Guest Post: Karen Rock on Joss Whedon & His Storytelling Slayers

Photo of Joss Whedon by Gage Skidmore

By Karen Rock

What makes groundbreaking film and television writer-producer Joss Whedon, the visionary behind such hits as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Avengers,” and “Angel,” so special?

His ability to mix satirical pop culture humor with life or death situations? Perhaps.

His take-no-prisoners heroines? Maybe.

His plot curve balls that leave viewers reeling?

No, wait. Make that: all of the above?


Like millions of other Whedonites, I’ve been a devoted fan since Buffy Summers took up residence in the ‘one-Starbucks-town’ of Sunnydale, California, (AKA Hellmouth).

Stakes were high and rattling around Buffy’s purse. With a supernatural apocalypse imminent, Joss gave us an unlikely savior…or slayer…in Buffy. Who knew a petite, teenage girl could be so adept at handling evil incarnate…including the Mean Girls at school?

Such innovative writing has inspired a generation of bestselling authors such as Carrie Jones, Jennifer Armentrout, Jennifer Reese, Nancy Holder, Micol Ostow, and Marlene Perez who shared their thoughts about Joss’ influence on their bestselling works.

For Jenn Reese, author of science fantasy middle grade series Above World (Candlewick) and kung fu action-adventure romance Jade Tiger, both her writing and life have been impacted by Joss’ works. “It’s safe to say that ‘Buffy: The Vampire Slayer’ has influenced not just my writing, but my life as a whole. From 1997 to 2003, while Buffy and the Scooby Gang were going through their journey, I was going through my own.

“During that time, I began writing, quit my job, got a divorce, moved to California, got a new job, had my car stolen, got laid off, wrote a novel, and started studying martial arts. Through it all, Buffy was my favorite show.

“It was one of the only real constants in a life full of new experiences and an evolving sense of self. If our lives have soundtracks, then Buffy was mine. When I made life-changing decisions or accepted new challenges, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in the background, singing about courage and heroes, about failure and loss and the power of friends.

“In short, Buffy is a foundational part of my writing career. I believe I’ve gone off in my own direction to tell stories that are truly mine, but I do so with gratitude for a show that inspired me both as a writer and as a person.”

A particular episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ‘The Body’ was especially important and personal to Jenn. “Back in 2003, my (now ex-)husband’s brother shot himself. We got the call early in the morning after we’d spent the entire day before moving into a new apartment. Everything was in mislabeled boxes. We drifted through the unfamiliar space in a daze, trying to find clothes, brush our teeth, get directions to the hospital.

“In the middle of the chaos, there was also a memory. Willow trying to find her purple sweater, Anya blunt and clueless, Xander angry at the world, at the wall, at death itself. ‘The Body’ (season 5) makes me sob. I cried the first time I watched it, from the very beginning when Buffy shakes her mother’s body, calls her name, and can’t wake her.

Jenn Reese

“If I happen upon the episode while channel surfing, even for just a second, I become transfixed all over again, thumb poised on the remote but incapable of changing the channel.

“On that morning, I was so grateful for ‘The Body.’ I was grateful for the assurance that, no matter how I was reacting to the suicide, it was okay. It was normal. It was well within the acceptable parameters of grief and shock and awkwardness.

“In the midst of everything, I wasted no emotional energy on self recrimination. People are messy. Believing that was an incredible gift Joss Whedon and Buffy gave me on such a terrible day.”

Marlene Perez, author of the YA paranormal series Dead Is… (Graphia) and Strange Fates (Orbit, 2013), also connects personally to particular episodes such as “Once More with Feeling” and “Hush”.

According to Marlene, “…he sends the message ‘Don’t be afraid of your own creativity. Don’t be afraid to go into the dark, but also, don’t be afraid of the light. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.’”


To Marlene, “His characters are often broken people who find a makeshift family and he always makes us question who the true monster really is. The idea of a broken main character appealed to me.

“Nyx Fortuna, the main character in my Strange Fates trilogy was greatly influenced by Whedon’s ability to create broken, but relatable characters… …I love the idea that doing the right thing sometimes sucks almost as much as doing the wrong thing would have.”

Whedon did all the right things when he met Marlene several years ago at the San Diego Comic Con. “I spotted Joss Whedon right in front of me on the exhibit floor…I approached him and said, ‘I know you hear this all the time, but I love Buffy.’ His reply was ‘I never get tired of hearing it.’

