When Deb asked for writers to talk about what they learned about writing from watching soap operas, I was thrilled to participate. And then frankly I was a little surprised at how many of my fellow “chick lit” writers also raised their hands to help. I’d heard that there was little overlap between romance readers and soap opera watchers (which is worth pointing out only because it’s so unexpected), so I’d thought the same must be true for chick lit. I’m very happy to be wrong!
I fell in love with General Hospital when I was about 11 years old, in 1978. At the time, although I was also a voracious reader, I knew nothing about character development or cliff hangers or pacing. I just knew that I really, really wanted Laura Webber to be with Scotty Baldwin, for Bobbie Spencer to fall off a cliff, and for Rick Webber and Monica Quartermaine to kiss or something.
Anyone who’s followed that show for awhile knows I didn’t get what I wanted. But I remained hooked anyway, for over 20 years, until General Hospital became more about murderous mobsters than doctors in love.
During the height of my addiction, like many fans, I would write “fan fiction.” As I got older and my own writing became more important (like many teenage soap fans, I wrote my own soap opera), I began to think about what exactly it was about these characters that had me so hooked. The name that kept popping up wasn’t “Lesley” or “Jeff” or even “Luke” – it was “Doug Marland.”
Doug Marland was a soap opera legend who died way too young in 1993 due to surgical complications. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that loss started the soap opera industry down its long road downhill.
In the 1970s, he teamed up with Gloria Monty to take ratings-basement General Hospital to the number one slot in less than two years. After leaving that show (rumor is he disagreed with Monty’s decision to have Laura fall in love with her rapist, Luke… a decision that certainly changed General Hospital’s history by turning it into a phenomenon, but also opened the door for “heroes” like Sonny Corinthos and Jason Morgan), he was hired to write Guiding Light and took that series to number two. His famous Morgan/Kelly/Nola triangle was oft compared to his Laura/Scotty/Bobbie story. (I was personally more intrigued with the “Jennifer Richards is really Jane Marie Stafford” storyline, and can someone tell me why TPTB at Guiding Light found it necessary to make Alan’s father the one who really impregnated Jane Marie/Jennifer at the age of 17? Gross.) Later, he won awards for writing for As the World Turns, and with fellow soap legend Agnes Nixon created Loving.
I don’t know enough about those other shows to postulate about how Marland influenced and created characters on them (other than to note the similarities between GH’s Bobbie and GL’s Nola, both Marland creations). But as far as General Hospital was concerned, Marland was a genius at creating a very specific type – the gritty, scrappy, “born on the wrong side of the tracks” underdog who’d do just about anything for love, money, or both. Think about the characters who inhabited Port Charles in the late 1970s. Bobbie Spencer, who grew up on Elm Street with an alcoholic father who walked out the day her mother died of a burst appendix. She became a hooker to get by, and later a nurse. She dug her claws into Scotty because she was convinced that marriage to a lawyer would finally get the dirt of Elm Street off her back. Then there was her brother Luke, a low-life disco manager working for the mob, whose obsession with the troubled, upper middle-class Laura first led him to rape and then to bring down the mob in order to be, in his mind, someone worthy of her. There was Mitch Williams, son of a West Virginia coal miner, so eager to prove himself that he married a woman he didn’t love for her money and threw in with the mob he tried to bring down in order to further himself politically. And Mitch’s mistress Susan, working as a restaurant hostess and living in an SRO, who saw Mitch as her ticket to a better life. She was just as conniving as her cousin Heather, whose poor background drove her to entrap Dr. Jeff Webber into marriage via pregnancy, a marriage that disappointed her when she realized that residents work all the time and make very little money.
These characters may have been a little too similar to each other, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just fascinated. They were strivers. They were underdogs. Their actions drove story. They were characters you could understand, even if you didn’t like them.
Doug taught me the importance of character back story and motivation. Underdog characters drive plot and change story. And even minor characters – Susan Moore was never anything other than a supporting character in a B story – that have these rich back stories and strong motivations can elevate that subplot into something more than the sum of its parts. (OK, “Who Killed Susan Moore” was an A story but she was dead by that point, so it doesn’t count.)
Thank you, Doug. Not just for what you taught me as a writer, but also for the tingle of pleasure I still get when I think about how much General Hospital circa 1979 gave to me.