Monday, July 6, 2009

Would "Gone with the Wind" be Rejected Today?

by Linsey Lanier

They say readers want heroines they can identify with. Someone human they can empathize with. Someone they can respect. Someone they want to be. Someone they'd want as a friend.

That's a tall order.

In my experience, it's hard to write a heroine readers will fall in love with. The female protagonists in my books sometimes come off as either too sweet or too wrapped up in their own goals to be sympathetic. Or they are angry and vengeful, even if I think I've given them a good reason for their feelings.

In my opinion, it's much easier to write a man. It's not as difficult to create a sexy, strong, hunky male figure. And readers are much more likely to forgive him his flaws, like sleeping around a bit before he gets to the heroine. But if the heroine does too much of that, she's a .... you know what. Not always, but the hero gets away with being bad more easily.

So let's take a look at one of the most famous heroines of all time, Scarlett O'Hara. How would she fare in today's market? What kind of letters would Margaret Mitchell receive from editors today?

In the opening scene, Scarlett is sitting on the porch, flirting with the TarletonTwins. In the first few pages, she comes off as spoiled and self-centered.

Editor: "We're sorry. This manuscript does not meet our current needs...."

In a later scene, we learn that Scarlett is suffering from unrequited love. Her lover is about to go off to war, but before he does, he marries someone else. That makes Scarlett sympathetic, but then she bad-mouths her rival and marries the woman's brother for spite.

Editor: "This story is well-written, but I could not connect with the heroine...."

Other girls are catty when it comes Scarlett, and who can blame them? Still, we like her spirit. She's got spunk. She's a spitfire. Rhett seems to think so, too. She struggles, survives the burning of Atlanta, near starvation, and almost single-handedly saves the family estate, Tara. After the famous "God as our witness" scene, we admire her strengths.

Then she does some awful things. She marries her sister's beau, even though she can't stand him, to pay the taxes on the plantation. She's a mean taskmaster to the workers and pushes her new husband around.

Editor: "Your manuscript is well researched and believable, but I stopped rooting for the heroine in later chapters...."

Scarlett marries Rhett, even though she still loves Ashley. She doesn't change much and never does much of anything to redeem herself.

Editor: "This story lacks a satisfying character arc...."

And then there's the ending. Oh, the ending. Even Rhett gets sick of Scarlett in the end and can't be convinced to give it another go, no matter how much she pleads.

Editor: "The dramatic backdrop of Civil War history make the manuscript compelling, but the love story lacks a satisfying conclusion. Without a considerable rewrite, it would not be suitable for our line...."

And yet, Scarlett O'Hara is one of the most enduring female literary figures. Gone with the Wind has sold over 30 million copies. Karen White admits she wanted to be Scarlett O'Hara when she first read the book. And me? I love Scarlett, too.

Why does this character work? I don't know. Maybe it's because she's shrewd. Maybe it's her drive, her fight, her Irish pluck. You've go to admit, the woman is a survivor. Or maybe it's just those gorgeous dresses.

So what do you say? Do you love or hate Scarlett O'Hara? What type of heroine works for you? And why? What do you find most challenging about writing a heroine?

20 comments:

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Linnea,

You have some good food for thought here. I would love to see the face of a Harlequin editor when the author proposes a 1000 page book!

Seriously, Scarlett is a very rare anti-heroine. You're right about being able to forgive men their foibles; sometimes we prefer to read about a man who needs to atone for his past sins (Angel comes to mind). But women--that's far trickier.

Personally, I don't want a heroine I can be friends with. I want a heroine whose life is interesting. Interestingly enough, though, I think part of Nora's great success is that she often, almost always includes friendship among her female characters as well as the love story. We don't have to be friends with the heroine, but we can get a vicarious friendship feeling through her friends.

I'm rambling. I think I need more coffee.

Great post!
Sally

Debbie Kaufman said...