“If I hadn’t been a fan before, that would have cinched it for me. It also taught me two things. Love your characters because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them and be nice to your fans.”

Joss’ empathy for others was also evidenced by essayist and novelist, Nancy Holder, author of Buffy: The Making of a Slayer (47 North). “I had been on set for days and I was working off fumes. I wanted to get as much done as I could in the time I had–researching, interviews–so I hardly ever slept. (Not my best strategy!) Whenever he saw me, he would give me a nod to let me know that he knew I was waiting to interview him and we had a number of moments where we’d sit down and get started, and then he would be called away. He was always good-humored and patient despite the dozens of questions and interruptions that bombarded him every day.

“We finally sat on top of Spike’s tomb in pitch dark. I was really ragged by then (to my intense frustration), and he had so many things to say that I was enraptured and tried to make myself take notes as my two tape recorders recorded him. But it was difficult to do anything but listen. Then he was called to the set, and we went outside in the bright daylight. I saw that my primary tape recorder had malfunctioned and the first thing out of my mouth was an F-bomb.

“He simply smiled, took the recorder from me, and wound up my tape. I restarted my backup recorder (which wasn’t as good as the primary one) and asked him to repeat what he said. He pretty much did. But the kindness he showed when I flipped out in such an unprofessional manner has stayed with me all these years.”

Joss’ ability to plot an epic story equally impresses Holder. “Two of the structural elements of storytelling that Joss does so amazingly well are the buildup and the reversal. He very deliberately leads you to a hope or expectation (that two characters will get back together, that X is the bad guy) and then he pulls a reversal on you, where the opposite happens…

Nancy Holder

“Joss has often emphasized that structure lies at the basis of good storytelling. No amount of hand-waving and saying ‘just because’ can take the place of an organic trajectory in a story–this happens because this happens because this happens.

“When I was working on Buffy: The Making of a Slayer, I re-watched the entire series and really got a sense of the entire narrative sweep of the Buffy story. It’s a monumental achievement.

“For me to get this kind of cohesion when I’m working, I have to read and reread my work to make sure I hit all the beats. That takes discipline. But you don’t wind up with four (soon to be five!) TV shows, awards, and huge films like ‘The Avengers’ on your resume without discipline.”

Carrie Jones, author of the YA paranormal series Need (Bloomsbury), admires Joss’ softer side and his tenacity. “I am a sucker for the Whedon romance. His romances are tragic. That’s what makes them great. And it’s even more than that! Buffy, the movie version, flopped. But Whedon didn’t give up. He believed in his characters. He believed in his writing. And look what happened. Buffy became an icon. His character became someone who insinuated herself into people’s psyches. As a writer, I need that. I need the example of Buffy and of her creator, to help me believe in myself.”

Another important Whedon legacy, Carrie said, is that he…“made it okay to be a kick-(butt) girl who saved people, who could be the hero, who could quip, who could angst. But I think what he also did was show the humanity in female heroes and how sometimes saving the world requires a momentary loss of that same humanity. He also made it cool to be a girl that wanted to save people not just be saved by people.

“Still, it is more than that. His heroes depended on themselves, but they often depended on their friends. On their epic quests, they often showed how community mattered, how relationships and friendships made us stronger, braver, tougher, and gave us females more motivation to be kick (butt)….

“Buffy and her friends often made names into verbs and created an entire language of quirkiness. That quirkiness combined with the heroic flair of Whedon’s characters truly creates a safe place for teen girls to embrace their own quirky nature, their own inner (and external) hero selves, allows them to value their own friendships, and gives them a role model to emulate when they need to be brave and face their own demons.”

A young Carrie Jones, thinking she’d rather be watching “Buffy”

YA novelist Micol Ostow, whose novel Family (Egmont) features a strong female character, wrote an essay on the “Buffy” series finale. “I focused on the horror movie trope of the final girl: the (typically blond, conventionally attractive, and young) girl who survives all of her friends and defeats the monster. The final girl avails herself to a feminist reading, but nonetheless, she’s a throwback to an earlier era. Buffy is the quintessential modern incarnation of that archetype. She doesn’t conquer the demons by accident or even by stubbornness, but rather by birthright, bravery, and innate skill.

“I’d like to think that female heroines would have become more proactive as pop culture evolved, but I don’t think it can be argued that Buffy herself got us there much more quickly.”

