Buffy the Vampire Slayer rocked our world, and it remains one of the all-time greatest TV shows. The story of a fated vampire-hunter who tries to live a normal life in high school, Buffy still has few worthy successors. And it has so much to teach us about good writing.
I came to Buffy after it had already been on the air for a few years, and ended up watching the first few seasons in basic cable reruns (and borrowed DVDs) while also becoming totally addicted to the show in realtime. It was fascinating to be mainlining seasons one and two while watching season five unspool—the show had changed so much in the intervening years, and yet a lot of the themes and character arcs still resonated.
And when I was struggling to pull my witch-and-scientist novel All the Birds in the Sky into shape, I kept coming back to Buffy as a key reference point—here are 10 reasons why.
The tone of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an enduring miracle. Horror-comedy is a thing that we’re all familiar with, thanks to years of Sam Raimi and Stuart Gordon films, among others. Everybody understands that terrifying, dark, gory things can also become hilarious and silly at the drop of a hat. But giving that blend of horror and comedy a huge emotional punch is much, much harder. The fact that Buffy so often managed to be tear-jerking—and the way it uses its humor to make you bond with its quippy, funny characters, so you’ll grieve harder for their misery—is worth studying endlessly. I’ve often tried to juggle those three things (darkness, humor, emotion) and it’s even harder than it looks. Two out of three ain’t bad. The secret seems to be making sure everything comes back to the characters. Both humor and scares can distance you from characters, so you have to fight against that and make sure the characters’ emotions and viewpoints are always front and center.
Buffy is constantly trying to stop the apocalypse, but one of her most epic battles to stop the end of the world happens in the episode “The Zeppo,” where we only glimpse this world-ending threat in the middle of a story about Xander, her sidekick, feeling useless and left out. Meanwhile, some of her most epic battles have much lower stakes. Like, I guess the Mayor’s whole plan in season three is just to turn himself into a big serpenty thingy, and devour the town of Sunnydale. Often, Buffy is fighting to save just one person, or stop a minor injustice. The end of the world is an abstraction, and even when BtVS deals with it, the show always finds ways to make the danger feel personal and relatable. And sometimes, the lower stakes feel bigger than the higher stakes. You know?
And the main thing I learned from this is A) if you’re going to have an apocalyptic scenario, you have to find ways to bring it down to Earth and show rather than tell. And B) it’s totally fine to have the apocalypse going on in the background, while instead focusing on a smaller, more personal struggle in the foreground.
A huge part of how this show kept the tears flowing is by putting its hero (and her friends) into situations where they could never actually find happiness. Or at least, not the kind of happiness they want. Case in point: Buffy wants to have a “normal” life as a high-school student, which everyone except her can tell is never going to happen. And she wants to have a real romance with Angel, which is a pipe dream at first because he’s a vampire and she kills vampires, and later because if they have sex, he might turn evil again. And so on and so on. In real life, we seldom get exactly what we want—but it’s the wanting the impossible so badly that makes us pull for these characters. And then you get the unexpected payoff, like Buffy getting the “class protector” trophy at the Homecoming Dance, and it’s more beautiful than you could ever have expected.
This is something I learned from television, in general, but especially Buffy. The Bronze, the weird all-ages nightclub where they hang out incessantly, and the library where they kibitz about this week’s monster threat, feel like places where I spent a lot of time in real life. Most TV shows have a handful of standing sets that they use in every episode, and a great TV show will make you care about those places as if they were your own living room or the bar where you hang out every day. (If you’re a functioning alcoholic, like a lot of TV characters apparently are.) Few shows make their main sets as lovable as Buffy manages to do with the Bronze and the school library, maybe because the characters seem to have a lot of love for those places. In a book, of course, you can have as many locations as you want—but I always try to think about a handful of “sets” where the characters are going to spend a lot of time, which the reader can hopefully fall in love with.
We’re living in the era of the rabbit hole—although it’s not quite as rabbity as it was in the years during and immediately after Lost was on television. Mysteries, prophecies, cryptic hints, weird puzzles, flash-forwards, dark backstories—television is all about keeping you guessing, so you’ll have to keep coming back every week. And for the most part, Buffy not only paid off its big mysteries, it paid them off with a punch in the gut. Like the big prophecy about Buffy in season one, or the thing where the First Slayer tells her “Death is your gift.” Or Angel’s secret past. Or the whole mystery of Dawn and Glory in season five. Because Joss Whedon is not always the best at coming up with coherent plots, these stories didn’t always entirely make sense, but the big questions generally had answers—and those answers felt like a slap in the face, not just a new piece of information. That last bit is the vital one. The longer you make people wait for a secret, the more upsetting and horrifying it should be when it arrives. Don’t EVER tease a secret for months and then have it turn out to be prosaic or harmless. As a rule, people keep secrets because they’re too horrible to share, not because they’re pathologically secretive.
