Joss Whedon: Character Genius

by  Laura E. Crook

Character and plot are the backbone of any narrative story.  Aristotle was the first theorist to apply the three act structure of narrative to storytelling – a structure that has been faithfully applied to nearly every story in every medium since.  Aristotle was a big advocate for the importance of plot, but narrative stories have changed and shifted since 335 BCE.  Consequently, other elements of narration have eclipsed plot, such as character.  There are still many forms of media that are plot-driven, but television in general has become interested in character’s complex relationships.  The works of auteur Joss Whedon are not driven by plot, as many other narrative stories are.  Instead, the driving force in his body of work are his characters, which can be seen in their relatable character traits, their complexity and their endurance as icons in popular culture.

Auteur theory began with French New Wave cinema.  It is a French term meaning “authorship.”  That is, the author’s “vision and personality are ‘written’ into the text” (Auteur Criticism).  The phrase “auteur” is usually used to describe works of art that are collaborative, such as film and television.  Auteur theory explains “that in the presence of a director who is genuinely an artist (an auteur) a film is more than likely to be the expression of his individual personality; and that this personality can be traced in a thematic and/or stylistic consistency over all (or almost all) the director’s films” (Caughie 9).  In a way, an auteur is the person who holds the vision that has been stamped on a film or television show.  While the auteur in film is usually the director, the auteur in television is anyone who has primary creative control over the show–often someone called the show-runner, who doubles as executive producer and generally writes and directs several episodes per season.

Auteur theory in TV primarily asks the question who is the auteur?  In a medium that is largely collaborative, an auteur can be a writer, a director or a producer (often, they are all three).  Auteur theory also determines the patterns that appear in the television series.  What is the auteur trying to “work through” in his or her text?  One example of a television auteur is Joss Whedon, a producer, writer and director.  Whedon created four television shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.  Whedon’s works are largely character-based. Though plot is important, it is the incredibly complex characters that he has created that move his stories forward.  Some of Whedon’s patterns include ensemble casts, often lead by a female character, who must face supernatural or futuristic conflicts.  In short, Whedon creates extra-ordinary characters (that is, characters that rise above the ordinary) in an ordinary, everyday world.

The characters in many of Joss Whedon’s TV shows are gritty and unglamorous.  It is this realism that allows the audience to become attached to them.  They make mistakes, they have fights and they can be cruel to each other.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), a series that featured over fifteen main characters in its run of seven seasons, is a virtual cesspool of messy, flawed characters. The show follows the titular character, Buffy Summers, as she navigates high school and beyond while juggling a higher calling – that of a vampire slayer.
One of Buffy’s messier situations is her relationship with Angel, a vampire and Buffy’s “ironic true love” (Shepherd 246).  In the thirteenth episode of season two (Noxon and Lange “Surprise”), Buffy and Angel sleep together for the first time.  Afterwards, Angel literally turns into a monster.  “When [Angel] finds a moment’s true happiness, his soul is once again exiled and the demon takes his place” (Wilcox 21).  Angel spends the rest of the season stalking Buffy, terrorizing her and her friends.  Buffy’s predicament creates a safe distance from reality, while still remaining identifiable.

In season three, Buffy discusses her failed relationship with Angel with a school counselor, a man who has no idea that the ex-boyfriend in question is a vampire. When Buffy gives him the background of her relationship, he finishes her sentences for her.  “‘I loved him and then  he–‘ ‘Changed. …He got mean. …and you didn’t stop loving him’” (Noxon and Whitmore “Beauty and the Beasts).  Not many women can claim that their vampire lover turned on them, but how many can identify with the idea of a man changing drastically, and hurtfully?  Such as the nature of Whedon’s characters – using science fiction as a safety net, he allows his viewers to identify with the more difficult and painful aspects of his characters’ lives.

Whedon’s characters are complex – nearly as complicated as living human beings.  After all, “anecdotal and research evidence suggest that the characters who populate the programs play a key role in generating and maintaining audiences” (Hoffner and Buchanan 325), so the characters should be interesting enough to bring people back for more.  “Many television executives believe that the presence of likable, intriguing characters is a key component of a successful program” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326).   Occasionally this complexity can lead fans and viewers to identify with their favorite characters as “real.”  The human race is, by nature, social, and so people feel the need to form connections in every area of their lives -including television.  “People have a fundamental need to form connections with other people, and television offers audience members access to a wide range of other human beings” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326).  Characters can become real to the viewer in a way that a plot cannot.  This is largely because of the complex nature of the characters.  “It is… possible (and plausible) that participants came to initially favor characters that seemed more real to them” (Gardner and Knowles 164).  In this case, the phrase “seemed more real” is applied to the complexity of Whedon’s characters, in the same way that non-fictional people are complex.

