Writing Female Protagonists: Daenerys Targaryen VS Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy VS Daenerys

Some of you might be confused about the nature of this post, especially those of you who are very familiar with both characters and interested in well-written female protagonists. After all, aren’t Daenerys Targaryen (from George R. R. Martin’s epic Fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s TV adaptation, Game of Thrones) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer both well-crafted characters? Sure, they are, but I’d argue that there are some issues with one of them that I realised when comparing them that are worth examining. So let’s take a closer look at them, shall we? Naturally, there are SPOILERS for both shows here.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2

Both of them are charismatic and interesting enough to carry their respective stories

Sure, Dany isn’t the only star when it comes to the multiple, interweaving plotlines of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, but considering she’s so far removed from every other main character’s plot, it is Daenerys that has to practically carry the whole story of her travels in Essos by herself: she bangs barbarians, hatches dragon eggs, frees slaves, conquers cities and rules as queen and, while there are other characters that surround her, it is still her storyline we’re primarily invested in. Similarly, while there are outstanding supporting characters and secondary plot-lines throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s no mistaking that it is still Buffy that the entire show revolves around: for seven seasons, Joss Whedon and his team managed to tell a story that expertly combined the super-normal struggles of growing up with the supernatural struggles of a young woman destined to fight vampires, primarily using Buffy as the prism through which we view this world. Hell, it’s in the title of the show. Dany wins our hearts by going from a hesitant, timid girl, with no strong sense of herself and no direction in her life, to a fierce, self-assured and powerful leader in her own right; Buffy charms us with her unique combination of klutz, wit and self-deprecating humor along with an enduring strength that manages to carry her through any tragedy, human or inhuman. Which leads me to the second major point of comparison…

Daenerys Targaryen 1

Both Buffy and Daenerys have a good balance between strength and softness

Some feminists may scoff at this point. They might say: “Why should any female character need any kind of softness? Why not have strength all the time?” Because they’ll turn into every freaking Michelle Rodriguez character in every action movie ever, that’s why. I enjoy Michelle Rodriguez as an actress and as a bad-ass action star, but sadly, she rarely gets to do much actual acting, because the characters she gets often lack depth, which leads me to my main point: in Hollywood and beyond, it is still a sad truth that you either have very feminine female characters or the designated ‘tough girl’, written in only to make sure the film signals to its audience that a woman can do everything a man can. While that is a message I agree with, a character isn’t actually very interesting if that is all what they’re about. By contrast, both Buffy and Daenerys are allowed to be more. Buffy’s inner strength is reflected by her heightened physical strength (courtesy of Slayer magic), allowing her to easily stand up to any random punk or vampiric foe, but while ‘Vampire Slayer’ is in her job description, her character is not solely definited by it. Buffy is so much more than just that: she cheerleads, she studies, she argues with her Mom, she spends time with her friends at the Bronze, drifts apart from her friends and then later manages to patch things up with them, she dates guys (whether they’re vampires with souls or not), then breaks up with them (some break-ups involving swords through the heart) and, later on in the show, even has to deal with the difficulties of adult life, like struggling in college and taking care of others. In short – Buffy lives. The show’s greatest strength was that it showed that it’s often the simple, regular challenges in life that can pose the greatest difficulties, in addition to all of Buffy’s supernatural, world-ending foes. While Dany sometimes lacks these very humanising moments, I believe that Daenerys Targaryen remains interesting because her strength is not the typical kind: she doesn’t have the typical feistiness and resourcefulness to survive completely on her own (like Arya Stark), doesn’t have the political genius to always outsmart her enemies and get out of any situation (like Tyrion Lannister), nor does she have the warrior skill and courage (of someone like Jon Snow) – instead, all Dany has is her fiery will. Daenerys survives because she manages to believe in herself in any situation and is great at inspiring others to believe in her and her cause. She often has to use a combination of all the aforementioned aspects to get ahead – though the firepower of three dragons also tends to help in emergency situations. Daenerys, while flawed, remains good at heart and is a character that tries to balance her ruthless strength with mercy. While not all of Dany’s power comes from herself directly, she still changes the world almost wherever she goes, keeping the readers and viewers of her story intrigued.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 3

Both Buffy and Daenerys face challenges and continue to evolve… Or do they?