Micol and pup

Micol also admires Whedon’s blend of commercial and literary qualities in his work. “…There need not be distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Joss may be best-known for commercial powerhouses, but his knowledge of the literary and film canon is exhaustive, which is evident in all of his work: Giles saying, ‘Thank you, Cyrano,’ when Buffy tries to give him dating advice. The entire structure and (original!) score of the musical episode. The noir filter that colors the ‘Angel’ spinoff. It’s all much more sophisticated than packaging might suggest.

“Critics of the show/s often write them off as campy and insubstantial, when the fact is that they’re very intelligently, deliberately crafted.

“As a writer who frequently tries to bridge the gap between commercial and literary sensibilities, I appreciate so much an artist who can’t be bothered with those distinctions, and who blends both completely seamlessly.”

Jennifer L. Armentrout, exhausted from writing

Jennifer L. Armentrout, author of The Lux (Entangled) and Covenant series, finds Whedon’s quote, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke” inspiring.

She says, “When you’re dealing with a world were powerful supernatural creatures are gunning for your rosy red behind, things are going to be dark, things are going to be grim and gritty. Life will be tough for our characters. That (Happily-Ever-After) will be earned and not handed over.

“But humor–oh, humor–is the great equalizer. A well placed one liner changes the dynamics of the story and the characters, makes them more real and richer.

“Joss Whedon was a miracle worker with this. None of his characters were truly safe and that made you love his characters even more. It made the story real, because life is unpredictable.”

Jennifer subjects her characters to dangerous and deadly situations as well. “None of my characters are safe and all my characters sometimes make the wrong choices and they must face those consequences. But I love the humor and the snark. Even in the most dire and terrible circumstances, someone is always saying something.”

Thanks to Joss Whedon, we will always have something to say about his work and the lessons they teach. YA authors continue his legacy, paving the way for the next generation. They will continue to innovate in ways we can’t yet imagine. As Joss said, “Writers are completely out of touch with reality.” And that’s a good thing in the best, Whedon-way.

Check out why Cyn and I love Joss below, and, at the end of the post, please add your own tributes in the comments for a chance to win Buffy: The Making of a Slayer by Nancy Holder (47 North).

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock

In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material,
English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that
teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is
downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert
you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and
occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very
appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker
Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though
they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Karen says: “Joss taught me not to worry about writing what’s expected… what
works…what’s safe. He’s a rule breaker and that’s what I love most
about his movies and shows. Joss makes me laugh during the most
terrifying moments, root for an unlikely character, and jump out of my
seat when I’m ready for the end credits. It’s the courage to write
fearlessly, to be true to my own vision, that is Joss’ legacy to me.”

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author the the Tantalize series, which includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical,
all YA Gothic fantasies originally published by Candlewick Press in the
U.S., Walker Books in the U.K., and additional publishers around the

Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, a graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle, is also available and Eternal: Zachary’s Story will be released in February 2013. Cynthia also looks forward to the release of Feral Nights, book one in the Feral series (Candlewick, Jan. 2013).

She says: “I so admire all of his work, but for me, Joss Whedon’s
‘Buffy’ was life changing — a major reason why I write strong girls
(and guys) for YAs.

“I remember watching the series finale as the screen
flashed from one girl to another, all potential slayers becoming
slayers, and, especially as a writing teacher, it left me teary with a greater appreciation of the potential in us all.

Stephenie Meyer‘s work is often cited by the mainstream media as fueling the paranormal boom in YA literature, and she has indeed been tremendously influential. Without in any way minimizing that, as a core member of the creative community, and having spent years talking to my colleagues about their artistic touchstones, I must stress that Joss Whedon’s role cannot be overstated.

“Many of us are informally his students and among his most enthusiastic fans. Consider the YA books where humor cuts horror, reversals pivot tight, and girls stand tall. Most of the authors who created them are fiercely proud Whedonites.”

Cynthia’s home base on the Web is She lives in Austin, Texas; with with four writer cats and her very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Check out her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter @CynLeitichSmith.

Don’t miss Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips from Once Upon a Sketch, with thanks to Sean Petrie.

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Karen Rock on Joss Whedon & His Storytelling Slayers

  1. I love "Buffy" because the show recognized how girls and women can be impossibly complex: they're not easily categorized. Buffy was the cheerleader, the new girl, the funny girl, the sexy girl, and also the one who saved the world seven times. I love that she can do all of these things and still wrestle with everyday, important issues like friendships and relationships.

