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.