Monday, July 10, 2006

How the Soaps Helped My Writing, Part 2

A while back, Carla wrote about how watching General Hospital helped her writing. Her post largely focused on character development, especially in her heroes. I'm going to revisit the subject of the soaps today, but my focus is on romantic relationship development.

If any of you were fans of the soap DAYS OF OUR LIVES back in the late 1980s, you remember the twisty, angst-ridden, sweeping romance and marriage of Steve "Patch" Johnson, the tortured bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Kayla Brady, the pretty, sweet daughter of a fishmonger who ran a low income emergency clinic on the riverfront. It was a bad boy/good girl romance that transcended the archetype, and Steve's tragic death not long after the birth of their daughter was one of the most heartbreaking moments I've ever watched on a soap.

Of course, when his casket was switched at the funeral, Steve and Kayla fans realized he wasn't really dead. We waited sixteen years to get the payoff. Now, Steve's back on the show, with no memory of his former life. Reunited with his wife, who never got over losing him, and their grown daughter, he's about to embark on a journey to find out who ripped their lives away from them and whether or not they can find their way back to the love they shared all those years ago. I am, of course, sucked back into the soap after all these years, because I can't imagine missing one second of seeing these characters back together again.

As coincidence would have it, I'm writing a bad boy/good girl WIP at the moment. I had actually fashioned my bad boy after a more current character, Sawyer on Lost, but as I've been rewatching old video clips from the original Steve and Kayla days, I realized that my hero has a whole lot of Steve Johnson in him, too. So it's the perfect time to analyze what it was about the Steve and Kayla story that kept me riveted two decades ago and now has me riveted again.

Here's what I've discovered:

1) Great romance starts with conflict.

There is nothing more bland than a couple of pretty people with good attitudes and lots in common falling in love. Yeah, it happens in real life a lot, and those people probably have great, happy lives. But it's not compelling to watch. Humans crave drama. And drama comes from conflict.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a successful fictional romance develop from a more unlikely pairing. Steve was rough, bitter and sarcastic. He was basically a hired thug—and Kayla was one of his paid projects. First he was hired to scare her away from a doctor she was working for, which he did by trashing her apartment while she was out, making threatening phone calls. In fact, the first time he ever saw her, he was hiding in her closet, watching her undress. Later he took a job following her and spying on her for a bad guy who wanted information about Kayla's brother.

At first, Kayla came across as a sweet, optimistic goody-two-shoes. A crusading nurse willing to put herself on the line to help other people, she wasn't particularly warm to Steve's rough talk and sexually aggressive posturing. With a cop for a brother, she was in a position to make a lot of trouble for Steve, and she didn't mind reminding him of that.

Not exactly an auspicious beginning for a relationship.

2) Great romance works through conflict a step at a time.

Steve and Kayla didn't go from stalker/victim to husband/wife in a couple of months. Every step along the way played out in a logical and interesting manner. Internalization gave us glimpses of the shame that Steve felt for what he was doing to Kayla, and the curiosity and attraction Kayla felt for the glimpses of the good man inside the thug who was driving her crazy.

We slowly saw different facets to both of their characters: Steve's compassion for a couple of abandoned kids living on the streets and Kayla's strength and determination in the face of dangerous circumstances began connecting them, shattering preconceived notions about each other and building a new understanding between them. Slowly they began sharing truths about themselves with each other.

3) Great romance is built on character growth.

Every character in every book starts with a worldview. For Steve, it was that there were two worlds. One where normal people lived, where the justice system worked and everything was happy and rosy, and one where people like him lived, people who couldn't trust the system to find justice for them. It was the jungle for people like him, survival of the fittest, every man for himself. People in his world stayed far, far away from people in that shiny happy world where normal people lived. Kayla, on the other hand, believed that if you trusted the system to work, it would. You just had to tell the truth, be good, let justice take its course and everything would work out.

Neither of them managed to hold onto those worldviews after they came into contact with each other. Kayla saw how the system let people like Steve and the young street kids he helped fall through the cracks. And Steve saw that the system could work if there were compassionate and decent people—like Kayla and eventually her family—who cared enough to patch up the holes so that people didn't get lost in the shuffle. Each of them learned something from the other, incorporated those lessons into their lives, and became better and fuller people because of it.

I've simplified a very complex romantic story to cull out three important points, but I think these are points that all of us need to pay special attention to when we're developing romances for our own characters.


MaryF said...

I'm so glad to see all that Days clip watching is paying off, Paula! ;)

Carla Swafford said...

I see I was preaching to the choir. LOL! Soaps are such great sources for learning our craft.

The bad boy/good girl is one of my favorites. The last few years, I've seen the bad girl/good boy being done better. Before, authors would have the bad girl more as a misunderstood good girl, than a truly done-the-bad-thang bad girl and it was so frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Hmm that was a good resource. Watching soaps i mean. Cattt.