Magic, by definition, is an interruption to the logic of the “real” world. So you have to depict it as something strange and otherworldly, in the midst of our reality. This can be hard to accomplish—which is why, for example, The Vampire Diaries always settles for having its witches speak Pig Latin while bright orange swooshes appear over people’s faces to convey that magicky things are happening. SWOOSH. Anyway... the thing that Buffy did in a lot of its most memorable stories about magic and mystical forces was to incorporate a touch of surrealism, or actual dream sequences, or crazy visions. This reached its peak with the fourth season finale, which is just one long cray-cray dream sequence that people either love or hate. And for me, whenever I’m trying to write a story in which magic is a Thing, I often try for a somewhat “dreamlike” feel, as if the characters are inside a waking dream or something. I don’t think magic should ever be totally predictable, safe, or comfortable, so it’s important to find ways to amp up the strangeness and wildness of magic, with some dreamy feels.
Watching season one of Buffy at the same time as season four or five is an interesting experience. Almost all the characters, in season one, are one-dimensional archetypes. Buffy’s watcher Giles is the stuffy British guy. Her friends Willow and Xander are awkward nerds. Cordelia is a stuck-up popular girl. Over the course of a few years, they all develop more layers and defining characteristics, until they barely seem like the same people we met. This happens organically, as we get to know them, but also benefits from each of them getting characteristics that are at right-angles to their original description.Giles turns out to have this whole other “Ripper” side, and he’s a singer, and he’s all sexy danger when he’s not wearing his tweed jacket. People usually encourage you to start developing characters with tons of different attributes and facets, so they’re complex individuals from the start. But you can go the other route—create a character who’s just a single vividly drawn sketch, and then start adding stuff as you go. That’s how you often encounter people in real life, after all—you get an impression of “that stuffy British guy I just met,” and then you spend more time with him and discover there’s more to him than Britishness. My #1 rule for creating interesting characters is to find something memorable about them, so I get interested in them myself, and then I can slowly fill in the details over time. Often, it does start with a thumbnail sketch.
This goes back to the thing about stakes being relative—but sometimes real-life challenges, like getting through high school, dealing with family and friends, or finding a job, can be more terrifying than dealing with a demon from Hell who wants to eat your soul. This was Buffy’s secret weapon: Making the traumas of regular life every bit as intense as the monster fights. It would have been easy for everything to turn out to be a demonic scheme, every time, but Buffy never makes it that clear-cut. Some things just suck because they suck. This comes to its acme in the famous episode where Buffy’s mother dies—not of a vampire attack, but of a brain aneurysm. When you’re writing a story about wild, fantastical, amazing, otherworldly things, it can feel like you’re putting the exciting stuff on hold when you pause to show your main character fighting with roommates or dealing with her family—but what Buffy taught me is that the scarier and more intense you make the non-supernatural traumas, the more intensity you’ll actually get out of the monsters when they arrive. Because showing the full scariness of real life will make us bond with your heroes on a much deeper level.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was at its best when it featured memorable villains—in fact, the times when this show had less scary villains were often the weakest. And one thing that made Buffy’s villains truly terrifying and fascinating was, often, that they wanted something truly terrible. An aimless villain, or a villain who just wants to torture the hero, can only go so far. But the Master’s goal of bringing about a vampire dystopia, or the Mayor’s goal of achieving giant-monster status, actually would make everybody else’s life horrible. And then there’s Glory’s plan to sacrifice Buffy’s “sister” Dawn, so she can regain her throne. This doesn’t just extend to villains—any character who’s a major player in the story should have his or her own agenda that isn’t just related to making sure the hero is okay/not okay. The more interesting and epic the goals of other characters, the more the hero can shine.
This is probably the most important of all—Buffy the Vampire Slayer is fundamentally a story about “the Chosen One,” who’s marked from birth for greatness and has a unique role in fighting evil. This was already kind of an overused story idea when Buffy took it on in the 1990s, and it’s desperately in need of a nap now. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes this idea and runs with it, in a bunch of directions that go off the dull Joseph Campbell garden path. She doesn’t just go on the Hero’s Journey like a good drone—instead, she grows and changes, and keeps wrestling with just what it means to be singled out for a purpose. By the end of the show, Buffy’s true mission turns out to be making a whole lot of other girls into the Chosen One, too. This has been a huge inspiration to me—because often, these old stories are where a lot of the most interesting ideas are, if you can just peel back all the drek and rote expectations that have been stuck to them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer made one of the cornerstones of heroic storytelling fresh again, and in the process showed how you can make any idea fresh—if you just ask the tough questions along the way.