If you’re just joining us, welcome to Marland Mondays! This summer I am paying tribute to Douglas Marland, one of my favorite writers. You can read the first part of this series here and the second part here. I’m going over his rules on how not to ruin a soap opera but seeing how it can also be used in other forms of writing. The second rule is…
Learn the history of the show. You would be surprised at the ideas that you can get from the back story of your characters.
When people think of soaps, you think of this clip from MST3k:
Let’s face it, Joel and the bots speak the truth. There were always jealous nurses, Chad Feelgoods, and bad organ music. But there were characters that had backstories. Let’s meet one of Marland’s first characters for Guiding Light, Nola Reardon.
Nola (played by the lovely Lisa Brown) lived on Seventh Street in Springfield. The second youngest of a big Irish family, she had to help her mother run a boarding house. Nola wanted to be sophicated. When we first get to know her, she insists on candlelight at dinner. She would wear a flower in her hair. When she met Kelly Nelson (John Wesley Shipp) that did it. This was the man for her. She was going to get this man to love her no matter what. Even if she had to hurt other people to do it (Kelly’s love interest Morgan) it would be worth it to be Mrs. Kelly Nelson.
But why? What drove her to do this? Because she hated her life. Often she spoke of how she hated the fact her mother Bea made her family home a boarding house (Nola’s father went MIA on the family years before) how she hated feeling like a servant in her own home. The only respite she had was watching old movies when everyone was asleep in the living room. Even with the boarding house money, Bea couldn’t afford to go to the latest movies. So Nola loved classic films and acted out her favorite scenes for Kelly.
Now you might be thinking wow Jennifer, thank you for telling me all this about this character. What does this have to do with backstory and learning history?
When Nola found herself at a crossroads and the whole town hated her (more on this in a couple of weeks) Marland knew he had to have Nola grow up. It would’ve been too easy to have her stay a bitch. Lisa Brown was getting so much hate mail it was overwhelming. But can you redeem her? How can you redeem her? Backstory.
Nola loved old movies.She daydreamed about being the star. With shades of Walter Mitty, Nola fantazied being in her favorites. She was Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, or Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby. When she started working for a mysterious man named Quentin McCord (Michael Tylo), she daydreamed she was Jane Eyre and he was Mr. Rochester. Or she was Elsa in Casablanca with Quentin as Rick and Kelly as Victor Laszlo. “All the fantasies come out of situations that are happening to Nola, that are sparked by her,” Marland told Daytime TV in 1982. Who hasn’t fantasized about being the star in a movie? The fantasies made Nola more human, funny. She wasn’t a bad girl. She was in the words of Journey: “Just a small town girl/Livin’ in a lonely world…” She wanted more out of life. Who couldn’t relate to that?
Years ago one of my mentors told me with a novel I was working on to “Make a list of all your characters. Put down their backstory. You might not put it in the manuscript, but it will give your characters more well rounded. As Patrick Mulcahy, an Emmy winning writer (and mentee of Marland’s) tweeted the other day to another writer: “Don’t give the reader backstory until they absolutely need it, so that backstory feels like forward story.” Marland knew Nola couldn’t go back to what she was. She had to go forward. The movie fantasies then became the forward story.
One has to be careful with backstory; you don’t want the reader to get lost and stop reading. But done right, you can root for a character you thought you hated, and the girl you loved to hate suddenly becomes the girl you want to root for, the girl you want to kiss the hero, the music swells, fade out to the credits. Or in this case, the reader reaches the end of the book, sighing at the wonderful read.
Tune in next week, darling readers…