Today’s random Saturday post concerns the Joss Whedon TV program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of a young woman with a mission to kill the undead while still trying to have a life. If you’re a Buffy nerd, you may have noticed references to this show here and there in my posts, when I write example sentences. If not, I hope you’ll get my point here even if you’re not familiar with the example.*
I didn’t watch this show when it aired. Certain Someone made me catch up via Netflix and DVD and now I’m hooked. We watch together over the Internet since we’re long distance, and are up to Season 6. Although he’s seen all of them, I’m not finished yet so please no spoilers in the comments!
Buffy is a lesson in story conflict. We start with a teenager in a new school, a handicap itself, who finds she has super strength and a destiny she must keep a total secret. Buffy’s not like other slayers; she doesn’t embrace her role. She wants boys and friends and proms. Instead, she has to kill the vampires and the demons drawn to the Hellmouth underneath Sunnydale, California, and save the world more times than she wants to remember.
External conflict in Buffy is, of course, monsters always trying to kill everybody. Each season boasts a Big Bad the group, known as the Scooby Gang, spends several episodes overcoming. Villains both horrifyingly evil and hilariously bumbling abound. If Buffy can’t beat them up, she has to ask for help. Like Harry Potter, she doesn’t like to put her friends in harm’s way, despite their eagerness to assist.
Internal conflict can come from wildly divergent character traits. There’s a name for a perfect character—Mary Sue. You’ll find her in both fanfiction and mainstream stories as well. She’s gorgeous, accomplished, flawless, tragic and boring.
Buffy may be beautiful, but she’s whiny and doesn’t communicate well. She ran away once. She’s insecure, stubborn and self-absorbed. But she’s an intensely loyal friend, and she truly cares about the people she’s trying to save. We relate to her because of her shortcomings and we admire her because she is really capable, even though she doesn’t think so. She gets in her own way all the time.
Just when things work out, something else happens. It’s a compressed micro-slice of life. We often have time to enjoy the good before the bad shows up. On TV, there’s no time for this. If Sunnydale were all sunshine and roses, we’d get bored and change the channel.
A character’s goal shouldn’t be too easy. But there’s another element engaging us, an essential one. The Scooby Gang is growing and changing. They’ve moved on from high school to college, to adult issues (losing a parent, taking care of a younger sibling, impending marriage). Personalities shift. Someone struggles with newfound power, another reveals a previously unsuspected (and shocking) soft side. They disagree. People leave.
Combined, the monsters and the emotional conflict make for an entertaining mix, spiked with comedy to lighten the mood here and there. You can’t help but tune in again to see what happens. Will Buffy and the Scooby Gang find a way to kill the demon? Can a love affair with a werewolf really work, and how? Is magic going to help this time? What if it doesn’t?
Keeping things static kills suspense. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t cop out and rely on fancy new monsters to liven things up. They’re pretty much the same every time. It’s the conflicts within and between the characters that move the stories along.
People are complex and surprising. Let your characters argue. Let them make bad decisions, stupid choices, big mistakes. And then help them find their own ways out of the messes you’ve made for them.
*Subliminal footnote: RENT IT….YOU KNOW YOU WANT TOOOOO…