(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 🙂
“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.