Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Buffy Lessons

I'm devoting my next few posts to the creation and maintenance of exceptional characters. One of the best compliments I've received about my writing came from my amazing crit partner, Lisa Dez, who wrote in response to a draft of NIGHTSHADE, "You're clearly a character writer." And I was thrilled. (Thanks Lisa!)

The characters who populate my written worlds are almost closer than friends. As I write, I feel what they feel, fear what they fear, understand their motivations, and cringe when they make poor choices.

In Twitter's #kidlitchat last night, the topic was "What makes a strong character?" Some chatters took that literally - talking about physical strength over feebleness and fragility, but I considered the prompt a call for characters that are built by the author in such a way that they grab onto the reader and don't let go.

I'll be spending a day on the following character types: MCs, Supporting, and Villains (bwaaah-haa-haa).

But to start us off, I'd like to give a nod to my favorite, Jedi-Master character builder: Joss Whedon. Joss gives us the best kind of characters - sharp, engaging, and multi-faceted. Scott Westerfeld wrote a great essay on Whedon's strength in world building, and I've seen many posts about how amazing Joss is at dialogue. His characters deserve equal attention.

This post was inspired by my shock and horror at a Tweet I saw claiming that Buffy has no brains. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.I don't need everyone on this planet to be a Buffy fan. I'm a believer in personal taste, and Buffy is not for everyone. I don't care for the Beatles (no, really, I don't), but I can appreciate why others do and I understand what their contribution to the music world was. I respect that contribution and their art - I still don't like listening to them.

So if you don't wake up each morning and watch Buffy over breakfast like me, that is A-Okay. But if you insult Buffy broadly and disparage her as a character while demonstrating you know nothing about the show other than a one-glance write off...then I iz angries!!

It's exactly that Buffy does have brains, but that at first glance you wouldn't know it, which demonstrates why Joss is a master character writer. All the outward modes of Buffy (including her name) point to bubble-gum snapping, shoe obsessing, vacuous girlhood. But scratch beneath that surface and you find a complex, always evolving young woman who constantly balances a desire to belong with the isolation of being the Chosen One.
And in answer to the claim that Buffy has no brains, let me just say:

1)Her teachers always note her intellectual aptitude, but other things get in the way. (It's not her fault nice science teacher got eaten by a giant praying mantis and that her favorite college prof turned out to be a crazed bio-demon engineer whose creation made Frankenstein look like My Little Pony.)
2)She kicks ass on the SAT and is admitted to Northwestern (duty alone pushes her to attend the local branch of UC-Sunnydale).
And 3) She changes over time (and is still evolving as a character in the Season 8 comics) - and isn't the ability to grow as an individual the clearest sign of an open mind and intelligence?
But if you don't want to believe me, well "that's your purgative." (Ahem, that's a quote from Buffy's kid sister, Dawn (Season 6, 'Tabula Rasa.' And in case you were wondering - Buffy corrects her language.)


  1. This goes back to dialogue but her witty comebacks wouldn't have been possible if she'd been dumb. I think the dialogue alone should contradict that fallacy. The amount of quotes that are classic from that series--bravo, Joss Whedon, bravo! I think she was purposefully downplaying her intelligence, but she was intelligent. Her character was consistently intriguing, and a dumb character wouldn't have been. I think that was an improvement from the movie, by the way.

    I will say that I liked the first few seasons much better than the final ones.

  2. BUFFY: Factoid one: only the praying mantis can turn its head like that. Factoid two: a pretty wacked-out vampire is scared to death of her. Factoid three: her fashion sense screams predator.

    WILLOW: I'ts the shoulder pads.

    BUFFY: Exactly.

  3. Wendy - Exactly

    Tricia - Thank you, ma'am!

  4. I liked the first few seasons much better than the final ones. Work from home India

  5. I Loved Buffy! I'm reading the comic book as it comes out in trade. This was a great post! The things that make characters are so great are exactly the fact that we can't pinpoint them in one glance. The depth and internal struggle.

  6. I will say that I liked the first few seasons much better than the final ones.

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