Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Joss Whedon is My Hero or How I Learned to Love Killing People

Anytime I see that Joss Whedon is attached to a project (be it film or TV or comic book or musical web thingamajiggy) I get an instant writer-boner.

I've been a fan of all things Whedon since I first saw the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which she kills a demon with a bazooka.

With. A. Bazooka.

(Season 2, episode 14 in case you want to go watch it right this second).

Having recently seen The Avengers, I'm reminded why Joss Whedon is my hero.  Aside from his Whedonisms, he's got a real talent for making the end of the world accessible.  Sure, the Hellmouth might swallow the planet or a demigod might lead an army of crazy aliens against the earth, but it always feels so real.

But the reason I most admire Whedon is that he creates stakes that matter.

The problem with a lot of movies (and with a lot of books) is that the stakes aren't real.  You know that no one is going to die.  That everyone is going to make it out in the end.  So you never really worry about them, you never fully invest yourself in their journey.

Whedon, however, has made it his mission to kill every character I care about.  And by doing so, he lets me (and everyone else) know that no one is safe.  Everyone is fair game.

In doing so, I become more invested in those characters.  Their journey becomes meaningful because I know that at any moment, it might end.

There's power in that, and it's a lesson I've taken to heart.

A lot of people were unhappy that, despite my warning in the beginning, I still killed Ollie in The Deathday Letter.  It certainly wasn't easy.  By the end of that book, I'd created a character that I loved.  I'd transformed him from a clueless, hormonal teen into a slightly less clueless hormonal teen.  Near the end, we glimpse the man Ollie could become, and I honestly didn't want to kill him.  But I had to.  Not killing him would have robbed his journey of meaning.  It would have made the time readers had invested into his story pointless.

In order for Ollie's story to matter, the stakes had to be real.

And I think the same can be said of every story.  I'm not saying that you should kill characters in every book.  Instead, I'm saying that every story, every scene, every sentence, must have stakes.  Even comedies must have real stakes.  We must worry that the guy won't end up with the girl of his dreams.  If we know that it's a foregone conclusion, then it's pointless to continue reading.

So, as you write your stories, think about what stakes your story has. If your readers never honestly fear for your characters' lives, then they'll never honestly care for them either.


  1. This is what I love about George Martin, although he still frustrates me too.

    Also, now I can't stop thinking of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I bet you know why.

  2. I love Joss too! I still need to see the Avengers, but everything else he's done has been awesome. I never really thought about his rampant murder of characters, but you are so right. Besides knowing that something really is at stake, though, he just knows how to make great characters. Even the demons and aliens are real, flawed, but still likeable and even lovable, and I think a lot of action-oriented movies and books really miss on characterization. It doesn't matter if you kill off a main character if no one likes them to begin with.

  3. Matthew: I've only just begun to watch Game of Thrones and I've added the books to my list. It's good to know that I can count on lots of people dying.
    And yes, I totally know why :)

    Emily: You're spot on. His characters are amazing. He's got such a knack for making every character he writes so darned real and relatable. He really is a master.


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