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The Slayer’s Guide to Storytelling

The people you don’t like are a part of you. They have some exaggerated mannerism or quality that you dislike because, on some level, you are the same. Same goes for people that you like. Your friends have qualities that are similar to your favorite parts of yourself. At least, that’s what one of my professors, Frankie Mallis, says.

Don’t believe her? Watch an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And then an entire season. Because it’s addicting. It’s not just the clever writing or witty dialogue. It’s the fact that the monsters Buffy faces, and the villains she defeats, are reflections of her internal struggles and worries.

Professor Mallis teaches a class on Joss Whedon, the writer of “Buffy.” She tells us that all minor characters represent some aspect of the main character. The villains are the parts of the main character that they don’t like, and their friends are their personal strengths. And, she says, “This is true in real life.” There’s so much to go into during class because every episode tackles a personal problem of Buffy’s through the lens of symbols and mystical worlds.

When the writers of “Buffy” get together to make the newest episode, said Professor Mallis, they don’t ask what new challenge they should throw at her. They ask what she’s going through, and make a monster out of that.

But the reason why “Buffy” is still a captivating show—and doesn’t turn into monster-of-the-week entertainment—is its heart. The demons Buffy faces reflect her internal struggle. Peer pressure, loss, guilt, love, and addiction are all dealt with on the show, but instead of showing them explicitly, Buffy understands and overcomes them through the metaphysical. When the writers of “Buffy” get together to make the newest episode, said Professor Mallis, they don’t ask what new challenge they should throw at her. They ask what she’s going through, and make a monster out of that.

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A lot can be learned from this writing strategy, and I’m trying my best to get a hold on it. It starts with a character or two, and the rest of the cast is created from their qualities. The way that the characters interact also shows what’s going on with them internally. On “Buffy,” the character Giles represents her mind, Willow is her spirit, and Xander is her heart. When Giles, the mind, is gone in an episode, everything goes crazy. When Xander is injured or out of commission, Buffy’s heart is broken. A lot of the bad guys go after Willow, to break Buffy’s spirit. Sometimes the heart and the mind fight, demonstrating what’s going on in Buffy’s head.

This might be interesting for writers, but the idea also applies to everyone. In real life, we are the average of our friends. The positive qualities in the people in our environment bring out those qualities in us. When we meet someone we dislike, we distance ourselves from them, and hopefully try to diminish similar qualities in ourselves.

Even though we don’t slay vampires on a daily basis, the people around us affect how we deal with internal struggles. Maybe there’s a thing or two to be learned from a slayer.

Photo: Anja Harris