Monday, October 22, 2012

Heather Webber: Why Crazy is no Subtitute for Character Motivation

Once again, General Hospital fans are saying goodbye to Heather Webber. But it’s not her swan dive off the roof of General Hospital that’s felled Heather, or even her mental illness. Like many characters before her, Heather is the victim of that bane of storytellers everywhere – lazy writing. In her case – and in many others who’ve had “crazy” substituted for “character motivation” – it’s easier to make a character “nuts” than flesh out a three-dimensional villain. And this shortcut shortchanges both story and viewers.

Let’s back up to 1977, when the Heather character was first introduced. Heather Grant came onboard as a babysitter for Peter and Diana Taylor. She was from an underprivileged background, and wanted nothing more than a rich husband to take care of her. She set her sights on Dr. Jeff Webber. Although he was only an intern, Heather recognized his potential and his shaky marriage to Monica. Offering a shoulder, she got much more in return. Deliberately becoming pregnant, Heather was furious when Jeff refused to divorce Monica to marry her. After many twists and turns (Monica, at the time, was about as devious as Heather, and from a similar background), Heather finally took baby Stephen Lars to New York City in pursuit of her dreams of fame and fortune.

Heather was unfortunate enough to fall into the clutches of shady Mrs. Hadley, who promised her all the money she’d need to move to California if only Heather would give her the baby to sell. Heather agreed, even offering up Diana Taylor as particularly needy and desperate enough to buy a baby. After the sale, though, Heather was left with only $200 – not enough to move to LA. As luck would have it, Jeff Webber tracked her down, professing his love. But Heather knew she couldn’t tell him the truth about the baby, and backed up Mrs. Hadley when she claimed the child had died when Heather had been hospitalized with pneumonia. Jeff, grieving, took Heather back to Port Charles with him and married her.

Heather resumed her job as Peter and Diana’s babysitter, looking after the baby they renamed Peter, Jr. (PJ). This closeness to her child reminded Heather of what she had lost, and she began to think of a plan to get him back, all the while trying to give Jeff a replacement child. Her machinations seemed to work – Heather became pregnant, and, due to the couples’ closeness, Peter and Diana named Jeff and Heather PJ’s guardians.

When Heather lost the pregnancy and was subsequently unable to have another child, she shifted her plan to get PJ into high gear. Deciding that Peter would never be able to raise a child on his own, and knowing that Diana had already had one nervous breakdown, Heather decided to push her into another one. She stalked Diana and pretended that a mysterious man was following her and PJ. Heather feared kidnapping. Diana was honestly at the end of her rope, and Heather planned an awful climax – she would slip Diana LSD to bring about the full symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, Heather herself ended up drinking it, and the breakdown she had pushed her into a mental institution for two years.

Jeff didn’t learn the truth about his son for nearly two more years, after Peter and Diana had both separately died. He took the boy to Arizona to avoid being around Heather, who’d been released from the mental institution and cleared from involvement in Diana’s murder.

Heather spent the next few years stirring up trouble in Port Charles. She was involved with P.I. Joe Kelly, until he discovered her cheating on him with Scotty Baldwin. Her relationship with Scotty was on-and-off, as Scotty was also wooing her cousin Susan, on account of Susan’s big financial settlement she earned from having Alan Quartermaine’s son, Jason. Heather and Scotty were two scheming peas in a pod, but that didn’t stop Alan from appointing Heather Jason’s guardian when Susan was murdered. Heather left town abruptly in 1984 after a call from Jeff saying that Stephen Lars was sick, he was busy with his new kids, and he needed her help. When the character left town, she was definitely not crazy.

Unfortunately, when Heather returned this year and previously in 2007, the writers decided she was completely mad in order for her to do crazy things like plot to kill Edward, kidnap Laura, and the current storyline with Sam and Jason’s baby. Crazy might be a convenient way to have a character behave in convoluted ways in order to produce certain plot points, but it’s not emotionally satisfying.

The Heather Webber from the 1970s and 80s was a fully realized character. She had a back story and motivation that prompted her every action. Even though her actions were destructive, her motivation was not. She wanted her son back, without her husband finding out what she had done. She loved her son and her husband. Who couldn’t understand that?

Watching Heather gaslight Diana and try to get away with it, while Joe and Anne were hot on her trail, gave viewers a strange discombobulating feeling. Because Heather’s point of view had been so well-established, you couldn’t help but want her to get away with it. Even though what she was doing was so, so wrong.

Was Heather crazy back then? Yes, she was probably a sociopath. But a fully formed, well-drawn one who did have rooting value. The depth of her character made her actions understandable. True, you couldn’t plug her into any plot hole; she didn’t kidnap Jeff and keep him tied up in a shack to make him love her. But that incarnation was much more satisfying. She was a villain whose actions the viewers could understand.

Today’s writers find it easier to have a villain be “crazy” like Heather or completely unrealistic, like Helena. This may result in faster storytelling, but without characters that viewers can understand, it’s also fodder for the fast-forward button.

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