As a result of considering “leftover plots” or plot-seeds or springboards or whatever we choose to call narrative motifs that occur in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we identified several additional storylines that could have been used in the series or (better yet, for us) that we ourselves, with some revision regarding characters, setting, and other narrative elements, could employ to write horror stories (or even novels) ourselves:
- An imprisoned character can escape, causing more mischief or even a little death and destruction before being killed or imprisoned again.
- Things that give rise to new organisms or liberate forces or entities, such as eggs, seeds, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, melting icebergs, shifting tectonic plates, earthbound meteors, and the like, can introduce new characters, including such worthy adversaries as hideous, horrible monsters.
- Problematic characters, such as a naïve, incompetent, or foolish follower or sidekick can create havoc and endanger lives.
- Physical objects, or artifacts, can function as inciting moments that spark a chain of narrative incidents, setting the rest of the story in motion.
- Ideas cannot be copyrighted, so they are fair game as inspirations for plots.
- The specific and unique ways in which ideas are developed can be, and often are, copyrighted. Using the characters, settings, and other elements of such treatments could constitute plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
- Ideas must be given an original treatment in which characters, settings, and other elements are new, not derivative.
- A possible threat. (Is the mysterious Angel stalking Buffy?)
- Romantic intrigue AND star-crossed love. (Buffy no sooner meets Angel than they’ve become a couple, but, since he is, as she soon learns, a vampire, and she’s the slayer, theirs will be star-crossed, to say the least.)
- Juxtapositions. The past (as represented by print-bound books) and the present (as represented by computers and cyberspace) meet, and they don’t get along all that well. Good (Buffy) and evil (Angel and the other vampires) represent two moral extremes. The natural, everyday world of Sunnydale and its citizens’ mundane lives are set against the supernatural world of their vampire foes. Life, as it is lived by Buffy and her friends, is contrasted with the life-in-death state in which the vampires exist, a hedonistic world of the senses and of passions that are cut off from such roots as love and compassion.
- Similarity of themes. Buffy often explores a theme from several perspectives. For example, Willow, whose love for Xander remains unrequited because of his love for Buffy, which is also unrequited because Buffy loves Angel, leaves Willow lonely, as does Marcie’s neglect by her peers. In each instance, the characters’ loneliness leads them to foolish actions. In Willow’s case, she is saved by her friends, to whose circle she returns. Marcie, having no friends, becomes a ward of the state, so to speak, after Buffy rescues Cordelia and defeats Marcie. Although it may not cure one’s loneliness altogether, friendship, such thematic treatments suggest, is the tie that not only binds but also saves one from a perfunctory, institutional existence as a ward of, and a servant to, the state.
- Animation of inanimate objects. This is a motif that is popular in fantasy fiction, including the horror and the science fiction genres. The animation of inanimate objects, whether through magical or technological means, is a subtype of the artifact plot device, in which an object, whether a ring (Lord of the Rings), a crystal (The Dark Crystal), or even a spaceship (Rendezvous with Rama) or some other object is the artifact.
- Trauma’s consequences. As child abuse, spousal abuse, torture, combat and other mistreatment or crisis situations have shown, trauma has long-, if not life-long, consequences and can cause recurring nightmares, acts of violence, and other disturbed behavior.
- Duty’s duty. Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons which reason does not know.” So has duty. Even when there is no logically defensible reason to do so, the claim of duty often holds, especially when altruism, or even self-sacrifice, are directed at protecting others, more helpless than oneself, about whom one cares. Buffy dies that others may live, and, in doing so, she underscores the supreme values of brotherly love, courage, and that pesky pest, duty.
In this post, we’re going to consider how strong supporting characters can suggest plots that could be developed further in additional stories, or, in the case of Angel, even an entire additional series of stories.
One of the many strengths of the Buffy series is its writers’ development of strong characters who are not only individualized and sympathetic, but who also seem like actual people instead of merely a collection of so many personality traits that behave in a predictable fashion. These characters are springboards to action and, since many recur (and others could recur) in later episodes, they represent springboards (or possible springboards) to additional plots.
