Fire Bad, Tree Pretty

(Warning: if you didn’t watch Buffy, you might not get many of the following references, but the sentiment in regard to your own writing remains the same, so please read anyway!)

Last week, I explained some things in older YA that I’d like to see removed from pop culture and many of you were keen to my allusion of writing an all-Buffy post. The transition from high school to college on Buffy was done remarkably well and Season 4, while admittedly my least favorite season, provided the perfect gateway into making “adult Buffy” almost a completely different show, albeit one that was still better crafted and better written than most shows before or after it.

My focus here is on Buffy, but for anyone who is interested in studying craft outside of classic literature, I would recommend watching – I mean really watching – the collected works of Joss Whedon. A while back I had asked the question, Are You a George Lucas or an Aaron Sorkin? in which I discussed the polar opposite strengths of the two writers (timeless storytelling vs. mastery of dialogue). Combine these two strengths and enter Joss.

Now back to Buffy and why the soon-to-be graduate in your YA can learn a lot from her:

“Nuke the school. I like it.” – Xander Harris. When Sunnydale’s class of ’99 graduated, they made sure to literally leave nothing behind. Even if a giant snake-demon doesn’t attack the fictional high school in your work-in-progress, let your main character enter the next phase of his or her life unattached. If the best friend audiences know and love wants to come along for the ride, then don’t stop them. Just remember that a new phase also means potential for new characters and a new audience. Keeping your main character too invested in the past could alienate new readers and inhibit the character’s growth.

“What was the highlight of our relationship? When you broke up with me or when I killed you?” – Buffy Summers. So many YA shows and novels – especially in paranormal – find a way to make the unrequited romance somehow work out in the end. Paranormals deserve happy endings too, don’t get me wrong. This type of happily-ever-eternity dates back to Beauty and the Beast, and they seemed to be OK. But if you want your characters to live beyond their initial storyline, then they’ll need to evolve, and sometimes this means breaking up. Angel realizes that he can never give her the life she deserves, so as much as it kills him (semi-literally), he moves to L.A. right after she graduates from high school. A little Sarah McLachlan music later, and Buffy is a hot co-ed ready to hook up with frat boys… one of whom turns out to be Riley. Yes, Riley was a little bit boring, but he was proof of two things: 1) romance can exist after high school and 2) romance can exist with a human. If you’re not writing a paranormal, then just focus on that first part ๐Ÿ™‚

“I’m not your sidekick!” – Willow Rosenberg. For the first three seasons, the hook of Buffy was “teenage girl chosen to fight demons.” That girl also had two friends named Willow and Xander. When Joss took the series to college, he knew that same formula wouldn’t work, especially if he wanted to garner a fresh, “non-teen” audience. So while Buffy was off doing her “ugh, why must I be the only chosen one?” routine, former sidekick, Willow, started to become the most interesting character in the series. College Willow fell in love with shy outcast (and Wicca), Tara, and their relationship became the most functional, believable, and romantic of the entire series. Willow also became a pretty badass witch, which gave her a power and purpose completely independent of Buffy.

“Score one for Captain Logic.” – Xander Harris. Xander, meanwhile, took on a different role. Slacker/C-student Xander didn’t go to college and never developed superhuman powers, despite watching all of his friends and future fiance fight evil through supernatural means. Xander was always the comic relief character, but into adulthood Mr. Whedon made Xander his own man. He kept everyone connected to their humanity. When Buffy’s lone ranger/God-complex got the better of her, Xander was there to remind her she’s not invincible (or that she was just being a bitch). And when Willow’s powers overtook her to the point of destroying the world, Xander was able to bring back her humanity (and save the world) simply by being his adorable Xander self who loved her. Xander is a reminder that not all of your characters need to serve the same purpose in order to matter to the overall story.

“I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m going to turn out to be.” – Buffy Summers. When Angel comes back to Sunnydale just in time for the final episode of Buffy, he presents her with a question viewers had been wondering all through Seasons 6 and 7 – is she going to end up with Angel or Spike? By the final season, Buffy is 22 years old – well beyond YA territory – and is about to finally relax after seven years of stopping apocalypses. She decides that when all is said and done, the only person she wants to curl up with at the end of the day is herself. Twenty-two is still young in that not-yet-fully-adult way. Watching Buffy tell Angel to go back to LA made it hard to believe that this was the same girl who, as a teenager, wanted nothing more than to run away with him after high school. Buffy grew up. She wasn’t ready to commit to someone else because she still wasn’t sure who she’d be independent from all the craziness that’s been her life. Buffy remaining single at the end is smart and empowering, not sad. She is one of the few characters in crossover YA who encompassed that sort of wisdom and insight at her age. Remember that “finding love” does not have to be the only satisfying reward for your characters.

