[This post is a reflection on fiction in general. But since the post is inspired by 1 month of binge-watching all seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it naturally contains some spoilers. So if you mind Buffy spoilers, please thread carefully]
I just finished re-watching the whole series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And right now, I’m left with that familiar feeling that you get after finishing a good story, whether a good book or a good TV show. It’s a distinct feeling; a mixture of sadness, loss, exhilaration, pensiveness, and a hunger for reflection.
Before watching the last episode of Buffy, I was watching this Comic Con panel of Firefly on YouTube. In the Q&A portion, this kid came up and asked the panel the same thing I’ve been asking myself, “Why do adults care so much about Firefly?” I couldn’t help but thinking, why. Why do we care so much about fictional stories and the characters in them.
After Buffy, and that gut-wrenching ending that killed my favourite Sex Pistols-loving vampire, I couldn’t help but asking myself why I care so much about this show. Why is Spike’s death painful to me? (And why does it piss me off so much to find out that he comes back to life in Angel? – but that’s a different story.) Why was I proud of Buffy, with everything she has overcome and, relieved for her, knowing that the burden she bore was no longer hers alone, despite how much I hate that last couple episodes of season 7?
It’s been a long time since I stumbled upon a story that got me this invested. So there I was, at 6 in the morning with a million thoughts swimming around in my head. Thoughts about destiny, about loneliness, about growing up, about good and evil, about morality. It’s a wonder how a bunch fictional characters and a made-up story can get one person to think about all those things.
And then, after much contemplation, I realised why. Fiction allows its characters to be honest. More honest than any real person could ever be. Fiction lets the characters to lay it all bare. Since you, as the audience, are privy to the innermost workings of a character, you know the motivation behind that character’s action, and, understanding the motivation, you are able to sympathise. It does not necessarily mean that everything a character does is acceptable, but at least it’s understandable
When a character lies, you know why. Even when a character kills, you understand the drive behind it, which does not make the act of killing in itself acceptable, but it does give you some kind of a perspective on why; a perspective that you can relate to. When Willow flayed, yep, flayed, Warren in BtVS for example, the flaying is still a gross action done out of proportion of his crime, but you understand where it’s coming from. You can relate to her pain and anger from losing Tara. You understand that desperation, vengeance and sadness that drive her action and you understand how those emotions may lead to, well, flaying. Not that you’d do it, but you get it. Kind of. You see, fiction gives you access into the heads of its characters and let you explore their psyche, down to their deepest darkest secrets.
You just don’t get this kind of luxury with real people. Even the closest friend you had keeps secrets. Not the she-has-been-sleeping-with-an-evil-vampire-who-used-to-try-to-kill-her-and-you-and-all-your-friends-on-his-free-time-from-destroying-the-world kind of secret, but secrets nonetheless. With these secrets, you are deprived of the necessary knowledge to fully understand that person. And with that failure to understand, you fail to relate and, in extent, to fully sympathise.
Same goes for the story. Stories like Buffy’s are so popular because it allows you to understand your own situation. The thing is, fiction allows you to see the big picture of the story. You understand to a degree, depending on the structure of the story, all sides to the story. You know how a problem unfolds and why all the parties involved do they things they do to get to that point. And that way, you understand your life a little better. When Angel leaves Buffy on the show, you understand the pain that comes with it, but you also understand how they come to that point. You understand the necessity of that action, and that helps you understand why certain people have to leave your life. You understand why shit happens in your life.
On top of that, it makes you feel like you’re not so alone. It does help to see someone else, albeit fictional, going through the same thing you are. Buffy is the chosen one so she feels like she is the only person who can bear the cross and she is lonely. Well, you are not the chosen one, but everybody has a cross to bear and you certainly know a thing or two about loneliness. Ronald Weasley’s best friend is the chosen one and he often finds himself jealous of all the attention while feeling guilty for being jealous. Your best friend is not Harry Potter but you understand that tinge of jealousy as you try to be happy for your friends. Through these characters, you know that those emotions you are feeling are normal. You know that other people are feeling it too because, hey, if these characters are going through it, you understand subconsciously that at the very least the author behind it must be feeling it too. And you don’t feel so alone anymore.
So that’s the thing about fiction. That’s why we spend hours and hours of our lives watching movies, reading books, or watching TV shows. Because they let you see the whole story. They let you understand.