Thursday, June 25, 2009

What a Character

Years ago, I was a soap opera addict.

Well, let's make that... today I'm addicted to one soap opera. And maybe not really addicted. I mean, I don't tape it or Tivo it or anything. I just watch if I happen to be home at that time.

This particular soap has had some fantastic plots over the years along with the usual fare for daytime serials. In addition to the switched-at-birth, kidnappings, amnesia, coma, now-he's-dead-now-he's not stories, this show has also featured possession by the devil and visions and other crazy things beyond the usual crazy things.

How can these unbelievable stories keep viewers? Daytime television, after all, is not jam-packed with special effects that can transport the viewer into a new world. To bring viewers into these wild plots, the acting has to be serviceable, but the characterizations have to be spot on.

The characterizations--the building of characters--is the work of the writer.

Yesterday, Beth talked about writing great secondary characters. I couldn't agree more with her viewpoint about these important supporting roles. They do need to have "depth, interest, and unique traits," as she put it. And they have to perform a function in the plot or they just become tiresome distractions.

When an author draws characters, secondary or otherwise, who come alive, the writer can do almost anything with them as long as she stays true to the portrait she's put together. So if she's constructed a hero who is cautious and intellectual, having him suddenly drop his career as a renowned physicist to become a sky-diving instructor (because she needs a sky-diving instructor to advance the plot) will lose readers fast--unless the author has set up the shift appropriately.

The author could have that meditative hero join a group of sky-diving risk-takers, for example, if they also happen to be rocket scientists who hold the key to an equation he's struggled with all his life. The author could do all sorts of wild things with that risk-averse character, as long as his actions grew organically from how he views the world. And that point of view is set up by....the author.

I have great admiration for writers who take readers on a fantastic journey, so that by the end of the book or show you're thinking: "that's completely unrealistic....but I believed every moment of it!"

In a recent blog interview, I was asked how I come up with book ideas. I said I usually start with a "what if" premise -- what if someone tries to get fired (as in Fire Me)? What sorts of things would this person do? What would that day be like?

But once I have a premise rolling around in my head, it's the characters who ultimately drive the plot. When I don't listen to the characters, and I try to make them do things they wouldn't really do, I stall as a writer. Only when I listen to what they want to say or do is creativity unleashed again.

When I was watching the soap I mentioned earlier as it featured a tale of exorcism, my kids, off during the summer, howled at the shenanigans on the screen. But I was rapt--not just because I wanted to know what would happen next, but because I was in awe of the writer for taking me to this completely unrealistic place...and yet I believed.

Memorable characters, memorable soap operas....I'd love to hear your favorites.


  1. Dark Shadows was the only soap I was ever hooked on, and that was mainly because of Barnabas and Quentin. I watched it every day after school and then called my best friend to discuss it. You'd think watching such stuff would have made me write the vampire/werewolf type of paranormal, but I guess I liked Star Trek better. We find inspiration in all sorts of places, don't we?

  2. I've never been a fan of daytime soaps. They make me feel like I'm trying to watch a play through an opening the size of a buttonhole. The play might be wonderful, but I can't see enough of it at one time to sustain my interest.
    That said, ER used a soap structure and it kept my loyal for many years. A large part of ER's appeal was that every major character had a complete backstory. It gave every interaction context and made it personal--which I think is the fundamental appeal of soaps.

  3. Cheryl, my friends and I used to exchange Star Trek stories in high school creative writing class!

    Mary Margret, I was a devoted ER fan for many years, too, but then started losing interest when I couldn't keep up with the new characters.

  4. I was of the college generation that was totally hooked on the romance of Luke and Laura on General Hospital. We literally scheduled our classes so that we could all gather in the dorm parlor to watch it! Fun times. Haven't watched Soaps in ages, but I know what you mean about getting caught up into the drama of it all. Most of the TV shows I now can't live without are due to the characters far more than the plot. Take The Mentalist - that show is OK, but it is Simon Baker with his adorable smirk and gorgeous blue eyes that sells it for me! *sigh* Wouldn't miss it for the world!

  5. I think when I was about 13 or 14, I spent an entire summer addicted to Passions--which was God Awful, but I had a friend who was hooked, and we'd talk on the phone during the episodes...

    I was a BIG fan of Grey's Anatomy when it first started (seasons 1 and 2 are still my favorites), but now, not so much. I'll admit I'm strangely addicted to Gossip Girl as well. I think these are those primetime shows that follow the Soap Opera Structure. If it works--why deny it? :)

    Great post, Libby--I know this is gearing us up for your book in Spring 2010!!!!

  6. I never followed Passions, but did catch a glimpse now and then as I clicked through the dial. That show was....kuh-razy! LOL!

  7. Star Trek. Absolutely. And ER early on. But I never saw Dark Shadows (wasn't on in England) and I felt deprived because I found the books cheap at Woolworths and used to buy them and hide them under my bed.

  8. Fun post, Libby!

    I was never much of a soap opera fan (I did watch Dark Shadows one summer!) but my grandmother was a fanatic for her 'stories' as she called them. She watched General Hospital, All My Children, and One Life to Live. I remember catching a couple of episodes of One Life to Live and there was a guy on there playing a young doctor named Mark. When the credits rolled, I told my grandmother, "That guy better change his name if he wants to make it in Hollywood!"

    His name was Tommy Lee Jones, shows how much I know!


  9. I was a Guiding Light ADDICT for YEARS. Haven't watched it in a decade, but I was still sad to hear it had been cancelled.

    I was an avid ER fan from beginning to end. Loved that show.

  10. That's hysterical about Tommy Lee Jones. A bunch of famous actors got their start in soaps.

    My (now deceased and much loved) grandmother watched soaps and sometimes would start talking about characters like they were real. You'd do a mental doubletake as you figured out oh, Nanny's talking about her soap now, not gossiping about town goings-on.

    I remember she used to watch Another World and there was a character on it up to no good named Sven. Nanny had a pleasant German accent and would refer to him as Schneaky Schven.

  11. You ladies are the best at bringing back old memories for me. What fun! When I was a little girl my mother and grandmother watched As The World Turns and of course I did too! I have no idea if it still comes on, but I loved it that a lady named Ellen called her grandfather "Grandfather" The name for mine was Grandy. But I started calling him Grandfather because I wanted to be just like that beautiful lady on tv. He's been gone a few years now, but he's still Grandfather to me.

  12. My favorites are Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place (the originals)

  13. I never saw soaps...but I'm with Sheila and Cheryl on Star Trek! :) I was addicted to them. I got hooked on Survivor also for a couple of seasons, but then it got to be the same old thing.