LOL, I'm sure none of us could get away with Scarlett today. She's not the traditional character you root for in a story. But, she is a survivor.

Sandy Elzie said...

Yes, Scarlett is a survivor, but deep down, it's still nothing more than being selfish. She's a spoiled rotten ...brat...who will do anything, including using people (men) to get what she wants without regard to how many people she hurts. In one POV, she even prostitutes herself to the highest bidder in order to pay the taxes on Tara, the only other thing she really loves besides herself.

Guess you can tell I don't like her...her clothes, but not her. As an editor I'd toss the book in the pile.

Sandy

CiCi Barnes said...

I agree, I'm not sure GWTW would make it past the assistant reader for a publishing house these days.

That said, I love the girl. Yeah, she's selfish, her methods of getting what she wants aren't always up front, but by the end, she realizes who she really loves. That is a great change in the opening scene Scarlett. She's come a long way from the days of balls and beaus. She's a survivor.

I lived vicariously through her all those summers I spent reading and rereading her antics as a teen. I could never have survived the way she did -- but she made me want to try.

CiCi

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, ladies for your thoughtful comments.

Sally,
Yes, I think of Scarlett as an anti-heroine, too. Interesting thoughts about Nora. I've read reviews of "The Villa" on Amazon, and some readers did not like the feisty heroine of that novel. And then there's the kind, patient Eve Dallas...not. And yet Nora gets away with it and some of us like these characters. But then, these aren't her first books. :) Maybe it is the female friends.

Thanks Debbie and Sandy, for chiming in.
Debbie, no, I don't think we could write a Scarlett character...maybe after one of us makes the NYT list, though...?

Sandy,
Ooh, you really don't like her, do you? But don't you like her spunk? Maybe not. :)

CiCi,
I never though of her love for Rhett at the end as change, but maybe she does have a bit of a character arc after all. I couldn't go through what she did, either, eating a raw turnip out of the garden (or whatever it was), eating yams every meal for months, making your clothes out of curtains. We have it good, don't we?

What are some techniques you writers out there use to make today's readers connect with your heroine?

Linsey

Susan May said...

I like Scarlet, but I know I wouldn't like for her to be around my men folk. I do think she is someone I would like to have on my side in a fight. We love to hate her, and love to love her. Well, done post.

Darcy Crowder said...

Great post, Linsey.

I think for me, the appeal of Scarlet O'Hara was her audaciousness. She wasn't the typical story heroine and so she commanded the page. What would she do next? How far would she go? When will we see her vulnerability? What will it take to make her recognize the love right in front of her? That's what kept me reading all those pages. She was a fasinating, larger than life mixture of good and bad. A truely memorable character.

Thanks for a great discussion, Linsey.

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, Susan. Good point. I'd want Scarlett far away from my man, too.

Glad you like the post, Darcy.
Those are some thought-provoking questions we can apply to our current heroines to make them more alive, I think. Especially, "How far will she go?"

Linsey

Cyrano said...

I agree with Sally,
Scarlett is a definite anti-heroine. But I root for an anti-hero or heroine. It's great to begin a novel loving to hate the main character. To me, these characteristics make them more real, less June or Ward Cleverish (though I adore Leave it to Beaver regardless of their easy going behavoir) I want my hero and heroine to grow...noticably. A high character arc keeps me reading.
Great post Linsey and great pics too.
Have a lovely day,
Tamara

Marilyn Baron said...

I enjoyed your post. I like Scarlett, I guess for the same reason most of you do, because she's a survivor and an interesting character. I think it would still sell today. Who knows. I read somewhere that someone submitted the Yearling to a publishing house and it was rejected.

Marilyn Baron

Ana Aragón said...

I loved the book and the movie! Scarlett is a survivor and goes after what she wants. She may not be very nice, but at least she is consistent!

The reason it works, I think, is because you don't think of the story as a romance...it's a tragic story, like Romeo and Juliet. I mean, my heart breaks when Rhett says, "Frankly, my dear...I don't give a damn."

