Soapie writers have a lot to think about when it comes to bringing in new characters.
New characters are the lifeblood of soapies – they expose unexpected aspects of existing characters and allow our local soapies to showcase different cultures and languages. They give us someone new to watch and can even balance out racial, social and financial imbalances that have developed in shows. And above all, they prevent character fatigue. After a favourite character has been shot, abducted, drug addicted, undergone religious conversion, cheated, had six children, eight weddings and been possessed by the devil, we do start to wonder how on Earth they can still be standing. But there’s nothing quite as risky in a soapie as bringing in a new family and nothing more likely to make viewers ask, “Who do you think you are? Get lost!” New characters steal attention from old favourites and if writers get the balance wrong, they can dilute the “flavour” of the soapie. It takes a lot of thought to create the perfect introduction.
tvplus spoke to Isibaya’s (2013- current, see p10) executive producer Desiree Markgraaff, Scandal!’s (2005- current, see p20) creative producer Grace Mahlaba, Isidingo’s (1998- current, see p24) senior headwriter Bongi Ndaba, and Generations (1994- current, see p13) publicist Gaaratwe Mokhethi and asked them to use a family they brought into the soapie in 2016 to show how much careful work goes into the process.
OUT WITH THE OLD
New families are sometimes brought in to fill a gap that has opened in the storyline thanks to a previous family leaving the canvas or a cast member needing to leave. The soapie’s loss can be its gain, not just with new stories to tell, but with the opportunity to snap up exciting new cast members. “With the death of Chief Bhekifa Ngubane ( Vusi Kunene), a delicious villain, we felt the timing was perfect to refresh with an outsider to Bhubesini as a new antagonist to our taxi boss Mpiyakhe Zungu (Siyabonga Thwala). Someone who is just chasing the money and routes and doesn’t care about Zungu’s precious little valley,” says Desiree. “We took about four months to create the family and story and when we realised that Menzi Ngubane might be available, we knew he was perfect for the character. In fact, many of the real taxi people we speak to for research have asked us over the years, ‘When are you bringing Menzi to Isibaya?’ So the timing was great. We had fun auditioning many fabulous actresses for his wife and were excited to cast Thuli Thabethe. We knew almost as we created the character of Qaphela that Abdul Khoza was who we wanted for the role – then we did a huge search for new talent to find his daughter Zama, played by Linda Mtoba.”
IN WITH THE NEW… CAREFULLY!
Bongi explains that “people connect to Isidingo because it’s got stories about families. People are not interested in business. They’re interested in family stories, so you have to plan that it’s going to happen. In the character descriptions that we have, we have already written those family things. They’re not onscreen yet, but you can do a story arc with them when you need to. If we had all the money in the world, everybody would have a family [onscreen],” she jokes.
And when a new character comes in, Isidingo’s writers make sure to beef up the other storylines to keep viewers glued to the screen as they come in. “US soapies drag a lot; South African viewers are different – they don’t like stories that drag. You have to have two stories that are strong enough so that the new characters that come in don’t overwhelm the show. You can’t just have a flood of new characters, because then the show becomes diluted, especially for your loyal viewers who’ve been watching forever. They get thrown because it seems like a new show, so you have to do it gradually. That’s when the planning comes in.”
NB! Don’t miss the 15 March issue for part 2 of this story, on shelf from Friday 10 March!
It took Isibaya four months to develop Judas and his family – daughter Zama, wife Beauty and son Qaphela.