What Buffy and Chuck Can Teach Us About Character Arcs

Believe it or not, this is not a “prove how much of a geek I am” post despite the fact that I’m going to be comparing characters from two science fiction/fantasy shows: Chuck and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. (Note: this post is about writing, and therefore includes spoilers for those who have not seen both series. You’re welcome to join in regardless, but if spoilers bother you, I’d recommend checking out both series and then coming back. They have a lot to teach us…while being very entertaining.)

My husband and I have been re-watching all of Chuck over the last couple of months because it offers fun characters and a positive message, a wonderful contrast to a lot of the darker shows out there. So, we’re off for our evening walk, and my hubby says Chuck, the character, would be a good fit for the Buffy universe. At first, I was thrown by the thought, especially since Buffy moved quickly from an almost campy beginning into a much darker story. However, then I realized Chuck’s character arc already existed within Buffy, a remarkable parallel in two very different characters.

I’ve always held the opinion that one idea, or prompt, could produce any number of unique stories with little enough in common to be hard to detect with a casual eye. I think the character comparison here supports this opinion beautifully. Though the shows are both television rather than novels, the character arcs are equivalent to written works and so the lessons are the same.

Okay, by this time you’ve had a moment to consider which Buffy character I’m talking about. Please jot down your ideas before reading further, and post them in the comments when you’re done reading along with why if you’re willing. (Wait, homework? No one said there would be homework!) There could be more parallels than the one I noticed, and with characters other than Chuck. The trick in a successful work, whether a show or a book, is found in something that connects with the audience. The creators of Chuck started out by inviting Adam Baldwin to the cast in a deliberate attempt to draw in the genre crowd, but ultimately Chuck has little in common plot- or story-wise with Firefly. It has more in common with Buffy, but still, one is mostly SF while the other is mostly fantasy. One is mostly magic, the other is tech. And most importantly, one is about creating or rediscovering connections with people while the other is about connections being torn apart, destroyed, or betrayed.

So how could the main character of Chuck, a happy-go-lucky nerd with a CIA computer in his brain and an unshakable belief in love and the good inside even the worst of people have a parallel in the desperate, fight for your life, lose everyone close to you Buffyverse where Buffy isn’t even allowed to rest when she’s dead? And who could that parallel be?

Enough suspense, though somehow I doubt the question has you on the edge of your seat. I just want you to understand the differences so you can see how improbable, and yet clear, the parallel is.

Who is Chuck’s character arc doppelganger?

None other than Spike.

Now wait a minute. Hear me out. Don’t be deceived by the obvious differences. Don’t let your eyes be clouded just because Chuck’s a hero…and for most of the show, Spike is anything but.

Chuck begins his character journey as a downtrodden worker in the local computer and appliance store after having his dreams of becoming something more destroyed when he was tossed out of Stanford because his professor believed he cheated on a test. His only support network is his sister, who stands by him even though she feels his life is wasted at the Buy More, sheltering him from the hurt while encouraging him to move on.

Spike, on the other hand, began his life as an unrecognized poet, a gentle soul who is mocked and dismissed by everyone around him except his mother, who nurtures, cares, and shelters him despite his adult status, even as she encourages him to grow up.

Chuck’s heart has been broken because his first love dumped him for the very man responsible for his dismissal from Stanford, and yet he clings to his love for her, preventing him from moving on or forming other lasting attachments.

Spike is turned by Drusilla, an insane vampire who lusts after her own progenitor, Angelus, and ignores Spike’s affection whenever it suits her purposes, betraying him and dumping him repeatedly, sending Spike into downward spirals.

Chuck is given the Intersect, a download of the CIA’s secret computer data, allowing him first to understand things without study, identify who is dangerous and who is not, and solve problems that would otherwise be unsolvable. And if that isn’t enough, soon he’s given an upgrade that provides the physical side of the Intersect, allowing his downloaded knowledge to translate into muscle memory so he’s able to use various fighting techniques to become a super spy. And yet, despite his debonair confidence, his exceptional skills, and his unexpected charm, he fails the ultimate transformation into his “superior” form because he refuses to kill.

Spike, as previously mentioned, goes from a weepy loser to the terror of humans and vampires alike, proving himself again and again by killing the most difficult prey of all, slayers. On the surface, it seems there is no parallel here. Spike certainly has no difficulty killing, nor does he show any reluctance at all. However, when he finds love a second time in Buffy, he returns both to his previous, sensitive self, and retains his more confident, aggressive defender, becoming alpha and beta all at once. Even more, he returns to the positive aspects of his poetic self while leaving the weepy loser behind.