So far, so good, right? Except there is one issue that I believe sets Buffy and Daenerys apart, giving a good example of how to write great female characters (or any character for that matter) and how not to. Because what divides Dany and Buffy is – challenge. Challenge and tension are essential, not just to story, but indeed to our very lives. If we are never challenged, we’re never forced to push ourselves beyond our limits; if we never go beyond our limits, we never change and won’t evolve into a better version of ourselves; if we never change, we tend to stagnate. Precisely because it’s true of ourselves, it’s true for fictional characters – because it is exactly the human condition and human journey that we are interested in the most. If the character always remains the same and they never face any opposition, you would probably get the most boring story ever told. Challenge is fundamental and it’s here that I believe that the comparisons between Dany and Buffy diverge – at least for TV show Daenerys.

Because think about it: how much real challenge has Daenerys truly faced in the storyline so far, especially in the TV show? There’s plenty of challenge in Season 1, which coincidentally also follows George R. R. Martin’s original work most closely: Daenerys has nothing and her life is dominated by a controlling, vicious older brother; she’s forced to marry a Dothraki warlord and their relationship does not exactly start off well, but as she tries to find a way to improve her situation, the two of them end up legitimately falling in love – only for Dany to end up losing her husband and unborn child. She doesn’t give up, however, and she pushes on, with the three stone dragon eggs given to her as a gift actually hatching, leaving her as a leader with the only dragons left in the world. It’s a magnificent storyline. But what happens in the following seasons? In Season 2, she has some struggle finding a way for her and her people to survive, but conveniently finds the city of Qarth, where she’s caught up in the city’s intrigue and loses her dragons – only for her to rather easily get them back in the end and continue on her merry way. In Season 3, she tries to get herself an army – and conveniently gets it by easily outwitting the supremely arrogant slave masters of Astapor, buying all their soldiers and leaving them defenceless before stabbing them in the back with their own army and sacking the city. The following slave city, Yunkai, also falls rather easily before Dany’s might, especially because enemy mercenary Daario also conveniently decides to switch sides with little motivation given, particularly in the show. In Season 4, it’s almost laughable how quickly the show has her conquer the final slave city, Meereen – and while it’s understandable on the part of the showrunners because of time and budgetary issues, it’s still a noticeable flaw. To the show’s credit, the back half of Season 4 and most of Season 5 are actually some of the most challenging (and, coincidentally, the most interesting) parts of Dany’s journey yet, as she struggles to cement her rule over the cities she has just conquered, discovering that killing your way to victory and governing a society are not the same thing.

Daenerys Targaryen 3

But this is where the difference between the books and the show becomes most noticeable: in Season 5 of the show (book 5 of the book series), Daenerys decides to take a certain nobleman as her husband purely because she needs this alliance to get the nobles on her side and help her to create peace in the city. In the books, Daenerys clearly struggles with the decision: she doesn’t like it, but decides to press on with it anyway, believing that it’s right thing to do – in the show, they just make her seem bad-ass and confident about it. Similarly, at the end of book 5, Daenerys (now lost and alone in the wilderness and completely uncertain of what to do with her life) goes through an intense moment of reflection, questioning many of the decisions she has made, realising that she will never be at home in the cities she has lingered in and made so many sacrifices for and must set a new course for her life – in the show, we skip over this completely. Instead, we just go from one bad-ass Daenerys moment to the other – and that is exactly my problem. There is never a moment in the show that I feel that Dany is truly challenged, that she is really put through the ringer and has to work hard for her victories (in contrast to many characters in Game of Thrones that sometimes face ridiculous amounts of back luck).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is handled far better: from seasons 1 through 7, Buffy runs a whole gauntlet of challenges, which includes facing her own death, someone she loved turning into one of her worst enemies (and killing him), losing her mother, sacrificing her own life, being brought back to life after experiencing heaven and being unable to adjust to the harshness of the mortal world again, falling in love with one of her former vampire enemies (Spike), and God knows what else. Throughout all of these moments, Buffy’s challenges are presented in a way that makes it clear how tough they are and how they affect her – and yet, in the end, Buffy still persists. That’s how we continue to love her as a character. As Spike puts it towards the end of the series:

“When I say I love you, it’s not because I want you, or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are. What you do. How you try. I’ve seen your kindness, and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you, and I understand, with perfect clarity, exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman.” – Spike [S7E20]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s