Monday, February 25, 2013

How Joss Whedon Taught Me To Kill

SPOILER ALERT.  Don't read on if you haven't seen The Avengers, the latest episode of The Vampire Diaries, or any seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


My love affair with the works of Joss Whedon began with an episode of Buffy in which she kills a demon with a bazooka.  For real.  I knew that any writer/director willing to kill a monster with a bazooka was someone worth following.  But beyond being a monster-killing badass, Whedon knew how to make us care about characters.

His brilliance didn't stem from the mythologies he created for his various worlds, but in the characters with which he populated them.  Deeply flawed, real people that I came to love with all my heart.  In fact, it's Joss's characterizations that most influence my own writing.  Characters come first.  Plot second.

The first time Joss killed someone I cared about, I was devastated.  I mean, I knew Buffy would return after she sacrificed herself to save her sister Dawn, but Joyce Summers?  Dead?  How could Whedon do it?  How could he rip out my heart like that?

I hated Joss.  And I respected him.  His courage in killing the characters I most deeply cared for gave me the courage to do the same with my own.  Whedon didn't just give me permission to kill my favorite characters, he practically demanded it.

During the first season of The Vampire Diaries, I was skeptical of the show.  I figured it'd be just another in a long line of schlocky CW teen shows with no real stakes and no emotional investment.  I was wrong.

The writers of TVD, Julie Plec in particular, proved that they were ruthless about making you care for characters and then gutting them.  I learned early on in season 1 that no one was safe.  Not even our main characters.  I was impressed by how often they killed off their characters.  And I'm not talking minor characters that show up once a season, but characters that they've spent all season developing, killed in the most callous way.

TVD upped the ante by treating death so cavalierly that I honestly never knew who was going to be next.

But therein lies the problem.

See, the moment Pepper Potts asks Agent Coulson about his wife in the beginning of The Avengers, I knew his life was forfeit.  Every fan of Whedon's work knew that Joss was famous for killing people we cared about, and since it was impossible that any of the Avengers themselves would die, that left only Coulson.  His death, while shocking, didn't resonate emotionally for me because I hadn't allowed myself to become attached to the character.

It wasn't a huge issue for me because Joss, while ruthless, tends to keep the body count low. The death served the plot and wasn't gratuitous.

TVD on the other hand, kills EVERYONE.  So when we find out that Jeremy is really and truly dead, the moment had no emotional impact for me. I'd seen Jeremy's death coming from miles away and I'd long since given up caring about him as a character.  All the characters had dwindling shelf lives, so it seemed a waste of effort to really get invested in any of them.

That's not to say that I don't still love TVD, because I do.  It's got some of the best pacing and diabolical characters on TV.  I just don't expect that any of them will survive the season.  Hell, I'm shocked when some characters survive the episode.

And while I know that killing Jeremy provided a powerful way to propel the Elena plot into new territory by stripping her of her last connection to her humanity (much like killing Joyce Summers brutally shoved Buffy into adulthood), I didn't get the feels from it that the show's writers likely hoped.

Because, while having stakes is absolutely necessary to a story, we also must have hope.  With both Whedon's work and TVD, I know that people are going to die.  I know that my favorite characters are, in all likelihood, going to meet bloody ends.

I think Whedon manages the balance between hope and stakes well in a TV format.  The deaths come at the right places, after really getting to know the characters in meaningful ways.  In movies, there's less time for him to develop character (though I would argue that Coulson's death did provide the proper framework to motivate the Avengers in the last battle), and thus the deaths feel a little more like he's pulling our strings rather than raising the stakes.

TVD, on the other hand, kills characters with such abandon that I'm exhausted by it.  The brutality and the carelessness with which people die does seem true to the world (I'd expect vampires like Damon to kill without a thought), but if I know that my favorite characters are likely to die, how can the writers expect me to care about them?

It's a fine line.  If our characters are never in real danger, our readers will never worry for them.  The tension will fizzle.  However, if we kill every character our readers might care for, we take away the very people they should be rooting for.  We stop giving them a reason to care.

People die, that's a fact, and writers shouldn't shy away from the brutality of life.  But people live too.  And we shouldn't shy away from hope either.  Because a death can shock us once, but hope can keep us coming back again and again.


  1. I haven't seen TVD, but it sounds similar to Game of Thrones (or ASoIaF, if you're going by the books), in which, at first, all the death is shocking and awesome, but then it ends up played the F out.

    1. I've seen (and loved) the first two seasons. Because of that I attempted to read the books, but GRRM's writing style drove me bonkers. His penchant for using crutch words and phrases (like the wholly overused "man-grown" that Bran was constantly whining) and his lack of filter reminded me why I gave up reading high fantasy novels as a kid.

      The TV show (which he's involved in and writes) is so much better. I don't know if it's because the plotting is tighter or what, but I just couldn't get into the books.

      Anyway, I haven't seen too many gratuitous deaths...but the ones I have seen felt rather real. However, you're right...much like TVD, since I know that it's very likely most of the characters I know will die, I'm into the show for the pageantry of it rather than the characters. In fact, Arya and Tyrion are the only two characters I really care about. The rest are just fun to watch.

    2. Well, admittedly, it isn't until Storm of Swords that the deaths really get out of hand. I do love a few of the characters, but I have had enough of:

      Boiled Leather
      Small Clothes
      Girls who have Flowered
      Name Days
      Seven Hells

      And so on.


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