The ways these characters evolve (Season 4 Willow, Season 5 Xander, and Season 6 Buffy, particularly) are realistic in that by the final season, the three best friends are almost unrecognizable from their Season 1 teenage selves. Yet, the changes were so gradual and the circumstances surrounding them made so much sense that it’s obvious their progression was nothing less than natural.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you Buffy fans to go and re-watch the series with your own writing and characters in mind. And if those of you who had never heard of Joss Whedon stuck with me until now, perhaps you are adding Buffy to your Netflix queues right now.

Thanks for indulging me, friends! Now go forth and write.

17 thoughts on “Fire Bad, Tree Pretty

  1. Awesome post! I completely agree with you, because I don't think I'd be the writer I am today if I hadn't seen any of Joss Whedon's shows. Season 7 of Buffy is THE inspiration behind my current novel.

    I started watching Buffy when I was… 12, maybe? Since then, I've rewatched all of it many, many times and have also watched Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse and Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog. Whedonite all the way!



  2. I LOVED Buffy. Watched it religiously. But was sad about how it ended. I've read that Joss doesn't believe in happy endings. I prefer them. I like it when someone has goals AND the relationship. It is possible to persue both…but that will look different from the single person trying out casual relationships on the side while chasing a dream. Who can say the dream is more important than the relationship? I mean, eventually you retire from any job, but those you love, you want them till death and beyond. At least I do. I'm a romantic.


  3. Most amazing writing advice ever. I love the Buffyverse — most of Joss's stuff, actually — but I've never dissected exactly how all those aspects you mentioned could apply to my own writing.

    One thing to NEVER EVER EVER do, though…magically add a sister.


  4. Rabid Buffy fan here. (So much that my youngest is named Anya. When I thought it would be fun to show her her namesake, she said, “I'm a monster?”)

    I'm still a hopeless Buffy/Angel shipper, but the show was dead-on for realistic character growth and development. Also, few characters have left me cheering, laughing, and sobbing like the people in the Buffyverse.


  5. My jaw dropped when I read this just now. Less than an hour ago, I suggested to my wife that we would do well to watch a marathon of Joss Whedon shows with a specific eye to how he writes snappy dialogue. What are the odds!


  6. Uber-love for this post. What Joss Whedon has always managed to get right is that characters evolve. When I am writing, I try and imagine what he would do. He allowed adults into the series, but they were on the periphery: Giles and Mrs. Summers for example. He was also pretty ruthless in cutting them out of the story entirely.

    The evolution of Willow and Xander was a joy to watch. They were the brains and conscience to Buffy's heroics.

    Now once more with feeling!


  7. I admit. I constantly do Buffy marathons. Buffy makes everything better. And I also use “Fire bad, tree pretty” probably more than I should.

    I really enjoyed this blog and not just about the Buffy references. But you bring up great points about character development, etc.

    When I first started writing seriously (i.e. not for my own amusement and pleasure), I went to my bookcase and my DVDs and selected my favorites. I studied them to find out what it was about them that I loved them so much.

    And can you guess what made my favorites list? Oh yes. Buffy definitely made the list. It made the top of it actually. I think one of the top things that I loved about it was that Joss and the other writers were never afraid to go to the dark places that we all have. They weren't afraid to rip the heart right out of your chest – and giggle when they did. As Joss said, “The dark places are were the fairy tales live.” SO TRUE!

    Okay – I'll shut up now. What can I say? Buffy does that to me. ๐Ÿ˜€


  8. Brilliant post, I love Buffy so much, Whedon is a genius. I just want to add that Giles was an awesome character too, especially when he was harking back to his evil younger days ๐Ÿ™‚


  9. This post is awesome! I feel proud of myself for doing the Buffy (and Angel) re-watch marathon this past summer and looking at it from a writer's perspective. I was totally ahead of the trend! I know I learned a lot and it's definitely influenced some of my writing/plotting/characterization (in a good way!).

    Also? This post needs more Spike. But doesn't everything?


  10. “Fire bad, tree pretty” is one of my favorite lines! And I agree that Joss Whedon is absolutely amazing. I've learned so much from him about character development, dialogue, and how to tell a story. Thanks for indulging us all with the Buffy post.


  11. I live for the day Joss Whedon rings me and says “let's make a show!” I know he doesn't do that, and I know I write books instead of TV shows…but all that seems to fall beside the point ๐Ÿ˜› (I'd settle for Kevin Williamson, mind. He's getting there).

    Buffy and Angel are two of my favourite shows and I learned 99% of what I know about writing good dialogue from watching them. I still weep over Angel being cancelled when it was just figuring out what to do with itself (puppets!).


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