Last month, my husband and I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the classic movie Gone With the Wind on the big screen. (This was, actually, an anniversary celebration of our first date, on which we saw Casablanca on the big screen. If you knew me, you’d know how fantastically perfect these occasions are, being the romance and the classic movie fan that I am.)
If you are a romance writer, these are two movies you might want to take a peek at, if you haven’t already. Both heroes, Rick Blaine and Rhett Butler, are inimitable icons, though we do our best to capture something of their absolute perfection on a regular basis in our novels.
Gone With the Wind was a novel before it became a movie, though I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be published today. Too much backstory, too much revisionist “Southern plantation fiction,” and a few entrenched Southern attitudes that make a modern reader slightly squeamish. I’ve actually read the book – devoured it, in fact, when I was in seventh grade, and studying the Civil War in my Texas History class. My fore-bearing history teacher took the book away twice for reading in class, but couldn’t quite bring herself to take it away for good. I tell myself she was secretly proud of me for taking on that hefty, meaty tome.
But the grand backdrop of the Civil War is window dressing for the hero and heroine of Gone With the Wind. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara are rich and textured, and the sexual tension between these personalities makes it surprising the pages don’t self-combust. On screen, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh brought these characters to such vivid life that I have a hard time thinking of them as anyone else other than those two (though Clark Gable is adorable in another favorite, It Happened One Night).
Now let’s be honest, we all like a rake. But there is something so authentic, so mesmerizing, so outwardly self-interested, yet innately honorable about Rhett Butler that we can’t help but fall in love with him. And the characters are written with such transcendent vulnerability that they don’t know they are showing, and such intrinsic courage and strength, that it is truly breathtaking.
Talk about layers and masks!
I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time when I was nine, and each time I’ve watched it since then (and there have been a few), I still see my nine-year-old self in my mind’s eye. Even then I understood the tragedy of their miscommunication. Even a child could see the price Scarlett and Rhett paid for their pride, their determination to see each other’s strengths so clearly, but all too often as faults.
And they – probably the two most misunderstood people in the South – can’t see that reality in each other.
It has been far too long since I read the book to be able to recommend it. But if you never have, you should definitely watch the movie. The witty conversation, the gritty survival, the classic character arcs, the sexual tension, the manifestation of characters who have primal fears that get in the way of what they really want – so much so that they can’t see the forest of their desires for the trees of their deftly yet unconsciously built defenses.
Fascinating, tragic, magnificent and heartbreaking.
Kind of like the Civil War.
So as a writer, what can you learn from Gone With the Wind? Here are a few points:
- You want to write a good book? Know your subject and know your characters, then build the appropriate world for them. Scarlett’s strength comes from Tara. Rhett’s a cynic, but he fights in a doomed war because he knows that’s what he has to do to ever be able to lift his head again in the South. Scarlett will do anything she can to make sure her family is safe and fed, and her plantation stays in her hands. These are not simple characters, but everything they do makes sense for the people Margaret Mitchell set them up to be. They are flawed, self-centered, courageous, hurtful, noble; at times they are awful, at times, amazing – but always authentic.
- Pay attention to details. This is true in setting, as well as character. Cinematically, Atlanta burning was kind of a hard special effect in 1939, but everybody knew if you couldn’t make that happen, the movie was dead in the water. You can’t have Gone With the Wind if you don’t have a city burning down around Scarlett’s ears. From a character perspective, you also need to have a widow who is in no way grieving for her first husband, and wants to dance. A woman who will make a dress from her mother’s treasured velvet curtains and visit an admirer in prison if she thinks he might give her the money she needs to pay Carpetbagger taxes on her beloved Tara. And a woman who will marry her sister’s beau to make sure they get their hands on his business, so they can build it up. So they’ll never be hungry again.
- Remember that sometimes good characters do bad things. And sometimes that makes them better characters (though not necessarily better people). At various times, Rhett eavesdrops on intimate conversations, is an angry, jealous drunk, and – let’s face it – basically rapes his wife, then abandons her. And there we are, sitting in the audience, mentally yelling at them, “Just tell her you love her. She loves you, too. It’s that easy, really!” He’s an absolute jerk, but he’s a vulnerable, hurting jerk. And we feel for him! Again, I’m pretty sure that you can’t get away with scenes like these in modern romances, but you can learn how flawed heroes act out in ignoble ways, but if we see the pain they’re acting from, they’re more real, and ultimately, more forgivable. If you write it right, your audience will forgive a good hero almost any fault. (Of course, you have to make him mostly loveable before you have him act like a jerk.)
- Set up conflict from the very start, internally and externally. Scarlett wants Ashley (she thinks). Rhett wants Scarlett (he knows). Ashley wants his wife, Melanie, but somehow never gets around to telling Scarlett that. So Scarlett thinks Ashley wants her. And she tells herself that she hates Melanie (but she doesn’t). Rhett hates it that the only woman he loves, loves another man. And while all of this is happening, of course, the way of life they’ve known and loved is disintegrating before their eyes. The premise of the story is a great study in conflict, and the characters are so well drawn, we can all learn something from them.
Happy Writing – and pass the popcorn!