BtVS is my newest fandom, as of April 2004, and the most threatening one I've ever tried to enter. Sure, LotR is complicated, but I've read the books, I've seen the movies, and I know how to find Gondor on a map. And I've never seen The Sentinel or Due South, but those were easy to go into blind – just a few characters, some minor changes in the universe. Nothing big.
Buffy, though, is a whole other deal. Seven sprawling seasons (plus a spin-off), characters coming out of Joss Whedon's nose on a daily basis and changing every week, and complicated plots and story arcs galore. It's like trying to learn about Christianity armed only with a Bible in a language you don't speak, a children's illustrated guide to the saints, and a Quaker hymnal.
My early sallies into the Buffyverse, then, were total failures. I rebounded off its +8 Mystical Shield of Confusion every time. And then my Best Beloved selflessly, nobly volunteered to watch the damn shows, summarize the characters and important plot points, and talk me through some of the episodes. I would then, at least in theory, grok the basics, and I'd be able to read the fan fiction to my heart's content.
This proved to be, shall we say, a challenge. I think if we'd known at the start what we were getting into, we wouldn't have done it. There was a time (for example, all of April) when I thought I'd never understand the Buffy Mystique. Hell, there was a time when I thought I'd never understand our dinner conversations again. And let's not talk about some of the more embarrassing facets of those conversations, like the argument we had just after I watched the pilot about whether or not Xander had a thing for Buffy and Willow had a thing for Xander. (Turns out he does, and she does, but I still don't see how I was supposed to get that from the pilot.)
So perhaps I am not the right person to be guiding innocents through the Buffyverse. Actually, I'm sure I'm not, but I'm also sure that I'm going to rush in where slayers fear to tread.
BUFFY SUMMERS is a petite blonde and the eponymous vampire slayer, which means that she has mystical martial powers and a magnetic attraction for trouble. She saves something – the city, the world, the universe, her boyfriend, her manicure – every week, and dies from time to time. She has a remarkably improbable fighting style, an enviable collection of stakes and holy water and weapons, and the world's most clueless mother. (Even my parents would've noticed if I spent every evening sneaking out of the house to fight evil; I mean, the bloodstains and bruises would've eventually tipped them off. Not to mention my obsession with crosses.)
If you've read Harry Potter, then think of Buffy as Harry, except she uses her fists and feet instead of her wand, and she's skilled with stakes rather than broomsticks.
WILLOW ROSENBERG is a medium-sized redhead desperately in need of a wardrobe makeover. She's good at research, academics, and the dark arts (i.e., witchcraft). She has an impressive collection of psychological scars, a mean way with a computer, and the world's most inattentive parents. (Her parents wouldn't notice if she actually got killed by a vampire. On their bed. On videotape.) Willow starts out having a crush on Xander and then goes through an Oz period, but eventually she decides she's a lesbian and develops a girlfriend. Or so I hear. Apparently that happens after season three.
If you've read Harry Potter, Willow is Hermione with straight red hair. (And if you're now picturing Hermione as a lesbian, switchknife has got some excellent recs for you.)
XANDER HARRIS is tall, dark, and geeky; he's prone to wearing loose shirts carefully selected to conceal the hours the actor playing Xander spends at the gym. He's good at getting into trouble, getting donuts, and getting lost. He is possibly the world's champion at coping with danger, fear, loss, and sadness via repression and snarky remarks; he could go back in time, spend all of World War I in the trenches, watch close friends die of gangrene in his arms, suffer from mustard gas poisoning, become completely shellshocked, and get whisked back to Sunnydale only just in time to save his own life, and two hours later he'd be defining the Somme as "an excellent place for tanning" on a history test he'd fail.
If you've read Harry Potter, Xander is Ron with dark hair, worse grades, and a slightly keener sense of humor.
RUPERT GILES is Buffy's Watcher, at least until mid-season 3; what, precisely, that means is a question that has not been satisfactorily answered yet. Something to do with orders and research and training and the Council of Watchers. And English accents. Anyway, Giles is a British librarian with a remarkable collection of books on the occult. He's possibly the only adult in Sunnydale still paying attention (to anything), so it's sort of inevitable that he'd end up with a lot to worry about. (And he's lucky he's the only adult paying attention; if another one was, that one would be asking a lot of uncomfortable questions about the amount of time Giles spends with certain students, and the appropriateness of his relationship with them.) He wears glasses and tweed coats, as all Brits do on American television, and he has a History that apparently involves hooliganism, demon-summoning, and a BDSM-intensive relationship with a chaos lord named Ethan Rayne.
ANGEL is a vampire with a soul, and he never lets anyone forget it for an instant. He walks with his shoulders slumped from guilt and gloom, generally aiming for invisibility but only achieving moodiness. He's sort of like Louis from Anne Rice's vampire series, only somehow less compelling and more Neanderthal. But if he's ever, even for a moment, happy (translation, apparently: if he ever has an orgasm), he becomes...
ANGELUS, who is also a vampire, but who doesn't have a soul and who therefore is a lot more fun than when he's Angel. He's not just a psychotic killer, he's a psychotic killer with panache. And a fantastically twisted sense of humor. And an excellent command of sarcasm and irony. The Vampire's Vampire, if you will.
OZ becomes a werewolf early in the series, but really, that's about the best anyone who attends Sunnydale High can hope for. (The worst being a slow, torturous death, followed by a slow, torturous undeath as the slave of someone with revolting personal hygiene.) Aside from the three nights a month he spends wearing tufts of fake hair, false teeth, and just generally the world's silliest wolfman outfit, he's actually pretty cool. With his intelligence, calm, horrible sense of style, and tendencies to play guitar and take it easy, he's my favorite character in the Buffy world, though running a close race with Giles.
