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.