Thursday, November 16, 2006

In Which I Ramble Endlessly About People Who Never Existed

PBW asks today what fictional characters have influenced our writing. I think I have to answer that by talking about the fictional characters who've influenced my life, my way of thinking and being in the world, and through that have influenced my work.

Number one with a bullet would be Scarlett O'Hara (Hamilton Kennedy Butler) who taught me that a woman can be strong. I read Gone With The Wind for the first time when I was ten, right after its broadcast television premiere. Scarlett's strength was a revelation to me. I was surrounded by women who ate excrement on a daily basis and routinely asked for more. To watch/read about a woman dishing out the shit for a change? And getting away with it, right up to the very end when she lost everything? And to see her, even then, lifting her head and facing life with the full expectation of victory, because "tomorrow is another day?"

For a girl who saw her mother, grandmothers, aunts and cousins continually beaten down and told to shut up and take it by both the men who professed to love them and by life itself? Astonishing stuff.

Even at that tender age, I could appreciate that Scarlett's strength was based on a strong core of selfishness that had little consideration for others. I watched her suffer for her sins repeatedly, and then haul herself up and go forth to make the same mistakes again. I had no illusions that her way was the best way to behave, but if nothing else, her perseverance created an epiphany for me. To this day, when Miss Melly begs her to flee because Melly is clearly dying in childbirth and Atlanta is burning to the ground, but Scarlett stays to deliver that baby and get all of them out of the city? When the ex-delicate-Southern-belle drags the lot of them, along with a balky horse, beneath a bridge in the pouring rain to hide them from the Yankees? When she stands in the ruined garden of Twelve Oaks -- whether on the page or on the screen -- and swears that neither she nor any of her folk will ever go hungry again? I get chills. (Got 'em as I was writing that, as a matter of fact.) Because she says it, and then she DOES it. And there's a kind of beauty in that.

Which is not to say she doesn't make some really awe-inspiringly bad choices. Takes action that often hurts those she professes to love. And -- in the book, at least -- is a truly horrible mother, not to mention abusive and racist in a way completely at odds with my own belief system, but perfectly in keeping with the realities of her era.

But to those who would say Scarlett is ultimately a villain (I'm looking at you, Watcher) I would say that a male character making the same -- sometimes terrible, hurtful -- choices would not be considered nearly so reprehensible. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, right?

Later, when I was in my teens, I came to appreciate another character in the book whose strength is not nearly so obvious, but who is the catalyst for pretty much all the action. That would be, of course, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, whom Scarlett repeatedly calls weak.

She's not, and in the end Scarlett knows it. Miss Melly's strength is the kind that moves mountains an inch at a time, born of love and faith. From her I learned that you don't have to be a bitch to have amazing power and influence over those around you.

Both of these characters changed my outlook on life. Made me see I didn't have to be a doormat upon which others -- specifically men -- wiped their cow-patty encrusted boots. And they've certainly informed the female protagonists I've created.

Gah! Look how I've rambled. I was about to start describing a term paper in which I proposed that Melanie Wilkes represents the Old South, and Scarlett O'Hara the dawn of the New South. But no one should be subjected to THAT nonsense on a perfectly good Thursday, so I'll refrain.

*Check out my brief debate with author (and very good friend) Donald Francis on the topic of Scarlett. He wants to slap a bitch. I say, settle down, Sparky. It's all good. :p

A pop culture note: There's a show on Thursday nights (The CW, 9PM Eastern) that not enough folks are watching, and that's a shame. It's called Supernatural, and it's about two brothers who travel the country fighting evil in the form of classic American folklore and urban legends. The writing is strong (think a darker, more gritty, less campy Buffy), the acting is better-than-average, and the actors themselves? HOT. Seriously. We like The Pretty here in the shallow end of the pool. TiVo it tonight while you're watching Grey's Anatomy (apparently everybody watches Grey's but me, and I'm trying not to succumb). You won't be sorry. - Romance of Dubious Virtue


Blogger Eva Gale said...

Although I HAVE GwtW, I've never actually read it.


(and Grey is about the only show I watch, although I'm not fanatical, there's always reruns)

11/16/2006 11:10 AM  
Blogger Selah March said...

I tried Grey's once and was instantly turned off by the pouting of the lead character. Meredith? Is that her name? Nails on chalkboard, baby.

Coincidentally, the guy who played the one who died last season? The blonde chick's boyfriend? He played the father on Supernatural at the same time. But he's also now dead. I feel rather sorry for the actor, who can't seem to pick a role that outlives sweeps week. :p

11/16/2006 12:55 PM  
Anonymous PBW said...

I've never read GWTW or watched the movie (maybe Eva will lend me her copy, lol.) I think I should now after reading your post.

My grandmother thought the book was trash. Gran never said why, but I think it was because she also had a very tough time of it growing up poor and unedudated in the south, trying to feed her family during the depression, etc. Isn't it funny how the prejudices of the people we love keep us from trying things we might enjoy?

A friend tried to lure me back to watching TV by giving me the first season of Grey's on DVD. It's cute, I guess, if you're into science fiction alternative reality shows. That or I missed a hell of a lot of nooky going on when I worked in surgery. ;)

11/17/2006 7:48 AM  
Anonymous PBW said...

Unedudated = uneducated and can't spell on a Friday morning.

11/17/2006 7:49 AM  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

I've argued the point you make here about Melly lots o'times. Scarlett is all brash and everything, but Melly is strong and practical and endures as well. She's much more of a traditional southern woman -- the whole steel magnolia thing. I like her, too. I think it's just harder to see because Scarlett is always calling her weak.

11/17/2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger Selah March said...

PBW - know? You might not like the book. Omniscient POV, heavy setting description, huge Civil War history info-dumps, TONS of exposition. If your tolerance for that kind of thing is low, it could be a disaster for you. I forgive Mitchell by telling myself it was her first and only novel, and she had no time to develop her craft. The movie might suit you better, and would certainly take up less time. But if you do read it, I'd love to know your reaction.

Diana - I don't think we're alone in that opinion. Melly is the rock upon which the entire book is built. Mitchell was quoted as saying she preferred Melly to Scarlett.

11/17/2006 2:17 PM  
Anonymous Barb said...

Melly was definitely the most powerful character in the book-- Scarlett was consumed by envy and made a lot of her early choices based on her reaction to the supposed "weak" Melly and in the end, was both shamed and awed by Melly's strength of character and intelligence. After all, Melly knew all along how Scarlett felt, no matter how dense Scarlett might have thought her.

BTW, you want to read another beautiful, beautiful book about Southern womanhood and what it meant to come of age in an era defined by a strict code of behavior and then to completely buck those codes-- read Anne Rivers Siddons' HEARTBREAK HOTEL. I mean it. Read the damned thing NOW. I know you're writing, but read it.

11/17/2006 8:53 PM  
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12/06/2006 11:02 AM  

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