Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Character Counts

How many times have you read a novel, forgotten the plot but remembered a great character? Maven Linda presented a program at our RWA meeting recently about characterization and she told us it's all about the characters and not about the plot. Create a hero and heroine the reader will fall in love with. Make the reader care about what happens to them. Once you've done that, the rest will fall into place.

Last Saturday was my birthday. Last Saturday also marked the passing of actress Dixie Carter. She created one of the most iconic Southern characters ever to appear on television, and I am sad to say good-bye to Julia Sugarbaker.

Designing Women aired from 1986 to 1993 and portrayed the lives of four women who co-owned an interior design firm in Atlanta. Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker were complete opposites. Julia, the older sister, was elegant, eloquent, intellectual and outspoken. Suzanne, the younger sister, was also outspoken, but usually only as it related to her self-centeredness. She was also a former Miss Georgia World and never let you forget it.

Julia and Suzanne were always at odds but had formed Sugarbaker Designs together. Julia managed the firm and Suzanne was the major financial backer. Her money came from her numerous ex-husbands. Mary Jo Shively, a designer and divorced mother of two, and office manager Charlene Frazier, single, naive and a big fan of the tabloids, rounded out the company's roster. In the early seasons, Anthony Bouvier appeared from time to time to do the heavy lifting, but his role was expanded and he became a regular and a partner in the firm. One other character appeared with regularity -- Bernice Clifton, an absent-minded resident of a senior citizens' home who was a friend of the Sugarbaker sisters' mother.

While the show was a comedy, it was also tackled controversial subjects like AIDS, racism, homosexuality, females in the clergy, society's attitudes toward overweight people and spouse abuse.

Back to Dixie Carter for a moment. She was a native of our neighboring state of Tennessee, graduated from Memphis State and was first runner up in the 1959 Miss Tennessee pageant. She did theater in Memphis and then moved to New York City where she appeared on stage and later in daytime dramas. Roles on several TV series eventually led to Designing Women, and recently she appeared on the popular Desperate Housewives in a role that earned her an Emmy award.

Maven Linda told us that one of the secrets to creating memorable characters was to let them go off on tangents. This is where you get to the heart of the character and make them real.

Julia Sugarbaker often went off on tangents. Her famous monologues could move you to tears or blister asphalt. Sometimes she was chastising Mary Jo for considering using an inheritance to buy breast implants. Charlene was frequently reprimanded for reading gossip rags on company time and Anthony's "unfortunate incarceration" for a robbery he did not commit was mentioned from time to time. Frequently, she was taking her sister to task for her shallowness or for bringing her pet pig Noel to the office.

Dixie's character was liberal with left-of-center views, and because she did not share those views, she made a deal with the show's producers that allowed her to sing in an episode for every speech she disagreed with.

I will leave you with this clip from the show. For all their head-butting, Julia was very protective of her friends and especially her sister. It's been said this clip is Julia's most famous tirade. It's certainly my favorite.

After you watch it, let us know if you were a fan of Designing Women. Who was your favorite character? What was your favorite moment on the show? Do you miss it as much as I do?

Rest in Peace, Dixie Carter. Heaven just got another angel.


Jane said...

I never saw "Designing Women" when it aired on CBS, but I did eventually catch some episodes when it reran on Lifetime. I knew Dixie Carter from "Diff'rent Strokes."

PM's Mother said...

There are so many of them! I specially liked the one about Julia taking on the newsstand for displaying magazine that have nude women in the centerfolds and also the one where she takes on a magazine writer for disparaging southerners. I wish I could be like Julia Sugarbaker!

Word verification: "condomi" -- now Julia would really make something of that!

Problem Child said...

I remember Julia's speech on how all Southerners have crazy people in the family -- the only question is which side of the family. And Southerners don't hide our crazy people up in the attic, we put bring them down and sit them in the parlor with pride.

(Thinks of crazy relatives...) Yep.

Jean said...

I never missed that show and Julia was my favorite, but I also loved Dash Goff, who had a reoccurring limited role. He was one of Suzanne's many ex husbands and I particularly remember these lines:

SUZANNE: Dash, do you ever wonder why we got married?
DASH: No, I know why. I wanted to be a writer and I felt I hadn't suffered enough.
SUZANNE: How do you feel now?
DASH: I feel that I have.

Angel said...

I loved the one about disparaging Southerns!!! The thing was that these little monologues were delivered with passion and intelligence, but they were also funny. Loved them!

The thing that struck me about Dixie Carter was that, like Julia Sugarbaker, she seemed to conduct herself with class and style. A tribute to southern women everywhere.


Angel said...

Jean! Remember Julia reading the piece Dash wrote on the women, I believe he was describing them sitting on the porch, wasn't he? Is that right? Now THAT was writing!


Smarty Pants said...

I loved that show. I didn't care for it as much when the characters started changing around, but I always adored the original cast, including Bernice. One of my favorite episodes was when Charlene had her baby on Christmas. Bernice (who was wearing a tree skirt in typical Bernice fashion) couldn't get to the hospital, so she called an ambulance and told them she was having a baby. They decided she was crazy and took her to the hospital for observation. :)

I also remember when Julia did the runway show with her dress tucked into her panty hose and no underwear. Or when she got her head stuck in that famous banister. She was awesome.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I loved that show! I can't recall specific episodes now, but Julia was always my favorite. The one episode I remember is, yes, this one where Julia tells off Miss Georgia. I also remember Suzanne going on and on about Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain. Too funny.

I also preferred the original cast. When they added that girl from Bob Newhart, I didn't like it as much.

Playground Monitor said...

Awwwww. We are kindred souls. You've all mentioned great episodes.

Anyone remember when Lewis Grizzard appeared on the show? I still remember him explaining the difference between naked and nekkid. Naked means you have on no clothes. Nekkid means you have on no clothes and you're up to something.

And Dash Goff. What an eloquent writer. He also had a little session with the women and had them all write too. Oh HOD VP! Do you think Dash could come to one of our meetings and do a workshop?

I'll never forget Bernice in that Christmas tree skirt. Every time I see a Christmas tree skirt I remember that show. It was The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century and Dolly Parton played Charlene's Guardian Movie Star.

Anyone remember Suzanne and Anthony's trip where they had to stop and there was only one room at the motel? Suzanne made Anthony sleep in the car and the temps were below freezing. He put on her pantyhose and wrapped some maribou thing of hers around his head. Eventually she relented and let him sleep in the room too. Suzanne did have a heart under all that facade.

Instigator said...

I loved Designing Women! And Julia was definitely my favorite character. She was the strength that held the rest of them together.


Maven Beverly Barton said...

Designing Women is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. I loved the chemistry among the original four cast members. Dixie Carter was a talented actress who found “the part of a lifetime” as Julia Sugarbaker. Who hasn’t wished that they could react immediately with great comebacks the way Julia always did? I loved the clip y’all posted with Julia defending Suzanne. If you forget anything else about that episode, you’ll never forget Julia saying, “And that is the night the lights went out in Georgia!” Don’t know if LH remembers, but at one of our HOD Christmas parties years ago, she and I did imitations of the Sugarbaker sisters. She, of course, was Julia.

Playground Monitor said...

Oh how I would love to see that! Can we book the Sugarbaker sisters for this year's party? ::grin::

Sherry Werth said...

I loved Designing Women and Julia was my favorite too. It's been awhile since I've watched any of the reruns but the comments on the episodes have me wanting to watch again!
Dixie Carter was a wonderful actress and she will be greatly missed.