Sunday, March 16, 2014

Relating to Wanda

Last week my school's theater department went to state level with a short play called Wanda's Visit. It's about a married couple, Jim and Marsha, who have fallen out of love with each other after thirteen years of marriage. Out of nowhere, Jim's high school girlfriend, Wanda, shows up and proceeds to make their lives miserable in every way possible. I suppose you could create a character more obnoxious than Wanda-but I've never seen one. She's loud, whiny, messy, talks to much, and has no sense of personal space. She rambles on and on about her troubled, sexually explicit life, and forcibly kisses Jim in front of Marsha.
But she's also hilarious. The audience laughed at her more than polite Jim and soft spoken Marsha. I'm sure the actress who played Wanda had the most fun developing her character.
Halfway through the play, I thought, It's a good thing Wanda isn't the main character. She's unlikable in every way, shape, and form. The audience wouldn't relate to her. But then I thought, Who is the main character anyways?
Some scenes take place before Wanda arrives and after she leaves. That gives Marsha and Jim more stage time. If they're the first on and the last off, shouldn't that mean they're more important? They also turn and address the audience from time to time, something non-protagonists rarely do. But Wanda drives the story. She acts, Marsha and Jim react.
I asked my friend Lindzi, who played Marsha, but she didn't have a good answer for me. She agreed that Wanda drives the story, but thought that meant she's the antagonist. Marsha, Wanda's foil, would be the protagonist, and that makes Jim the sidekick. She wasn't sure, though. That was just her interpretation.
Close your eyes. Remember your favorite book, play, movie, comic, or TV show. Not an obscure one that's special to you and you alone. Something with a big fan following. Who is your favorite character? And who do your friends like?
It's almost never the protagonist. People like the love interest, the snarky sidekick, the vile villain, or the guy who gets the coolest death scene.
You spend the entire story line looking through the protagonist's eyes. If you don't like the way they see things, you pull back and say, "Nope, I don't like this character. This story's not for me." I've often heard that main characters should have flaws because no one can relate to a perfect person. But one of the most common complaints I see in book reviews is "I couldn't relate to the main character, he's too whiny." When I read these,  I wonder why this is even an issue. 100% of characters won't be %100 like you %100 of the time. Why can't we just appreciate main characters for their depth and complexity, like we do the sidekicks?
I've thought over Wanda's Visit for days and I still don't have a good answer. I think I'll ask the actors who played Wanda and Jim who they think it is. I suspect both of them will name their own characters because that's how they see the story.
Marsha, the prim, quiet housewife, is the most likable of the bunch. Jim's slightly attracted to Wanda, so he does a few things he shouldn't when Marsha's out of the room. That makes him lose sympathy points. And of course you're not supposed to like Wanda. So far as relatability goes, that makes Marsha the best candidate. But to be honest, she's boring. Wanda talks too much for Marsha to get a lot of lines in. She keeps walking out of the room to escape Wanda's chatter. We never get to know her. Lindzi called the character one dimensional.
Do main characters really need to be relatable? Or do we even need main characters?

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