To understand reality, and thus how a fictional person can become real, one must look into Robert Fiske’s reality code.  The idea of code rises out of semiotics (the study of signs, signifiers and their symbolism).  “A code is a system of signs that is able to communicate meanings” (O’Donnell 156).  Fiske devised three levels of code, the first of which is reality.  The reality code relates to appearance: “skin color, clothing… facial expressions and gestures” (O’Donnell 156); speech: “spoken language, accent, dialect” (O’Donnell 156) and settings.  These aspects, when used in television, denote what is real and recognizable to the viewer.

Similarly, Wendi L. Gardner and Megan L. Knowles conducted a study on what it would take for a favorite character to be perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm.  Their results found that “greater knowledge of the character contributed significantly to perceived realness” (161).  Thus, the more complex back-story a character has been given, the more likely it is that a viewer will perceive that character as real.

One of Whedon’s most complex characters is Spike, a vampire that appears in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Spike first appearance on the show was in season two, as a villain.  He returned in season four, “neutered” by the government with a computer chip in his brain, and became a member of Buffy’s gang.  By season five, Spike had fallen in love with Buffy.  In season six they entered into a sexual relationship.  Toward the end of season six, Spike unsuccessfully attempted to rape Buffy, causing him to travel to South America to atone for his actions.  Spike returned to Sunnydale in season seven – the final season of Buffy – with a soul and a tortured realization of how great a monster he truly was.  After the events on Buffy, Spike moved to LA and became a regular on the fifth season of Angel.

Spike’s complexity as a character lies in his relationship with the women in his life, most notably his mother; Cecily, Spike’s first unrequited love; Drusilla, the woman who turned Spike into a vampire; and Buffy herself.  Spike’s curse is that he is never “good enough” for these women.  He loved his mother, but she was ill and all she wanted was for Spike (known as William when he was alive) to find a woman and become independent.  Spike found Cecily, who never loved him and informed him that “you’re beneath me” (Petrie and Marck “Fool For Love”).  In his depression, Spike became susceptible to the advances of Drusilla, a vampire, who offered to make Spike “special” –  an offer he accepted.  Spike and Drusilla were together for over a century, but Drusilla would routinely abandon Spike in favor of Angel, the vampire who created her.

Once he fell in love with Buffy, Spike was used to being shunted by the women he pursued.  Buffy routinely pushed Spike away, citing his lack of a soul as a reason why she could never love him.  Even when they entered into a relationship, it was purely physical; Spike was always last in Buffy’s affections, after her family, her friends and her slaying.  Spike’s complexity brings a reality to his characters that is not found in Whedon’s storylines (after all, Buffy is a television show about vampires).  This reality and level of identification means that the characters are more relatable than the plot.

Whedon’s characters have endured the years and joined the ranks of the pop culture icons.  This is primarily due to the relationships that have been developed between the fictional characters and their adoring fans.  Cynthia Hoffner and Martha Buchanan conducted a study exploring the degree of “wishful identification” in young adults.  Wishful identification is here defined as “the desire to be like or act like the character” (325).

However, in Hoffner and Buchanan’s results, they discovered that “wishful identification is also influenced by the manner in which characters are portrayed… Viewers assess characters’ personality traits and develop impressions and expectations of their behaviors” (329).  Some of the personality traits that were explored were intelligence, success, attractiveness and humor (330).  Overall, the study found that “men identified with male characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, and violent, whereas women identified with female characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, attractive, and admired” (342).  Looking at these results in comparison to the characters in Whedon’s cult-classic Firefly, it is easy to see how the series has received post-cancellation popularity.

Firefly, Whedon’s third television series, ventures into space, all the while retaining the familiar themes found in classic western films.  The show centers around Mal Reynolds, the captain of a space-ship called Serenity.  His crew of misfits include Wash, a playful pilot; Zoë, Mal’s tough as nails second-in-command and Wash’s wife; Jayne, a crude hired gun; Kaylee, a sweet and bubbly mechanic; Inara, the high-class, geisha-esque working girl; Simon, the intelligent, if somewhat dense, ship doctor; River, Simon’s crazy, fugitive little sister and Shepherd Book, the kind, mysterious traveling preacher-man in the midst of atheists.  Through two of the most popular characters on Firefly, Mal Reynolds and River Tam, one can see that Hoffner and Buchanan’s study applies to Firefly’s fan-base.

