Credit: Bob Mahoney/The CW

For six seasons, The Vampire Diaries revolved around the love triangle between Elena Gilbert and the ridiculously handsome Salvatore brothers. But when star Nina Dobrev decided to move out of Mystic Falls, showrunner Julie Plec had to decide what the show would look like without its heroine (not to mention her many doppelgängers).

“I always look back at Game of Thrones,” Plec told EW. “At first I said well, ‘How could there be a show without Ned Stark?’ And then by season 2 I was like, ‘Ned who?’ And then after the Red Wedding I was like, ‘How could there be a show without the Starks?’ And then by season 4 I was just as invested in other characters, so there’s a way there that if you can tell good stories, people can survive the loss of their favorite. And we may come to learn that that’s not true for our show, we’ll see, but it feels good.”

And as sad as it was for Plec to watch Dobrev go, her absence does open the door for other characters to come into the forefront, not to mention that the show is able to reinvest in the Salvatore brothers’ relationship. “When you’re working with an ensemble of people that you really want to showcase, that’s really hard to do when your show is really operating around this triangle of characters,” Plec said. “I read all the time [fans] talking about characters that don’t get their day in the sun, well, maybe this is a chance for them to get [it]. Maybe not, maybe they’ll still be lingering on the sidelines as story dictates, but it’s fun to just write a show about brothers and about the other people in the show and not have to worry about what predicament you’re going to get your heroine into this week. And it’s not to diminish the power of the heroine at all; it’s just that that’s a formula that worked for us for a lot of years and as writers, it got a little tiring sometimes.”

Although the show is not looking to replace its heroine, Plec did admit that this change of format has “cleared the way a bit more for Caroline and Bonnie in small ways.”

“They were already heroes in their own right and very much definitive story providers,” Plec explained. “Caroline playing the bossy hero, and Bonnie’s always playing the rescuer. So their roles are allowed more room to breathe.”

But for those fans who are worried that Elena will be gone and forgotten, Plec promised that keeping Elena’s presence alive on the show “wasn’t even a debate” for the writers. “The loss of Elena is as profound and powerful to all these characters as any loved one they’ve lost in their life,” she said.

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“All of season 1 was driven by Damon’s desire to get Katherine back, and so the idea that Elena exists out there and one day they will see her again is very present in all of their lives and each of them are dealing with it in their own ways. So we do pay tribute to that and we do reference that. I think the debates we get into is how to not let that take over the narrative where you feel like all you’re doing is looking to the past or to the deep, deep, deep future and making sure that what’s happening in the present is still has a vitality to it.”

In fact, the biggest change for the show has less to do with what’s happened in the past and more to do with what’s happening in the future. “We are introducing a flashforward concept where there’s a mystery about what’s happening three years from now and this season will show us little nuggets of flashforwards that will lead us up to the solution to that mystery.”

More than anything, Plec feels that the best thing the show could do in the midst of such a big change is not to go “format bananas.”

“Don’t assume just because one person’s gone that the show needs to change along with it. See if the show can stay strong in spite of that,” Plec said, noting that season 7 feels “decidedly comfortable to her.”

“For me, it’s the show that I’ve loved for six years continuing to be the show that I’ve loved for six years.”

The Vampire Diaries returns Thursday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.

Want more? EW’s Fall TV Preview mega-issue has the scoop on 115 shows! Pick up your copy on newsstands now, or buy it here.

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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