CORDELIA CHASE is sarcastic and has excellent fashion sense, although her outfits tend to vary from "soccer mom" all the way through "high-class whore" without ever stopping at "high-school student"; she ends up fighting evil despite her honest belief that the bad guys have better taste and cooler friends. She's the archetypal popular girl until Buffy 'n' Co manage to drag her down to their level. That's such a shock to her system that she is obliged to leave Sunnydale with Angel.
SPIKE is so heavily featured in FF that you'd think he was the star of the show. He wasn't. But during his appearances on said show, he perked things up to an enormous degree. His motto: "Less ritual, more fun." His self-assessment: "Love's bitch." (Entirely true. He's initially paired with the vampire Drucilla, then with assorted living human females, but in FF he's mostly got Xander writhing in his wicked, deviant hands.) Late in the series there was some nonsense with an anti-violence microchip in his brain, and later still he got a soul, and then he went crazy, and then he died. Probably. Which is proof that Whedon and Co never really had a clue what made their show popular or what the hell to do with the characters after season four.
In a single episode: Something strange is happening in Sunnydale. Giles and Willow engage in frantic research. Buffy fights. Xander gets hurt, kidnapped, or shoved around. There are interludes of humor (yay!) or romance (barf, especially if it's a moody sequence involving Angel with his shirt off). The good guys triumph, and then celebrate by sitting around a picnic-type table on the high school lawn discussing what they've learned from this. It's sort of like an experiential ropes course, actually, only with more supernatural elements and more wisecracks.
Over the course of a season: At least one popular character experiences a 180-degree personality and moral reversal. A major evil threatens, possibly through that very same character, and is defeated. Someone dies. There is drama and doomed love and enough angst to fill three medium-sized poetry slams. Also some humor. Thank god.
Helpful Information for the BtVS Newbie
-If You Don't Know the Canon-
In case you're not comfortable relying solely on a summary written by a woman who has seen almost a dozen episodes out of the first three seasons (and if you aren't, wow, I'm in awe of your sagacity), here are some real resources. You know, ones that are written by people who know what they're talking about.
Crack Van's Buffy Summary, by ethrosdemon. This is probably the best resource if you're planning to jump right into the FF without any of that canon nonsense. This features pictures of the main characters, including some I haven't mentioned here (Dawn? Who is this Dawn of which you speak?), and season-by-season guides. Really, all you need to know to read the FF is right here, and there's lots more links in case you've got an unsatisfied hankering.
The Buffy Cross and Stake. If you'd like to get into things a bit more obsessively, this would be a good starting point. This features episode guides, cast rosters, character listings (including characters I've never heard of and so could not mention above), and just lots of general informative goodness.
Buffyworld. Another site for the obsession-inclined. The format's a little annoying, but it has a wealth of information, including transcripts of all the Buffy and Angel shows. (We won't even get into Angel. Mostly because I haven't.)
-Where to Start with BtVS FF-
Actually, I can't tell you where to start. I can only tell you where I started. I'm hoping that anyone who makes it this far who knows more about the fandom will contribute helpful links to other stories in the comments, so that newbies, if any, will have something besides my questionable guidance going for them - 'cause in this fandom, they'll need all the help they can get.
In any case, all I have to offer is the first stories I bookmarked in this fandom, back when I was still fighting with the pilot episode and hoped FF would help.
The Story That Involves Amnesia: Throwing Shapes, by Anna S., eliade. Spike/Xander. I read this one before I'd ever seen a minute of the canon, and I liked it because it was fun and funny. I continue to like it for those very same reasons. Plus, Anna spoiled me with the way she wrote S/X; I like them best when they're light-hearted and witty, and it's all her fault.
The Most Accessible Story in the Fandom: At a Glance, by Dira Sudis, dsudis. Spike/Xander. All you need to know to enjoy this one is that Spike's a vampire and Xander's not. Oh, and you should probably understand that becoming a vampire is hard on a human, what with the whole soul-loss thing and all, so if you love a human you probably don't want him to become a vampire. But this is just a really nice, touching long-term love story, and that's understandable no matter what the canon is.
Grim and Grimmer: Modus Vivendi and the alternate ending Ars Moriendi, by Wiseacress. Spike/Xander (look, is it my fault every author I read in the early days was into Spike and Xander?). This was my first real look at what BtVS does so well: sharp-edged, well-written stories that are dark and grim and compelling. And it's still one of the best long stories I've read in the fandom, not to mention an excellent introduction to Xander Harris. Don't go into "Ars Moriendi" thinking it will make things all better, either. It makes things much, much worse.
At Last, a Story That Doesn't Involve Xander: Company in Hell, by wolfling and mpoetess (no link for her, sorry). Spike/Giles. This one is set during one of Buffy's periods of canon death (she comes back; death doesn’t stop you in this universe). And Giles is feeling, well, rather down as a result - this is the darker side of Giles, right here. But I suspect this is how Giles would have to be feeling to have sex with a vampire. Which Spike is. In case you'd forgotten.
And a Story That Doesn't Involve Spike: Full of Grace, by wax_jism. Xander/Oz, which makes an odd sort of sense – they're both more or less human, and they're both actual teen-aged high school students. Works better in my mind than this fandom's usual teenager/ancient vampire mix. And I like the portrayal of Oz, here, who knows what to do even when he has no idea what he's doing, so to speak. This is fairly close to Oz how I see him, though I didn't know that back when I read this; I read this before I met the canon version of Oz.