What I Learned About Character Development, I Learned from Joss Whedon

True story. I was thinking about character development  and how instrumental it is to my process and in my reading of books. My work tends to be more character driven (what often describes literary) and not as plot driven (what often describes genre), though, depending on the story, the two intersect a lot.

And while I read a lot and have read a lot in my younger days I also realized that television has had a big impact on my writing style.

It was after watching The Avengers and soon after the full season of the much too short-lived Firefly that I returned to doing (really contemplating doing) revisions on my YA novel that I sat still and looked up and (internally) said "Holy crap." I had just realized that much of what I'd learned about character development hadn't just come from books but came from a very specific place. And that place is a little show you may have heard of (especially for my generation) called Buffy.

YES. Buffy. Buffy was my LIFE. It was one of the reasons I had to have a television. I barely watch TV now. But then, it was imperative that me and my best buddy at the time call each other at 7:59pm on the dot and watch Buffy, in silence, and then discuss what happened over the commercial break.

Discussion often went like this in clipped sentences: Can you believe who died? I bet she's not really dead. Who's evil? Who's good? He's not going to college? He's getting his own show! Who's this douchebag she's dating? No...way...he's a werewolf?! Alternate dimensions! How creepy are The Gentleman? Wiccans!

When the show started (and ended) Buffy and I were the same age, so we hit our highs and lows together. She was a new student at a new school. (Been there.) She felt out of place. (Been there.) But she was also a good a** kicking female. (Not quite there yet but I do have some attitude, or at least I'm told.) She made friends and those friends (Willow, Xander, Cordelia, and Angel) were distinctive through their funny and/or acerbic dialogue and their own character arcs. The show was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer but it really was an ensemble (just like Angel would be and would become a Whedon trademark in general). There was adult intervention (thanks to Buffy's mom and Giles) and fantasy elements and it all worked so well yet felt realistic. And that was because of the characters. Even when fighting other-worldly beings the cast had the same issues we all did, just add the horrors of dating, of insecurity, of not knowing your path to the fact that they went to school on the Hell Mouth and faced an almost-apocalypse every week.

Whedon had written the Buffy movie, which I liked, but in the Buffy series I found fully layered characters, plot arcs that bonded both the realistic and the fantastical with the fantasy elements often serving as a metaphor for life.

As the show moved forward it gained more depth and poignancy. And as Buffy moved through high school, so did I. As she went to her first year of college, I did too. There was the point of first loves. Lost loves. Feeling like you'll never find love again. Losing parents and friends and not knowing what to do with your life. Being burdened with new responsibilities and feeling like you couldn't handle it. Man, oh, man, oh man.

Some episodes that still stick out to me to this day are:

Please note if you haven't watched any episodes of Buffy (and I'm not sure why you haven't yet) you may want to stop reading here so you don't hit spoilers.

  • "Innocence" (season 2) - The night after Buffy loses her virginity to Angel he turns to an evil douche. Cue metaphor! How many times has a person, especially a young lady, trusted a guy only to have him do a complete U-turn on her after getting what he wanted? This isn't just a teen thing but a human thing and seeing Buffy's realization that the man she loves is not that person anymore is heartbreaking to a point that it doesn't matter he's a vampire or not, the realness of it is palpable.
  • "Ted" (season 2) - A staple for me because it showed a very great performance by the late John Ritter. Since her parents divorce Buffy was fine with it being just her and Mom and then all the sudden this dude Ted shows up outta nowhere. And he seems too good to be true. In usual teen angst style she's opposed to the new addition already seeing him as bad and getting a nice once over from everyone else who sees Ted as a good guy. This won't be the only time Buffy is dealing with paranoia and wonder "Maybe I'm not giving him a chance." That is until... Again, here we get something relatable with outer-worldly elements or the sci-fi nature with a robotic guy who wants to have the perfect family and will try to live forever in search of it and Buffy who wants to keep what she has intact because she's suspicious of everyone. As a New Yorker, I get that. And as a daughter of a single mom, I got liking the two lady dynamic and not wanting any testosterone intervention. We ladies? We run this!
  • "Normal Again" (season 6) - Well, the last couple seasons were a doozy and Buffy went through A LOT in them. So in this episode it's more about dealing with the stresses of life. What do you choose? The life you prefer or the one you have? Who do you help? What's real and not real? It's all so intricately woven together in a way that you start to believe the whole show is unreliable and you can understand both Buffy's want to disown the "fantasy" life she has as a slayer and embrace one that would allow her to be "normal" for once. Who doesn't want that? And after several seasons of following her life and her pain and wins you kind of want closure for Buffy also, but in the end you understand her ultimate decision. A great episode dealing with internal conflicts manifested as a big old demon.
  • "Entropy" (season 6) - Anya, a secondary character, was a vengeance demon turned human and goes back to her roots. Bitter and hurt to a point of no return she wants to get revenge on the man that hurt her. When Anya was introduced the vengeance demon thing was cool sounding, still is. They preyed on the hurt and got them to make wishes and give them powers. It was great. And then Anya became one of the Scooby gang and she was short and to-the-point filling a gap left by the equally brutally honest Cordelia and became a friend. And then, well, pain makes you do bad things. But again, taking these fantasy elements and putting forth what our biggest wish would be "To hurt those who've hurt us" and whether or not we'd make the choice is a tried-and-true question of morality and also consciousness. Again, I could understand the choices Anya made whether positive or negative.
  • "The Replacement" (season 5) - My man Xander is split in two. One of him contains all his desirable and strong traits and the other his less desirable traits. And guess which one is better at life? Weak Xander watches Strong Xander succeed and is jealous of his own self. Yet, he's not incapable of doing these things because this guy is him after all. Sound familiar? I know I've been jealous/envious of friends who've succeeded and realized that there was just as much potential in myself to do the same. You just needed that fire to push you to DO those things. And when Xander sees the woman he loves charmed by his alternate self he finally steps into action. Character growth through forced events making him/her see what they really are capable of.

But even beyond these moments where the bigger story has a kind of Boom! Bang! Pow! momentum to the action there are quieter ones too like at the end of "Potential" when Xander notices that Buffy's sister Dawn is feeling out of the loop and group because she doesn't have powers and he can relate to her on that level. Or in "The Body" where Buffy loses her mom and much of the episode is just dealing with that loss on a human level. These are elements of a show that takes a break from that fantastical or science fictiony bits and just relates to you as a person and continues to do so throughout every episode, every season.

So yeah, I learned a lot from that show and it hit me about a decade after it left the air and years after I'd seen an episode. Yet, in reading summaries I am reminded of character development, evolution of self, and the writing and experimentation that catered to making these characters people you'd want to fight for and fight with. And when I go back to my revisions for my YA project I'll keep that in mind with every word and scene to make sure that these people I created could make even the smallest difference in their world and for a potential reader.

In summary, thanks Joss Whedon and the writers of Buffy. Keep up the good work. No pressure.