Chuck’s parallel there is a little weaker since he never quite loses himself in his alternate identity of Charles Carmichael, but at the same time, he goes from “I’m a complete failure. Everything I touch turns to dust” to “I am the Intersect. I can do anything I set my flash to,” all the way back to “My super powers are lost, I’m worthless,” and finally to “I am more than the Intersect. It enhanced the superhero inside me, but that superhero was already there…and still is.” The last is critical because ultimately he loses all his powers, just as Spike regains his soul, making both critically vulnerable.

In both, emotions are shown as weaknesses in the eyes of the other characters, Dru with her “I’m tired of your whining” and Chuck’s team with “you have to put your emotions aside because they’re preventing your flashes.” At the same time, both stories rely on those self-same emotions to bring about success. Sarah is trained in the concept of necessary losses, even when she is the loss. Chuck’s emotional side makes him unable to back down, unable to accept the unacceptable. On Spike’s side, his emotions are the ultimate betrayal to the person he has become as a vampire…and the only way he can regain the person he was before Dru stole his humanity and cast him in the role of villain.

I can keep going on with parallels. Both had their first loves come back to them all repentant then betray them a second time, for example, but I think my point is made.

The character arcs follow the same elements and key points. The journey is from no sense of self, an aggrandized sense of self, to a new balance. The key points are old loves, new loves, sense of purpose, and ultimately finding a balance in a greater understanding of purpose and self.

And yet the characters could not be more different.

When we first meet Chuck, he’s the boy next door. Sweet, naive, and too innocent to see that in our culture, his great fortune in gaining Sarah’s interest is a lie.

Spike, on the other hand, strides on screen as the big bad, with his bleached hair and ankle length flowing leather coat, a trophy, we later learn taken after his murder of the previous slayer. He is not the hero; he is not the anti-hero. Heck, he isn’t even likable as a bad boy at first.

I am not, in any way, saying Chuck and Spike are equivalent characters. In fact, that’s my point. It’s easy to look at a story and see the parallels, thus naming it a knock off. Sure, there are only so many ways a character can change, but writers have the opportunity to create parallel story or character arcs, either within a work, or between works, that have almost nothing in common. If the parallel enhances the work, make the reader have to look for it. The moment of discovery will be all the greater. And never feel that because something has been done, there is no way to offer a unique spin on it. Make the hero of your last work into the villain of the next, not literally, but in the development of character. Turn the best buddy into the leading man, the stolid friend into the heroine, all without changing the character arc. The possibilities are endless.

So, if you’ve made it this far, I have two challenges for you:

First, can you think of a parallel between these two characters I didn’t mention?

Second, can you take one of your favorite characters (book, TV, movie, or whatever) and craft a story that follows the same character arc without having any other similarities?

I’d love to hear what you come up with in the comments, but don’t feel that you can only accept the challenge if you want to comment. Just thinking on these types of things can make you a stronger writer.

Note: Clip art provided by Microsoft Office under their use rules as a part of a document for personal use.

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4 Responses to What Buffy and Chuck Can Teach Us About Character Arcs

  1. Well, I thought of another interesting connection:

    Morgan and Xander – Two goofy sidekicks who become more as the series grows and progresses. Obviously, Xander has more time to grow as the series lasted longer, but it shows even the goofy sidekick does have a valid reason for existance.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Very true, and Morgan actually grows a lot in the course of the 5 seasons, sometimes maturing more than Chuck…of course he had further to go :).

      Interestingly enough, in the commentary on Chuck, the writers mentioned that a Morgan-like character was pretty much required when Chuck went live. I can think of quite a few books using this same pattern as well. I consider it as giving the main character someone to talk to and play off of, another way to avoid the “white room” of a solitary character.

      • jjmcgaffey says:

        A bit – ok, a lot – meta, but there’s an arc within a webcomic, in which the characters are creating an SF action movie. They’re trying to figure out a goofy sidekick for the hero and end up with a kid – here: http://www.rhjunior.com/NT/00666.html . That’s what instantly flashed in my mind when I read the comments.

        The rest is interesting, but since I’ve seen little of Buffy and half of one episode of Chuck…

        Heh. Though I did a paper in college on the parallels and contrasts between Mercedes Lackey’s Talia and Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

        • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

          Yeah, you kinda have to watch the shows to understand both the parallels and how strange it is that they’re parallel. Neat paper topic though.

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