Rhett, how you do run on…

Or: What I’ve Learned about Writing from Gone with the Wind.

I read this book at about this time every year, so often that the ink of my copy is rubbing away like the text of a newspaper. Every time I read it, I spend more time than I care to admit wondering whether I’m more Scarlett or Melanie… unfortunately, this year, I’ve come down on the Scarlett side. Again. Someday I’ll make it to Melanie, though.

But in addition to my sad, pseudo-pop-psychology analysis,  reading it so frequently has also taught me a number of things about writing.

Warning: what follows is a very long, pedantic essay.

1. Characters are people, not plot devices.
Although way too much time has been spent studying the archetypes in Gone with the Wind, dwelling on that analysis takes something away from the characters as individuals. Call me crazy, but characters — my own and my favorites in other novels — are real; I talk to them, admire them, interact with them… maybe I should consider this in my improvised self-analysis, eh? But if you spend too much time looking at them as archetypes, thinking about the inherent plot arcs and predetermined actions, you lose sight of some of the novel’s more touching moments. For instance, when Rhett lets his concern for Scarlett show, on a very few occasions, she responds meekly and lets him care for her… causing him, naturally, to tease her about it and her to demand his immediate departure. Still, those are  lovely moments, made all the more special because it’s unexpected to see such gentleness in a so-called seductress. My own protagonist, Eva, is cast in Scarlett’s mold, but I work very hard to create a childlike faith and stubbornness to make her more than a skeletal archetype.

This lesson has a part B. Midway through the novel, at the Scarlett’s lowest point, when she simply cannot carry the weight of the crumbling Tara and her collapsing family, Will Benteen comes on the scene. “Cracker”-born Will takes much of the burden from Scarlett’s frustrated shoulders, and, bluntly put, serves as the plot device that allows her to flit off to Atlanta and pursue marriage and money… But for Scarlett, those two things are redundant. Every time I read Will’s entrance I cringe, because he has no purpose as a person. He does nothing but enable the plot. I’m currently writing a character who I fear falls into this category. I may have to backtrack and introduce her sooner to avoid the Will Benteen fallacy.

2. Sometimes telling is good, too.
Basic writing lesson: Show, don’t tell. But Gone with the Wind might just be the exception. I could gush about Margaret Mitchell’s descriptive ‘telling’ passages, proof that skillful omniscient narration can work as well as showing through action or dialogue.  The opening paragraph speaks for itself:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.”

In one paragraph, Scarlett’s appearance and personality meld, showing you not quite the whole woman but enough to compel interest. This style may not be in vogue anymore, but it sure as hell is effective. Careful choice of detail leaves no doubt of who a character is and where she came from.

3. Try to look at things in a new way.
This is the most revolutionary lesson, and the one most likely to earn me some hate mail. Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer in 1937, not in part because of its treatment of the post-Civil War South. Although contemporary with Southern Renaissance writers and Southern Gothic writers like the far-more canonized William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Mitchell stands apart from those genre writers because, instead of focusing on the defeat and corruption of the South, she examines the perceived glorious past and the perpetuation of the Confederate identity.

Gone with the Wind has long been criticized for its racist treatment of the slaves and former slaves and of African-American identity generally. “Good negroes” stay with their masters after being freed, and they take pride in their service.The bad, “free issue” former slaves are encouraged by the Yankees into violence or indolence. This characterization is not okay, but it’s interesting because it makes us question if these attitudes ever existed. Were “good slaves” in the 1860s glorified by a long life of service? Is this attitude a relic of pre-civil rights era America, when Mitchell was writing?

Furthermore, the Yankees are portrayed as evil conquerors, while the Southerners are noble and unfairly downtrodden. This is not history as most of us learn it. But it’s an intellectual exercise, and one good for the moral constitution, that makes us consider a reviled point of view. “History is written by the victors,” after all. If the South had (infeasibly) won, what attitude would now prevail?

I think good fiction should make us consider an issue from another point of view. It should tell a story, but, more than that, it should turn that story inside out and make us think hard about the world it portrays and the world around us. This is what I’m trying to do with my own writing, although I make no claims to the importance of racial rights and American history’s most turbulent times. Still, it’s a way of effecting change through words.

Happy reading and writing, all.

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