His tongue-in-cheek statement has a serious aspect to it, for it refers to the need of a narrative to depict conflict. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, authors of Understanding Fiction, point out that without such conflict, there is no, nor can there be any, story.
In longer works of fiction, such as epic poems, television series, movies, and novels, the main character is going to be beset by problems. Several, not just one, is going to impede his or her progress toward reaching the goal that he or she has set for him- or herself. Some are likely to be due to circumstances, others to the actions of other characters, and still others to the protagonist’s own internal conflicts. In general, such conflicts will be natural, psychological, social, or theological. Most likely, two or three--or perhaps all--types of conflict will be operative in such a story.
A couple of examples, represented by simple diagrams, will illustrate the point. In the diagrams, the circle represents the character whose name it bears, and the text at the ends of the lines radiating from the circle represent the conflicts, some psychological, some social, some theological, some situational, in which the character finds him- or herself.
The first diagram shows the plight in which the protagonist of Stephen King’s novel Carrie finds herself. On the edge of adolescence, Carrie lives with her mother, Margaret, a mentally disturbed religious fanatic who considers sex to be wicked. Carrie’s mother has never bothered to tell her daughter the facts of life, and, when, while Carrie is showering following a physical education class, she begins her first menstruation, she is horrified to think that she is bleeding to death. Her classmates find her horror a cause for amusement, and, cruelly, they toss tampons at her, chanting, “Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!” Although the teacher puts an end to the girls’ taunts, Carrie is humiliated.
During the course of the seven-year-long series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, protagonist Buffy Summers suffers many a conflict, not only with demons, but with inner demons as well, as the diagram representing her struggles suggests. It is her lot in life to have been “called” as the “chosen one” by The Powers That Be, to protect the world from vampires, demons, and other monsters that slither, creep, or crawl out of the Hellmouth (located beneath her high school’s library) each week. Instead, Buffy longs to live a “normal life” in which, as a teen, she can moon over boys and whine about homework. Over the years, she is unlucky in love (to put it mildly), and a number of people she loves, including her parents (her father through divorce, her mother through death) are taken from her. She herself dies not once but twice along the way.
Writers who want to create fully developed characters who seem lifelike enough to be a tormented soul trapped in the hell that is high school, to serve as latter-day servants of God, or to fulfill whatever other role he or she is assigned should take Whedon’s dictum to heart. Just as it is necessary to suffer to be beautiful, as the French say, it is necessary that the protagonist suffer to be believable and for the story to have interest to its reader, as Whedon says.