Angel, who is also known (particularly when he’s in his evil-vampire, as opposed to his vampire-with-a-soul mode) as Angelus, is a strong character because he suffers and because he switches back and forth between his evil-vampire and his vampire-with-a-soul modes, thereby complexifying both the series’ action and his relationships with other characters, especially Buffy. A lazy and irresponsible youth, Angel wants to see the world, and when a beautiful young noblewoman offers him the opportunity to do so, he accepts, whereupon, transforming into a vampire, she bites him, sucking his blood before, cutting herself across the breast, she shares her own vital fluid with him. He becomes a vampire, losing his soul. With no conscience to inhibit his actions, he kills his parents and his younger sister before psychologically tormenting a young woman named Drusilla by killing her family and, on the night she’s to take vows to become a nun, transforming her into one of the undead, causing her, at last, to lose her sanity as well as her soul. As Angel tells Buffy, for over two hundred years, he has committed one terrible deed after another, “with a song in my heart.” To punish him for killing one of their daughters, a gypsy tribe’s sorceress curses Angel by restoring his soul, and he feels tremendous remorse for the many unconscionable deeds he’s committed. He also falls in love with Buffy. Because of this love, and because he hopes to redeem himself, Angel assists her in defeating demons, vampires, and the other creatures of darkness who come crawling out of the Hellmouth each week. However, the curse is later lifted (before being restored), so that he goes back and forth between good and evil, now a friend, now an enemy, who is both a blessing and a curse to Buffy and her friends, reaching a low point in his murder of Buffy’s mentor’s girlfriend, Jenny Calendar. Angel was such a rich and complex character that he became the protagonist on his own series, Angel, in a spin off from Buffy.
Beautiful Cordelia Chase is the snobby rich girl and a natural foil to Buffy. Concerned, always, with image and the latest fashion, Cordelia appears shallow and facile, but, like the other characters in the series, she turns out to be full of surprises. Initially, she detests Xander Harris, a member of Buffy’s circle of friends, as a gauche, unsophisticated zero. Despite his good looks, hilarious sense of humor, and fearlessness, Cordelia avoids him like the plague, not wanting to be seen in his presence. When, stalked by an assassin with supernatural powers, they are trapped in Buffy’s basement, facing a common threat, and their apparent mutual hatred is revealed to mask a reciprocal attraction, as yet another argument between them ends in a passionate kiss that ignites a sizzling relationship--at least until Xander cozies up to Willow Rosenberg. Cordelia is not an entirely sympathetic character, but, because of her audacious arrogance, her spunk, her sarcastic sense of humor, her extreme sense of entitlement, and her in-your-face narcissism, she’s a character whom viewers loved to hate. Later, after her father is imprisoned for income tax evasion, leaving his family much less well off financially, and Cordelia is reduced to working for her spending money, her character softens, and she becomes more likeable. Although she isn’t a sympathetic enough character, even then, to carry her own series, she does leave Sunnydale, moving to Los Angeles, to seek an acting career in order to be a supporting character in the new Angel series.
Willow, Buffy’s confidante, is a witch whose powers develop over the span of the Buffy series until, in the fifth season, she has become a force with which to be reckoned. A shy, retiring, somewhat naive wallflower early in the series, she has a crush on Xander (who has a yen for Buffy, who likes Angel). Later, she discovers that she prefers her own sex and has a relationship with Tara Maclay that ends when Tara is killed by Buffy’s enemies. Thereafter, Willow has a relationship with a “potential slayer,” Kennedy. Between lesbian lovers, Willow has a relationship with Oz, a guitarist in a local band, Dingoes Ate My Baby, who becomes a werewolf when his infant werewolf cousin, Jordy, bites him. Unable to control his transformation, and fearing for Willow’s safety, Oz leaves Sunnydale to seek a cure for his condition. In his absence, Willow, now enrolled in college, meets Tara, discovering her lesbian proclivities. Willow, a sweet personality, is also a rich, complex character and, because of her witchcraft, could have been successful as a protagonist of her own series, were Charmed, a series about young adult witches not already on the air.