Great post, Linnea...

Ana

Linsey Lanier said...

Tamara,
I love to root for a good anti-heroine, too. And I love "Leave it to Beaver," as well. LOL. Good thought about the high character arc. That keeps my interest, too.

Marilyn,
Interesting that you think GWTW would sell today. Maybe so, but I bet it would get some rejections first. After all, didn't Stephen King get something like 200 rejections before he sold? Or was it 400?

Thanks Ana,
Good point about the genre. It is a tragic story. I always cry at that heart-breaking ending, and even shout "Come back! Come back!" at the screen. :)

Linsey

Maxine Davis said...

Linnea,
Such a good post - I really enjoyed it. I do not think GWTW would stand a chance today. To me there was not a strong 'hook' in the beginning and a lot of pubs would throw it out then, and she was so spiteful and selfish! I think one thing that pulled out the film was the portrayal by Vivien Leigh and, of course, Clark Gable. They both nailed it, but Ana, like you, I get so mad at her at the end and I tell her she is crazy!

Tami Brothers said...

I think I'm with Sandy on this. I've never been a GWTW fan. I tried to watch and like it, but could never get past the fact that I wanted to slap her more than anything else.

With that said, I will tell you that I own the complete 5 piece Barbie Doll set. I have three Scarlet dolls and two Rett Kens. I think I paid $75 a piece for those and was recently offered over $100 for each. I LOVE the outfits (and the fact that they are Barbie and such an icon). Anyway, maybe when my son gets ready to go to college, I'll sell the whole collection. I wonder how much they will actually be then. Or if people will still be talking about snooty Ms. Scarlet????

Love the post, Linsey!!!

Tami

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, Maxine.
You're right about that hook. I'm afraid poor Margaret wouldn't final in any of our contests today. On the other hand, who can go wrong with Clark Gable? Hubba hubba.

Tami,
You're hysterical. You want to slap Scarlett, yet you have her, a la Barbie. And Rhett a la Ken. Too funny. That's settles it for me. Scarlett's appeal is definitely the CLOTHES!

Thanks everyone for participating!

Linsey

Barbara Monajem said...

Heh. What a fun post. I read GWTW so long ago that I don't remember much about Scarlett.

In contemporaries (paranormal or not), I like heroines who are outgoing and fearless (because I'm not). I don't want to read about myself!

In historicals, I'm often happier with more restrained heroines, perhaps because I really enjoy reading about the struggle of women to remain polite, considerate, kind, well-mannered, etc., etc., while combating the oppression under which they often suffered. A quieter heroism, perhaps...

Linsey Lanier said...

Some interesting thoughts, Barbara. And a good tip on how to create a good historical heroine.

Thanks for stopping by.

Linsey

Mary Marvella said...

Now I'm really laughing.

This book wouldn't make it past critique group or a contest.

"Your heroine is not admirable. She has no goals beyond meeting her own needs and getting a man. What are her deeper needs?"

Arguing back and forth are bot conflict."

You need to write tighter and omit the backstory.

Pamela-reader said...

Loved the article!!!! My take on Scarlet is that I didn't like or love her, but I wanted to *be* her!!!
Why? Reason #1: I wanted Rhett!!! (I actually had a full size poster at college & other girls would come by just to stand beside it and sigh!)
Reason #2: The Clothes!!!

Nicki Salcedo said...

I should not admit that I have not read Gone with the Wind or seenthe movie. But I haven't. Sorry, ladies. Start unfriending me now.

Likable has nothing to do with how long you'll stay invested in a reader. Think about Gatsby. He brooded, tried to seduce a married woman, threw parties... a lot of nothing, but he was also intriguing.

I think you can write about any kind of person, selfish Scarlett types included, as long as you do it well! I'd hate to think that we get so bogged down in what the industry wants that we forget to challenge the status quo. Fight on and write on, sisters!