful witch), he greets her with, “Behold D’Hoffryn! Lord of Arashmaharr, he that turns the air to blood and rains death upon – Miss Rosenberg, how lovely to see you again.”

Whedon recognizes that even the best characters have a dark side, and that circumstances often make it necessary to tap into it. In the fifth season of the show, Buffy’s main nemesis is Glory, a goddess from another dimension who is trying to open a path back to her home – an act that would literally bring hell on Earth. Glory is too powerful to be destroyed, but since every strength in the Buffyverse comes with a corresponding weakness, she transforms at random times into a human doctor named Ben. Ben is innocent and in fact spends much of his time trying to undo the damage Glory did. So in the final battle, Buffy and the Gang beat Glory until she’s exhausted and turns back into Ben. Buffy simply orders him to leave town and walks away.

Then Giles, Buffy’s Watcher and substitute father, approaches Ben, lying beaten on the ground, and points out that, of course, Glory will eventually emerge and take her revenge. “Buffy even knows that, and still she couldn’t take a human life. She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” And then sweet, quintisentially English Giles, who once confessed to Buffy that his childhood dream was to be a greengrocer, strangles a helpless Ben.

Last year, I wrote an article on why some writers are reluctant to make their characters suffer. And Whedon is certainly willing to put his characters through the wringer – Buffy dies twice in the course of the series, and that’s not the worst thing that happens to her. But even writers who are aware that bad things have to happen to their characters often fail to take the final step. They hurt their characters, but they leave no marks.

Not long ago, I edited a story of a journalist tracking down a group of Viet Nam vets who had been through a particularly rough battle. The suffering they endured was profound and well-described. But when the journalist found them, they were all able to talk freely about what happened. There were no signs that the horrors they’d seen (and done) had had any long term effects on them. The suffering was there, but it was really just a formality. The characters didn’t seem truly hurt.

Whedon doesn’t have this problem. One of the Scooby Gang is a vampire named Angel. About a century before the series begins, Angel killed a gypsy princess and was cursed by having his soul restored – meaning that he would feel guilt for everything he had done. (This tended to make him annoyingly broody at times, but he had other advantages.) Then he fell in love with Buffy, they shared a moment of deep happiness, and, since the curse was meant to make him eternally unhappy, the curse was broken and he lost his soul. And went on a killing spree.

When he and Buffy next met, she had an opportunity to kill him but couldn’t do it. So she felt the guilt herself when he snapped the neck of Jenny Calendar, the woman Giles loved. Then, in the last moments of the season, Angel manages to open a portal to another dimension that will destroy the world (lots of portals in the Buffyverse), and the only way Buffy can close it is to kill him. Moments before she does, Willow, unaware of what’s happening, manages to recreate the Gypsy spell and restore his soul. He’s suddenly the same tender, loving Angel Buffy has always known – with perhaps a bit more to brood about.

Buffy kisses him, tells him she loves him, and stabs him, closing the portal and sending him literally to hell.

As I say, Whedon knows how to make his characters suffer. But he also makes sure the suffering has long-term effects. The following season, it takes Buffy months to recover from the trauma enough to return home and take up her duties again. Then, when Angel comes back from the hell dimension, Giles refuses to be in the same room with him without a crossbow pointed at his heart. Another of the Scooby Gang, Xander, never forgives him. And the relationship between him and Buffy never really recovers. The characters don’t simply suffer. They have to learn to live with the suffering afterwards. And it is watching them deal with that burden that leads readers to love them.

As much as Whedon transforms his characters, he always maintains a central core of their identity. They grow by discovering new strengths in themselves that were already there. When Giles kills Ben, it’s a transformative moment. But . . . one of the duties of a watcher is to study how various dark powers have been fought in the past, to give the Slayer the information she needs. This tends to make Watchers aware of just how deep evil can run and what has to be done sometimes to combat it. When Giles strangles Ben, the act seems to go against his gentle nature, but it arises out of an honesty and courage that runs even deeper than the gentleness. He knows it has to be done, and he’s brave enough to do it. Giles does something shocking, but he does it because he’s Giles.

So . . . Whedon’s characters are aware that darkness and light are not a matter of black and white but are more complicated. They suffer and are transformed by suffering. Yet they maintain a core identity that carries them through. This is how you create characters your readers can love. Even if they’re not technically people.