I write fiction. I loved General Hospital in the 80′s — I only started watching around the late 80′s maybe, but read about it (and every other soap — ok, I was and still am a bit of an obsessive freak sometimes) regularly in Soap Opera Digest. (Yeah, I had a subscription — it was kind of like a serialized novel where your imagination got to fill in the details.) I love strong-though-sometimes-vulnerable characters, male and female, who’ve done something pretty horrible in their past and seeking redemption while continuing to live with the consequences of their actions — some examples would be Xena (Lucy Lawless) from Xena: Warrior Princess and Angel (David Boreanaz) from Buffy. There are others, but those are the first that come to mind.
I say all this to set the stage, because for the past three days (Saturday to Monday) I have been absolutely consumed with another such character — Anna Devane (Finola Hughes) from General Hospital. If you don’t write, I’m not sure I could explain this to you. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any mini-character/writing obsession quite this strongly. It’s like electricity wanting desperately to escape from your body (and preferably into a keyboard). It’s insatiable obsession that makes you unable to go to bed (I was up all night Saturday and until after 4 Sunday, catching some late morning/early afternoon zz’s Sunday) or stop to eat or basically do anything but immerse yourself in the character, the storyline, the missing pieces, the analytical process of examining exactly what it is about the character that appeals to you so much — the aspects of the character & types of events that drew out or formed those aspects, not really the literal things that “happened” to that specific character. And then come the alternate versions you could write, and the parallel situations, and the transformation of one set of events into a different set that produce basically the same effect, the ways you would want to adapt your story to tell it the way you’d want to, and so forth.
You really can’t take too seriously the actual events going on in these stories, at least not in the examples I gave above. Xena lived in ancient Greece (ancient to be defined in verrrrry loose terms as the writers pretty much ignored distinctions in pulling things from a few thousand years of history) and was some kind of sword-fighting warrior who just might be half-god (Ares was possibly her father). Angel was from like 18th century Ireland or something, got turned into a vampire, then had a curse put on him after killing a young Gypsy girl that restored his soul so they he had a conscience again and felt the guilt of all the happy-go-lucky torture and killing he’d done for a hundred years or so [darn, quite a weight to carry around with you!]. And Anna was a “super-spy” for the WSB (World Security Bureau I think…) agency who fell in love with and quickly married her new partner Robert, also with the WSB and full of honor and integrity, and just a few weeks later when they’re on a mission Robert discovers she’s actually a double agent for the DVX (I don’t think they ever spelled that one out, it just sounds like “devious,” you know, the bad guys — besides, for Pete’s sake, what could “X” stand for — x-ray?). It was to be her last mission because Robert had changed her — she’d sought action, adventure, the thrill of danger, but she wanted to leave the DVX. Robert was disgusted, disappointed, etc., but didn’t turn her in, and she was devastated. (You can watch most of that scene here, originally created as a flashback on GH.)
Anna arrived in Port Charles in 1985. I wonder what the writers originally had in mind, because she initially came off a bit malevolent. Robert was married to Holly, and Anna insinuated herself in their lives, looking kind of like the typical soap fly-in-the-ointment bad girl for the otherwise happy lead couple. But Finola Hughes is (in my opinion) a phenomenal actress, and I wonder if that’s what changed the writer’s minds, because before long she is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light, and I think it’s perhaps 1986 when we find out she was pregnant when she and Robert divorced, and they have a daughter aged about 7 that Robert doesn’t know about. Anna’s love for her daughter was fierce, and it’s definitely one of the things that softened her character. Additionally, not far into her time in Port Charles, we see vulnerability in her despite her bravado and projection of total confidence, we see the guilt and shame she still feels over her past as a traitor to her country (errr, what country would that be? looking back, seems this was never explained — there are references to Canada and the US, and Anna’s a Brit and Robert’s an Aussie…so who knows, point is she was playing ball with the bad guys and at least one person lost his life because of it). Some of her shame is expressed by a fake scar she wears on her face where she was injured in an explosion on her last mission — initially this is written as more of a ploy to make some kind of point (garner sympathy, remind others of her suffering, who knows), but seems like it quite quickly changed to be written as a genuine expression of remorse, her self-imposed “scarlet letter” as she refers to it. (You can see the scar for the first time here — she wore her hair covering that half of her face [why wear a fake scar that no one can actually see...?], and then Holly’s discovery that it’s fake here. You can read the scene where she confesses it’s fake to Robert here.)
