Wednesday, April 14, 2010
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.