Mal Reynolds is the captain of a space ship named Serenity.  Mal is a struggling smuggler – at first glance he seems like a loser, not someone who would incite wishful identification in the mind of his viewers.  However Mal is successful, just not successful in the definition that many people use.  Hoffner and Buchanan defined success as “the achievement of a desired goal or reward, often as the result of one’s own actions” (330).  Mal’s success lies in his ability to survive anything.  Mal always comes up on top, no matter what the situation might be.  In the season one episode “Out of Gas,” Mal struggles to save his crew, his ship, and his own life when an explosion knocks out the life support that supplies the ship with air.  Mal sent his crew away in the shuttles, eliminating the number of people consuming air and lengthening the amount of time he would have to solve the problem.  Mal discovered the part needed to replace the engine, received it from a passing space ship that caught his distress signal, and got shot for his trouble.  Even as he bled to death, Mal’s persistence allowed him to succeed in his goal: to live, to save his crew and to salvage his beloved space ship, Serenity.

Mal is also admired, which was another important character trait according to the participants in Hoffner and Buchanan’s study.  Mal is the captain of his ship–every other character falls below him in the hierarchy created by Firefly.  His crew is not adverse to arguing or disagreeing with Mal, but in the end they always trust his decisions.  One character in particular, the hired gun named Jayne, consistently tries to undermine Mal’s authority.  However, Jayne always backs down and acknowledges Mal as the alpha male, which demonstrates his admiration.  In the pilot episode, “Serenity,” Jayne pushes the boundaries by teasing Kaylee, the mechanic, about her crush on Simon.  Mal utters one line: “Jayne, you walk away from this table, right now” (Whedon “Serenity”).  This line, coupled with a steady glare, causes Jayne to retreat. Jayne is not a timid man – his collection of weapons is extensive, and he has no qualms against using them.  His respect and admiration for Mal outweighs his desire for power.

Hoffner and Buchanan found that attractiveness was an important factor for female viewers to identify with female characters.  Attractiveness is, of course, a deeply subjective concept.  However, according to current standards of beauty, River Tam (portrayed by Summer Glau), is definitely attractive.  Her features are dainty and her body is slender.  River is a dancer, and she moves with a dancer’s grace that adds to her beauty.  River is also a genius, and her extreme intelligence manifests itself in her speech and actions.  In the episode “Safe,” Mal offhandedly remarks that River can shout until she makes their ears bleed.  River informs him that “The human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds given adequate vacuuming systems” (Greenburg and Grossman “Safe”).  Nearly every line River delivers illustrates her intelligence.

Mal and River are successful, admirable, attractive and intelligent–all traits that are connected to the idea of wishful identification.  Mal and River only scratch the surface of the complexity of Joss Whedon’s characters – all of his characters touch on at least one, if not more, of the primary traits found to incite wishful identification in viewers.  In this way, Whedon’s characters connect to his viewers in a way that plot cannot.

Television has not abandoned Aristotle and his ideas about plot.  Instead, it has surpassed him.  No longer are storytellers concerned with a logical progression of plot, or even of plot at all.  Now, characters are the forerunners of television, not plot or narration.  People dress and speak like their favorite characters; sometimes they even cut and dye their hair to imitate these beloved, fictional, people (Hoffner and Buchanan 327).  Plot is second to character, and no one expresses this through television quite like Joss Whedon.

Works Cited

Auteur Criticism. Chapter 9. 231-242. Print.

“Beauty and the Beasts.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Three. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. James Whitmore Jr. WB. 20 October 1998. Warner Bros, 2003. DVD.

Caughie, John. Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge, 1981. Print.

“Fool For Love.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five. Writ. Doug Petrie. Dir. Nick Marck. WB. 14 November 2000. Warner Bros, 2000. DVD.

Gardner, Wendi L., and Megan L. Knowles. “Love Makes You Real: Favorite Television Characters are Perceived as ‘Real’ in a Social Facilitation Paradigm.” Social Cognition. 26.2 (2008): 156-68. Print.

Hoffner, Cynthia, and Martha Buchanan. “Young Adults’ Wishful Identification With Television Characters: The Role of Perceived Similarity and Character Attributes.” Media Psychology. 7. (2005): 325-51. Print.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2007. Print.

