Voice: what
is it that distinguishes an author in the vast world of publishing? Many forums
are built on this question. Experts offer their opinion, but the truth is,
voice is as elusive a question as why one reader loves a well-written story but
another finds it boring.
With
that in mind, I’m not here to provide a definitive answer, but I thought I’d
point out the main area and its components that might help an author to stand
out in a crowd of their peers. To do so, I am using a very secular novel, but
one that has weathered the years of change and still continues to be the novel
that gave voice to the author.
Characterization: A story is nothing without
character. What stories do you remember most? Me? I connect to character first.
Give me some distinctive characters and an author has begun to reel me in.
Think about it. What made Scarlet O’Hara so memorable in Gone with the Wind? You either love her or you hate her, but you
don’t forget her. Scarlet on her own is just another woman who ruthlessly goes
after what she wants. Add the next two elements, and you have a novel that not
only received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, it is a novel that
transcends generations.
Background: Gone with the Wind starts at the very beginning of the Civil War where
we see Scarlet as a spoiled young woman. Several different backgrounds give the
novel a distinctive voice. We start at the very end of the Pre-Civil War South
where Scarlet is a spoiled young woman who is after one man: Ashley Wilkes. Even
when she meets Rhett Butler, who recognizes and admires her character, she can’t
see true love through her fantasy of Ashley—a fantasy that continues through
the novel and has Scarlet acting out, marrying different men at first for spite
and then for survival, but still she’s in love with Ashley. From the simple
life of a part at Twelve Oaks and Tara, we find Scarlet in Atlanta with Sherman’s
army advancing on the town. Scarlet has become a widow, but her widowhood has
connected her with Melanie Wilkes, the wife of the man Scarlet loves. In the
backdrop of Atlanta, we see Scarlet’s character arc—but not so much that
Scarlet ever loses the selfish nature. From Atlanta, we see Scarlet on the road
back to Tara, facing the dangers, and protecting those she loves, though true
to character, Scarlet doesn’t see her care over them as love. That selflessness
mixed with Scarlet’s selfishness continues as Scarlet does whatever she must at
Tara to keep her family from ever going hungry again. Gone with the Wind is rich with background, and into those
locations, Mrs. Mitchell adds the one component that makes a novel (and its
author) stand out from the crowd.
Conflict: Scarlet O’Hara meets conflict
head on. Again, not all of the conflict Scarlet battles is heroic. She fights
for the love of Ashley Wilkes up until the moment that Melanie dies. Only then
does she realize that she loved Melanie, and well, Ashley? She discovers he isn’t
Rhett, the man Scarlet married. Even Scarlet’s courtship with Rhett isn’t
traditional. She never sees that he’s the man for her until it’s too late. When
Scarlet is asked to aid the wounded soldiers, she clearly doesn’t want to be
there. Most authors would have to fight the desire to make Scarlet heroically
pursue the endeavor, to be a Florence Nightingale? Not so our Ms. O’Hara. No,
sir. She doesn’t want to be there. She can’t stand to see the suffering. Yet,
when she has to help Melanie, who at this point stands in the way of Scarlet’s
love for Melanie’s husband, Ashley, she does what needs to be done—but only
after ever avenue has been exhausted. Gone
with the Wind
is unique in conflict as Mrs. Mitchell doesn’t let her
heroine seem heroic. Scarlet handles every situation in a selfish manner. Yes,
she has an ulterior motive, but somehow it always seems to work for the better
good of all.
Even in
Christian fiction, we tend to want to make our heroes like Superman and our
heroines like Polly Purebred. I’ll admit, we need to walk a fine line, but no
one is perfect. Scarlet O’Hara’s story is clearly secular, but I wanted to use
her and Gone with the Wind as an
example of an author not looking toward the typical heroine or hero. Typical
anything does not establish an author’s voice.

In
Christian fiction, our characters can’t be perfect. If we make them flawless,
the reader will have no connection to them. They also should not behave like Scarlet
O’Hara unless their character arc will bring a clear message (overtly or
covertly) to the reader. However, in looking at what distinguished Margaret
Mitchell’s voice for generations of readers, an author, when self-editing,
would be wise to provide a unique flavor to each character, to provide
interesting backdrops for the story to play out, and to layer the story with engaging
conflict within the backgrounds they have chosen.

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