To be a strong character, and to be a strong human - those are two different things in my book. A strong fictional character is one who feels real. One who becomes so distinctive, it's easy to predict what he or she would do in certain situations, how they might respond to criticism or praise. Strong characters give rise to fanfiction - fans taking those solid, established characters, knowing them so well, and spinning side adventures for them. A strong character is intriguing, relatable, enviable or pitiful, but they don't have to be tough. Or honest. Or kind. Sometimes the weakest of creatures makes for the "strongest" of characters. The point of characters isn't to sugar-coat and rose-color everything, but to reflect human nature, in all its many facets. Strong characters have minds of their own.
And it's important to remember something else: When we write characters who are not just strong, but strong as humans, we have to consider that human strength comes in dozens upon dozens of forms. Strength can be quiet; it can be slow-building; it can be physical; mental; emotional; spiritual; it can be a persistence of love; an indifference to criticism. And is usually balanced with flaws. Balance and counterbalance, always. Strength looks like my aunt facing - and beating - her cancer with a quiet, calm grace. Strength looks like my mom being a mother bear. Strength doesn't belong exclusively to career or muscles or bravery or love or stoicism - it belongs to all of them at once, and even more.
When we had our book club discussion of Keep You, I was asked if Jo was me. "No," I said, "Jo is a lot bolder than I am." And they nodded and agreed, yes, she's bold. She has her own kind of strength.
But it isn't like Beth's strength, or Ellie's, Jess's, Delta's; they aren't strong in the same way as Tam, or Jordie, or Mike, or Chris...it's all different. Strength lives in everyone, shaped against the contours of our hearts, shining out in different ways.
I have this urge to do a whole WW set of posts on all the characters I love, heroes and villains alike. Not sure if that'll manifest, but today, at least, I want to bring up Scarlett and Melanie. Because their dynamic of strength is something that inspired Lisa and Layla's personalities in the Russell books.
Scarlett is unquestionably strong. She delivered a baby, drove a wagon from Atlanta to Jonesboro, dodged Yankees, tilled her own fields, revived Tara. Scarlett is solid steel. But she's also conniving, ruthless, unapologetic, manipulative, and, let's face it - a total bitch. Yeah, she's solid steel, but steel's a weapon, too. Scarlett O'Hara is an amazingly well-written character, strong and weak all bundled together.
Then there's Mellie. It'd be so easy, with Melanie standing in Scarlett's very solid shadow, to see her as the weak, taken-advantage-of character in all this. But nothing could be further from the truth. Melanie's strength is unfailing kindness, hope, and her stunning ability to keep giving people chances. It isn't that she doesn't see that Scarlett is a bitch - and after her husband at that - but Scarlett is her friend, and she loves her, and makes decision after decision to keep loving through all the flaws. She loves Scarlett, loves Ashley's waffling behind even though he pretends to be the nice guy, all the while encouraging Scarlett. Every person is worthy of respect and kindness in her eyes. Mellie is amazing, even though she's physically frail. She's made of tough stuff, as can be seen when Scarlett shoots the Yankee burglar. Mellie, instead of screaming and fainting, comes downstairs with Ashley's saber in her hand, lies to the younger girls, so they won't panic, and tells Scarlett, "I'm glad you shot him."
Gone With the Wind needs both of these characters. No one could stand to read a book full of nothing but Scarletts. The book - like life - needs its Mellies, too.