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How The Vampire Diaries Will Be Stronger Than Ever in a Post-Elena World

"It's the greatest challenge of all, but it rejuvenates your creative spirit," Julie Plec says

Robyn Ross

Losing your main character after six strong seasons might normally be the downfall of a series, but The Vampire Diaries executive producer Julie Plec sees it as both an obstacle and a gift.

"We have a show lacking Elena Gilbert, and it's the greatest challenge of all, but it rejuvenates your creative spirit," Plec says. "Instead of being like, 'We're screwed,' ... we think, 'How can we make something great out of this?' The singular positive of her being out of the picture is that we've had this massive ensemble of people over the years, and if the story wasn't revolving around Stefan, Damon and Elena at its core, and they weren't part of that story, then they got marginalized. So this just opens up [everything] because... everyone can have their own point of view and get their story lines, and the world fleshes itself really nicely out as a result."

Exclusive Vampire Diaries First Look: Damon drinks solo while the heretics wreak havoc

Although we saw a very dark and destroyed Mystic Falls at the end of last season in a post-apocalyptic-looking scene, when the show returns all the characters are doing their best -- well some more than others -- to pick up the pieces. "We knew Elena was leaving, so we wanted to have her departure empower the rest of the characters around her," executive producer Caroline Dries tells TVGuide.com. "So that's why she went to [everyone] to say, 'I know I'm going away, but don't spend the next season grieving me!' because that would be boring for the audience. So she gave them a kiss goodbye and said, 'Move on with your life.'"

Read on to see how each character will recover -- for some it's with booze, for others it's with romance --and to find out what to expect from the gang and the show's newest villains in Season 7.

That dark and sexy Damon that Ian Somerhalder was hoping for? He's nowhere to be seen just yet. "What you saw in the last shot of Season 6 you don't necessarily get for awhile," he tells us. "We're [filming] episode 5 already and the dark, sexy Damon, to be honest, isn't quite here." While Dries tells us that "Damon is mopey and that [he and Alaric] are sad and grieving together," Somerhalder adds that "It's a lot more about understanding the component of moving on rather than depression. Or holding on rather than depression." As for whether or not he'll hook up to pass the time, watch Somerhalder talk about that here.

Stefan (Paul Wesley) finally gets the girl! But before that, he and Damon will be feuding thanks to their manipulating mama. "[Damon] is exceptionally angry with Stefan because he doesn't see the benefit of a deal he makes with Lily," Somerhalder says. Adds Dries, "This season is more about defining them as brothers and less about their love of the main character. To see them have their own 'love story' is fun to write because Damon is such a good villain and Stefan is such a good hero and they're both so flawed."

Vampire Diaries Video: Ian Somerhalder has some requirements for Damon's future love interest

It's been a rough year for Caroline who lost her mom and then her best friend, but Candice King says it's time for Caroline to focus on herself. "I love that at the end of last season she said, 'No, I'm going take this time for me,' and she continues to do that. She's finding it a little bit difficult because she still has feelings for Stefan so we're going to see how that plays into their 'friendship.'" Of course, we know that they'll turn from friends to lovers, but King warns, "Fans shouldn't expect this perfect romance. But what the characters feel for each other is very perfect. So the situations aren't perfect, but the intentions are still really good so that's what they're fighting for through the chaos and the demise of Mystic Falls."

As Bonnie (Kat Graham) becomes stronger than ever, she's finally getting some love in her life! "Bonnie has been so empowered by Elena, so her first task as Elena's friend is to make sure Damon doesn't go off the rails," Dries says. "If you hang around Damon Salvatore too long he's bound to rub off on you, but between her friendship with Damon and growing into this powerful woman, she'll become Bonnie 2.0. Then, gradually, we introduce her with another character and they have sparks. They're hate sparks, but it's the beginning of a love story." Guesses anyone? (Hint: Read about the heretics.)

Vampire Diaries' Paul Wesley: Stefan finally has a girl who's all in

He's wearing his police deputy uniform well, that's for sure! "When we left him last season he [told] Elena, 'I can't hate vampires and still [work with them] either.' So this season you see a resolute line there," Zach Roerig tells us. "He's still working with the vampires because he needs that to keep order in Mystic Falls, but we'll see him really take charge. I feel Matt has a purpose in that gang now and he's helping Caroline and Damon, well he's sort of helping Damon, kick some butt against these heretics." Oh and don't bet on love any time soon.

It's got to be only up from here for Alaric (Matt Davis), right? Eventually. "We pick up with Alaric grieving the death of Jo," Dries says. "Damon is mopey, of course, so even though they're sad and grieving together that will add a bit of levity to the show." Adds Plec, "This is not an easy transition for him; he's already been so much, and it's about as despicable and horrible a thing that could've happened. So he's not going to recover easily and he'll explore his grief in some very unconventional ways involving a lot of booze and some secret desires that involve psychics and witches and trying to contact the dead. But we'll be rooting for him to come out the other side OK."

With the woman who turned Enzo (Michael Malarkey) officially in town, he'll have a big decision to make. "At the top of the season he's being forced to choose [between Lily and Damon] and there will be fallout for either one he chooses," Malarkey says. "That's going to be the crux of his dilemma. Adds Roerig, "You'll see Matt and Enzo [in scenes]. I'm not sure if they're working together, but Enzo is definitely using Matt to his advantage."

Lily and the heretics
Mama Salvatore (Annie Wersching) is wasting no time before kicking her sons out of the Salvatore house and settling in. But while she's the puppet master from afar, the heretics will "out-Mean Girl" Caroline. "It brings out this inner cattiness we haven't seen in Caroline for a while, ever since maybe Rebekah was on the show," King says. As for romantic interests, while two of them, Nora and Mary Louise, are a couple, Dries says, "We're bringing in six new people so if they don't have romantic interests that would be pretty boring. One might have a wandering eye; you never know! But we will see romance, and it could involve one of our main characters, but they will definitely intersect with existing romances on our show."

The Vampire Diaries premieres on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 8/7c on The CW.

(Full Disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)