I have to say a word on Finola Hughes’s acting style, which stood out to me even in the early 90′s when I wasn’t paying much attention to such things (not that I pay that much attention now). Finola makes her characters feel real. She does things in scene I’ve never noticed other actors do. She licks her lips, scratches her nose, rubs her cheek, makes faces — not over-the-top stuff, but the normal stuff we all do that, ahem, doesn’t normally look so pretty on camera. She does it anyway, and I think it’s great. You don’t see too much of that here in the very early Anna days — though in one of the scenes above watch for her sticking her tongue waaaay out to touch her upper lip, and later pulling at her lip.
She makes Anna real despite a lot of ridiculously improbable typical soap storyline stuff. In ’85 Anna is a jewelry fence (and former double agent/traitor to her country). I think it’s in ’86 she become Port Charles police chief. Say whaaaaaaat? Yes, well, soap characters have to stay interesting, so there are no school teachers or gardeners or mailmen or office supply workers — there are nurses and brain surgeons and night club owners and mobsters and detectives. So, Anna the traitorous jewelry fence becomes police chief, hey, why not? The spy stuff and the later WSB/DVX etc. stories are pretty unrealistic of course, but darn were they fun! GH in the 80′s was nothing if not fun. (These days it should be called General Mob Wars or something, it’s apparently all about the mob and the mobsters are the good guys while the police are the stick-in-the-mud bad guys. Don’t get me started.) In the 80′s the good guys were the cops and good-guy spies, the bad guys were big-time crooks and bad-guy spies trying to do things like freeze the entire planet, and there were explosions and shoot-outs and location shots and fights on cable cars and bombs on trains — excitement, romance, and rip-roaring good fun.
It was so interesting to watch the really early Anna stuff (’85), or really any early stuff of characters/actors who stick around for a long time. You can tell they don’t know the character like they do later (either the actor or the writers — geez louise, check out the pilot episode of Stargate SG-1, or of Star Trek: The Next Generation, two long-running shows), and watching these with Anna I feel pretty confident saying that if Finola and the writers could go back and redo these scenes, they’d be done a bit different. The scene with Holly about the scar especially, that just doesn’t seem like Anna to me.
And, despite the occasional “romantic tension” between Robert and Anna (recall that they didn’t divorce over “regular” betrayal, not a betrayal of her wedding vows, but of his trust in who she was and who she served), I really liked the fact that they didn’t actually get together again until the early 90′s, when they began to see each other in a new light, and eventually re-married. And it really wasn’t played as though they would be getting together. Robert still loved Holly (she was presumed dead or something, you know, the actress wanted to leave), and I guess was later involved with some other women, and Anna met Duke (who was dead — or so Anna thought, yes, it’s a soap) by the time I started watching, but she really loved him and I don’t think really loved anyone else until she and Robert finally reunited. They were true friends, with some incredibly well-played comedic banter (some interviews I read said that the set in those days was “famous” for its improvisation with scripts) — see an excellent example here (the guy Anna’s daydreaming about and who’s on the phone later is Duke — I think they were separated at the time or something. Their fights were spectacular fun to watch, too, because they both had so much dirt to pull up on each other (hard to beat dragging the ol’ “yeah well you were a traitor” accusation) — see a particularly harsh example here, shortly before they got back together.
So, anyway, I discovered that a lot of these old clips were on YouTube, what a discovery! I watched hours and hours of YouTube clips. I found a site with fan fiction, including one particularly good, well-developed story that kept me up all night Saturday. I found a site I linked to above with transcripts of some of Anna’s earliest scenes, which was great because not all of those were available on YouTube. How I long for the day — which I’m sure will come — when I can purchase all that early stuff.
What will I do with all this? Well, I’m thinking I’d like to start with some fan fiction, just to explore the character, the voice. But fan fiction (my own and other people’s, with the exception of the one noted above) just make me giggle because it seems kind of silly. It can be confining, too. Fan fiction that changes “facts” about a character’s life, motivations, etc. is pointless, in my opinion. I think it will be a fun exercise though, and will help me really pin down those things about the character that so draw me to her. And then — and I’ve already been mentally meandering down this path — I will spend some time exploring how I can import those essential traits, the “spirit” of the character and the essence of the events that shaped her, into a completely different story (without explosions and double agents and WSBs and DVXs). Fun times!
10 Responses »