Even Buffy’s mentor, the Watcher Rupert Giles, is (or was, at one time) to receive a series of his own, possibly to be called Ripper. (The status of the show is unclear at the moment.) Dressed in button-down shirts, subdued neckties, and three-piece tweed suits, complete with handkerchief, wearing glasses, and taking tea in his office, the Sunnydale High School librarian (formerly of the British Museum), Giles is the stereotypical stoic, stiff-upper-lip, repressed Englishman--or so, at first, he appears. However, like most of the characters in Buffy, he has a complex back story that adds shades and nuances to his inner self. As a defiant and rebellious youth, Giles resisted his calling to become a member of the Watchers’ Council, which identifies, trains, counsels, and otherwise mentors slayers. As a university student, Giles became a warlock, joining a group of sorcerers (much as Willow, in college, joined a coven). They performed a ritual to summons a demon, which appeared, and has been stalking them, individually, ever since, killing them one by one. Giles blames himself for the deaths. It was partly as a result of the guilt he feels that he accepted his responsibilities as a Watcher, becoming Buffy’s mentor. After the Buffy series ended, its creator, Joss Whedon, spoke with the actor, Anthony Stewart Head, who played Giles, about reprising his role, but as a Watcher, but one who is now semi-retired, living again in England, and investigates paranormal and supernatural incidents. The series’ theme, Whedon said, would be loneliness, exploring how a man alone copes with life on his own. At present, the projected story is said to be still a possibility, although as a motion picture, rather than as a television series, to be aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
One more example suggests, again, how characters who are given a rich back story, solid development, and sophisticated treatment can be used to initiate, sustain, and further develop plots in an ongoing series of stories. In “Lie To Me,” an insecure, rather pitiful, young blonde who survives by becoming a hanger-on of others who appear, at least, to be abler than she is of meeting life’s responsibilities and challenges, joins a cult of wannabe vampires, calling herself, in this, her latest incarnation, Chanterelle. Buffy arrives to save the cult from becoming the feeding ground of real vampires, led by Spike, and Chanterelle shows up again in “Anne,” having moved to Los Angeles, where she is going by the name of Lily and is dating a young man named Ricky. Buffy has moved to Los Angeles after running away from home in Sunnydale, unable to cope with having to send Angel to hell. Despite having renounced her role as the slayer, Buffy assists Lily in trying to find Ricky, and, when Buffy’s life is endangered, Lily foregoes her milquetoast manner to shove a demon off a platform and save the day (and Buffy), thereby gaining autonomy and a modicum of confidence. Before returning to Sunnydale, Buffy allows Lily to take on another name--Buffy’s middle name, Anne--and lets her stay in the motel room that Buffy had rented for another few weeks. Chanterelle-Lily-Anne never appears in another Buffy episode, but she could have, had she returned to Sunnydale or Buffy visited Los Angeles again. Therefore, like many of the other characters in the series, Anne represents what could have been a catalyst for another Buffy plot.
A problem that many viewers and critics have concerning the series is that, despite the richness and complexity of many--even most--of its characters, the writers, particularly under the supervision of Marti Noxon, tended to become too melodramatic and to forego interesting and believable (within the terms of the show’s own mythos) dramatic situations and character development in favor of cheap, maudlin characterization and dramatic spectacle--in other words, to take the easy way out rather than to go for the throat. There’s no question that the series suffered after its third season, going steadily downhill thereafter, until its seventh and final year, when even many of its diehard fans had given up on the show. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s to always strive for the gold, never settling for just something--anything--to fill the airwaves. Unfortunately, under the inept direction of Noxon, who seems to be more a craftsman than an artist, well versed in all things metaphorical, symbolic, and tawdry without having a clearly defined idea of drama or even the simplest notions of what really makes people tick, the show suffered a long, slow, and painful demise when it could have ended on the same note of astonishment and success on which it started and which it maintained, more or less consistently, until Whedon made the fatal error of turning the show’s reins over to an unaccomplished horsewoman. Part of a storyteller’s art is knowing how much is enough and when to quit. (In fairness to Noxon, she is the author of some of the better episodes in the series. She is a better writer than she is a producer and, as such, another indication of the truth of the Peter Principle.)
Note: One of the intriguing things about Buffy is that many of its characters were recurring, if not regular, members of the cast. Some started out with small parts which developed into larger roles. Others, such as Amy Madison, and Giles’ fellow warlock from his college days, Ethan Rayne, remained fairly static, but reappeared when the plot required someone to get the narrative ball rolling. Indeed, several of the show’s female characters were played by actresses who’d auditioned for the part of the show’s protagonist but were not selected: Amy Madison (Elizabeth Anne Allen), Darla (Julie Benz), and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), and Danny Strong, who tried out for the role of Xander received the recurring role of Jonathan. Whedon made the most of all the actors’ talents, assigning lesser, but significant, parts to those who didn’t make the cut for the series’ main character or major supporting characters, thereby capitalizing upon the strong acting abilities of the runners-up, which isn’t often the case in television. As a result, lesser characters were played by skillful actors whose abilities were already known as a result of their having auditioned for other roles.
Having considered only a few of the lessons to be learned from a consideration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, we’ll revisit the topic of “Leftover Plots” in future installments.