“Safe.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Drew Z. Greenburg. Dir. Michael Grossman. Fox. 8 November 2002. Fox. DVD.

“Serenity.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Joss Whedon. Fox. 20 December 2002. Fox. DVD.

Shepherd, Laura J. “Morality, Legality and Gender Violence in Angel.” Journal of Gender Studies. 18.3 (2009): 245-59. Print.

“Surprise.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. Michael Lange. WB. 19 January 1998. Warner Bros, 1998. DVD.

Wilcox, Rhonda. “There Will Never Be a ‘Very Special’ Buffy: Buffy and the Monsters of Teen Life.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. (1999): 16-23. Print.

6 thoughts on “Joss Whedon: Character Genius

  1. “Television has not abandoned Aristotle and his ideas about plot. Instead, it has surpassed him.”

    I love this quote about the evolution of television from it’s catalyst.

    Television is very fascinating in how it relates to other mediums. From my studies of visual art, theatre and music, novels – plot reigns more than character. Even in film, you have more ‘freedom’ to do more with plot that with characters.

    It’s very interesting to see stories born out of character than out of plot, but it also makes me wonder – as the Internet takes over, and we have series such as ‘The Guild’, ‘Gemini Division’ & ‘Very Mary Kate’ – all which are almost entirely character driven – how other mediums will start to move over to more character-based narratives to tell their stories.

    Great paper and study of Whedon!

    Signed,
    A fellow Whedonite.

  2. i really found your essay/post to most in-depth and fascinating. After reading this i was more impressed with Joss Whedon’s work than i have been in the past. His shows are widely character based. I see that now. Your comment on how “the more complex back-story a character has been given, the more likely it is that a viewer will perceive that character as real” invited me to look back on all of my joss whedon shows and take a gander at his characters back stories. Even though firefly is only 1 season and 1 movie, Whedon, takes no pause in explaining his characters back stories in a riveting manner. However, one character in his series lacked his backstory. Shepherd Book from Firefly/Serenity. His character was never explained and the mystery surrounding his past became more and more mysterious. He was my least favorite character on that show, and because of your explanation about having a back story of the character makes the character more real and like able by its audience, it makes me realize that it is the reason he is my least like able character, and most likely others also. Your essay was awesome. I really enjoyed the realization that Joss Whedon, is to the book, creating television shows that cannot be disliked by its viewers. His only problem is getting the viewers to watch his show. Once they do watch one of his shows, they will fall in love with it. I have never met a person who watched firefly and then disliked it. Thank you for your post. It was very awesome. Now, after reading this post, i have it in my mind to go watch something Joss Whedon related :)

  3. well first of all i want to congratulate you for this article. Its very well put together, and to top it off its fascinating. I love the quotes used here because it makes it a little more understanding. “the desire to be like or act like the character”. I didn’t know that this meant “wishful identification”… It’s always good to learn things new. :)

  4. I figured this would be interesting since I’m on a Buffy kick. I was right. (Also, holy spoilers!)

    I am in complete agreement that Joss is a master of character. (I would also add that he is a master of dialects, but that’s not quite the point.) This is true especially in Firefly. You talked about Mal’s character being successful in a different way of defining the word. I would say that he is also successful because he has succeeded on his own terms. He says multiple times through the run of the show and in the movie that as long as “Serenity” is still flying, it’s a good day.

    You didn’t talk about “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” at all, but I would propose adding it to the list of character greatnesses. Each character in the show (for lack of a better term) is driven and pinpointed to be exactly what the story needs. The story itself, is even incited, driven, and reversed entirely by the characters themselves.

    Seriously though, Buffy marathon right now. Also, Hi Laura!

    1. Rachel! Sorry for the late reply, but I just saw this comment! Thanks for your thoughts–I agree that Dr. Horrible is an excellent character driven piece! I am ashamed to say that I never considered including it, even though it probably would have been interesting to explore characters in a new, less-traditional media, like internet television.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. “Plot is second to character, and no one expresses this through television quite like Joss Whedon.” This is a profound statement that all writers need to hear and understand. As you pointed out, realism is what allows the audience to connect to characters. Not realism within the plot, but realism within the character as a human being with emotions. Complexity is essential to the development of a character in order to liken the character to a true human being because we are complex. Therefore it is extremely important to make the characters more relatable than the plot. That is why even in the fantasized worlds Whedon has created, the characters have been emulated and cherished; the audience connect to their complexity.

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