Thursday, 9 November 2017

Heroine Fix: Willow Rosenburg, Witch, Redhead, Genius

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at characters that I admire and who influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article will contain spoilers.)

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Buffy the Vampire SlayerI quote it frequently, still sing the songs from "Once More With Feeling" and have a huge crush on James Marsters.  But it was the female characters that really brought the series home for me, and the one that inspired me the most was Willow Rosenburg, as played by Alyson Hannigan.  


She was smart.  She was cheerful.  She was powerful.  She was a redhead.  There were many levels of connection and inspiration for me.  One of the things I thought was most inspiring about her was her willingness to be entirely genuine about how she felt, what she thought and what she wanted.  Unlike Cordelia, who hid behind a mask of cool, Willow embraced herself in all her glory.  She gushes about Sunnydale High's library, gets excited about chicken feet and quartz crystals, and gives her whole heart to her friends and partners.

One of the first things that struck me about her character was how she seemed impervious to the darkness around her.  When her clothes are mocked, she glances down at herself and is confused, but she also shrugs it off quickly.  She isn't interested in being one of the popular girls, because the popular girls don't get to do research in the library or hack into city hall or do magic like Willow gets to do.


When it came to love, Willow's first on screen interests were Xander (who was oblivious), Carmine (who was a vampire planning to kill her), and Malcolm (ancient demon hiding in the Internet and planning to destroy the world).  It would have been very easy to portray Willow as the naive damsel in distress but that's not how it works in the Whedonverse.  She might be naive but she's no pushover.  When she realizes that Malcolm is really Moloch the Corruptor, she hits him with an axe, shouting "I think we should break up!"  With Carmine, she resists being dragged into the graveyard, challenging his assertion that it's a short cut.  And although she knows Xander is never going to see her as a romantic interest, that doesn't stop her from being his best friend and wanting the best for him.

Then Willow finally got someone who woke up and recognized the awesome: Oz.  From the first moment he saw her in her Eskimo costume, to the moment he started the best asking out moment in screen history, Willow had him wrapped around her little finger.

Oz: I'm gonna ask you to go out with me tomorrow night.  And I'm kinda nervous about it, actually it's interesting.
Willow: Oh.  Well, if it helps at all, I'm gonna say yes.
Oz: Yeah, it helps.  It creates a comfort zone.
But Willow doesn't take advantage of Oz's devotion.  She supports him whole-heartedly, helping him to graduate and adjust to the whole being a werewolf thing.  She's not perfect (and as a teenager, she shouldn't be).  While she is with Oz, she and Xander end up flirting with a relationship, but Willow does what few of us would have the strength to do: she walks away from the dream of her first crush to focus on her real feelings for Oz.  When he decides he has to leave because he's unable to handle his lycanthrophy, Willow is devastated.

She doesn't stay crushed for long, though.  Personally, as someone who has always fought depression, I found Willow's ability to get back up and genuinely find the joy in the face of despair to be one of her most inspiring qualities.  She wasn't white-knuckling her way through life, hiding her tears.  Instead, she was sad but hadn't lost herself in it.  And soon, she found someone new: Tara.


It took Willow awhile to understand how her feelings for Tara were going far beyond friendship and a magical pairing, but once she did, she never looked back.  She accepted who she was and how she felt without any sign of angst.  Their relationship was one of the great love stories of the Whedonverse, but like all Whedon love stories, it ended badly.


When Tara died in her arms, Willow goes full dark side.  She is ready to rip apart the fabric of reality so that everyone can share in her pain.  Forget roaring to the heavens, Willow gets right to business.  I believe it spoke to the depths of her agony and love.  When Oz left, it hurt, but when Tara was taken from her, she was ready to hurt back.  And there is nothing that anyone can do to stop her.  She is more powerful than Buffy.  Xander reminds her of who she truly is, standing defenseless in front of her.  "You've been my best friend my whole life.  World's gonna end, where else would I wanna be?....  you're about to do something apocalyptically evil and stupid.  And, hey, I still wanna hang!  You're Willow."  And I agree with him.  Even at the end of the world, I'd want to hang with Willow, too.

And despite hitting a level of despair that most people can only nightmare about, Willow still opens her heart yet again to love Kennedy, one of the proto-Slayers from the final season.  Because being open is a big part of who Willow is.

In the episode "Doppelgangland" Willow faced the vampire dominatrix version of herself, a juxtaposition which showed the core of the character brilliantly.  Vampire Willow broke a vampire's fingers asking: Who do you work for?  When the vampire told her, she did it one more time, so he could understand that now he worked for her.  She walked into a bar and when someone was a jerk to her, she tilted her head, said "Bored now" and flung him across the room.  Good Willow helps Anya with a spell to retrieve her lost necklace, puts herself in danger to rescue the hostages at the Bronze, and makes the wonderful joke that she and Oz play Mistress of Pain every night.  


Both Willows are unreserved.  Vampire Willow loves the fact that in her world there are people in chains and she can ride them like ponies.  When Anya's spell goes wrong, Willow seizes her chicken feet and storms out.  Both Willows take action to solve their problems rather than waiting for someone else to solve them.  Both make jokes and are focused on what they want.  Although Buffy and the others hasten to reassure Willow that the vampire version of her is nothing like the original, the truth is that the parts that make Willow stay consistent no matter where her moral compass is pointed.

But there's a dark side to always being open.  Willow struggles with addiction, becoming intoxicated with magic.  She likes feeling powerful and being able to solve problems with the flick of a finger.  Of course, just because she can make people do what she wants doesn't mean that she should, but it's so easy that she fails to resist the temptation.  Her life spirals down out of control and she has to work hard to get it back on track and earn back the trust of Tara and her friends.

It would have been typical for the show's writers to put Willow in a position where she is tempted to use magic again and show her growth by refusing.  Instead, they put Willow in a situation where she must use magic in order to save the world.  After a season of struggling to keep herself closed, Willow had to trust herself again and open herself to everything she truly is: a witch, a hero and a helper.


She connects with the magic and activates every potential Slayer across the globe.  The sequence of girls and women standing up to face their fears and tormentors is one that still triggers a straightening of my spine.  And Willow did it, not through denial of herself, but by embracing herself.

That's worthy of celebration.  Willow was the inspiration for the heroine of my first novel, the one still under my bed because writing a heroine who is cheerful and happy and faces adversity without flinching was beyond my newbie skills.  But I still love the story and the character and hope that one day, I'll have the writing skills to bring her to life.  

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines like I am?  You can sign up to get each month's Heroine Fix by email and then you'll never miss the next fix.

I'm still in a witchy mood, so next month, I'll be looking at one of my favourite romantic comedy heroines: Sally Owens from Practical Magic.


"Sometimes, when the wind is warm or the crickets sing... 
I dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for."

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