  2. Awesome post! I love seeing how Buffy (and Joss) has influenced other writers, and their lives. (Jenn, I want to hug you!).

    I came to Buffy late (season 3ish?) and then had to catch up. But it made such an impact on me, as has so much of the Whedonverse (Currently, I'm obsessed with Firefly).

    What I love is introducing new people to Buffy, to those first few minutes of the first episode, where all the tropes are lined up and then the whole thing is turned on its ear – as soon as Darla reveals herself, you know the world as you know it is about to change.

    Great post!


  3. What. An. Awesome. Post! Now I have the strong pull to re-watch the entire Buffy series from start to finish (and Firefly). Too bad my DVDs are currently in storage. 🙁 Sigh….! Thanks for sharing. Loved Marlene's story about meeting Whedon!

  4. What a lovely post! I own all seven seasons of Buffy on DVD (and Angel and Firefly) and Buffy is still my go-to comfort television even though I've seen it multiple times. I just love how smart and funny and COMPLEX all of Whedon's work is. He creates such amazing characters.

  5. LOVE LOVE LOVE Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have all the DVDs and Angel, too. If you like Buffy you might like YOU ARE SO UNDEAD TO ME and UNDEAD MUCH by Stacey Jay. Very similar, but with zombies.

  6. So happy that I found this post! I grew up with the series. I aspired to be Buffy, fall in love with Angel and have Willow as my BFF. Growing up I never really thought much about who wrote it – I just enjoyed it. Now that I write, I can truly see how awesome the stories were written by Joss Wheldon. The reflections in this article also gave me a new-found respect for him personally. Not only is he such a tremendous writer but a truly nice person who has influenced so many other writers!

    I've recently got my daughter hooked on Buffy and she asked me for a Buffy T-shirt for Christmas!!! Spike however is her favorite right now:)

    Thank you so much for the post and the opportunity to catch glimpses on how Mr. Wheldon has contributed to other wonderful YA writers.

    Book suggestions (Strong female characters, friendships, paranormal/fantasy): "Darkest Powers Series" by Kelley Armstrong, "Warrior Heir Series" by Cinda Williams Chima, "The Iron Fey Series", Julie Kagawa and of course, "Tantalize series" by Cynthia (my favorite is "Eternal")

    Michelle S.

  7. I'm a huge fan of all of Joss Whedon's work, and though Buffy and Angel were my first (and only) loves for many years, I eventually went back and completed the whole Whedon canon, from Firefly to Dr. Horrible. No matter what Whedon does, his trademarks are his fantastic dialogue and relatable characters, and I try to emulate that in my own writing.

  8. Love this post! My husband and I marathon Buffy and Angel all the way through every couple years, and as we speak I'm watching it on Logo. It sounds weird, being that it's technically a horror series, but Buffy is like comfort food to me. I have all my favorite episodes on my iPod so that if I've had a bad day at work or just need some me-time, I can just pop on an episode of Buffy and I feel home again!

  9. I LOVE Joss and Buffy! I started watching it and after every episode, students would congregate in my room before school the next day so we could discuss what happened. I've cried and laughed over episodes of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, amazed at how they touched something true in me. I also appreciate the strong female characters and how they did NOT sit around waiting for someone to rescue them–and even when their hearts were broken, and they were hurt beyond what they thought they could bear, they recovered, grew, and lived. One recommendation I have is the FEED series by Mira Grant. Thank you, Joss Whedon for your writing.

  10. Let us know why you love Joss's work and/or feel free to suggest YA books that might appeal to fans of the "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" TV show.

    I enjoyed watching BUFFY she was a strong character that really took charge even though she was faced with many challenges, I think many YA books that I have read lack that and I truly want that to return…(as a writer I hope to do that as well) young girls need to be inspired that strength is a good thing and they don't have to wait around for someone else to be in charge of their happiness I appreciate Joss Whedon for creating a great world that future writer s like myself can learn from.

  11. I love Buffy the Vampyre Slayer because it teaches me what feminism is, and how to live it everyday of my life. BtVS teaches me and grows with me, always and forever.

  12. I listen to the Once More With Feeling soundtrack all the time. It's one of the CDs I leave in my car in case I forget my audiobook or can't concentrate on a book.

    And this post is reminding me that my younger sister hasn't actually seen Buffy yet, that I know of. Fixing that soon!

    And a YA rec for Buffy fans: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. 🙂

Comments are closed.