Last week, we used Captain America to look at how it’s possible to make the Boy Scout character not be an insufferable pill. But this week, I want to take it further. Conventional wisdom in the writing world says, quite simply, that saints are boring. But is it possible to take the Lawful Good character and make them just as complex, as compelling, as great as any damaged and brooding anti-hero? Set your wayback machine to high school, boys and girls, because Atticus Finch is in the house.
I never had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, actually. I took American Literature in tandem with American History, which was an awesome way to contextualize what we were reading but meant that we didn’t get the opportunity to stop and linger on the books as much. So I’m probably a little late to this party, what with the huge amount of criticism already out there on this deserved classic. But as always, I’m looking at these things from the perspective of a writer. I think there are some very useful lessons that you can apply to your own characters to really push them to the next level.
Define his values
What does it mean to be a good man?
Okay, this is kind of an unfairly broad question. After all, there are several great works of art, bodies of philosophy, and even entire institutions that grapple with it and can’t always come up with an answer. As the author, you don’t necessarily have to take a stance on this one way or another.
However, your oh-so-heroic hero? He probably has a pretty good working definition.
This is one of the reasons I’ve never really connected to the character of Superman. He mainly seems to be a good guy by virtue of opposing the bad guys, and defining a character solely in the context of something else makes it difficult to connect to the character himself. He’s boring not necessarily because it’s so difficult to put him in over his head or because he’s too perfect, but because I never get a sense of who he is as a person, of why the stuff that he does matters to him. Generic goodness isn’t enough. You have to get specific.
Atticus Finch’s chief virtues are compassion and empathy, and much of the book deals with him trying to hold to these virtues himself and trying to instill them in his children. This philosophy bookends the story: when trying to convince Scout to keep going to school early on, he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view — until you climb into their skin and walk around in it.” Then when putting her to bed at the very end, he reminds her, “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” It’s not merely about being kind, it’s about understanding why someone is deserving of kindness. He treats people with dignity because he sees them as they see themselves, from the Cunninghams and their refusal of charity to Mrs. Dubose and the pain of her final illness.
Virtue is a somewhat flexible thing, frequently more of a social construct than an absolute truth. To our eyes, Atticus is a good father: attentive, encouraging, stoic but unquestionably devoted. But what he’s giving his children is not seen as a “normal” upbringing, and he frequently has to defend himself to family and neighbors as “doing the best he can.” He even second-guesses himself a few times, like when he tries to explain the family legacy to Jem and Scout. The struggle between his parental instincts and society’s expectations generates conflict without really getting anyone’s hands dirty.
Of course, things can’t stay that tidy…
Challenge those values
There was a very disappointing moment in Man of Steel for me. Okay, there were a lot of disappointing moments in Man of Steel for me, but I’m talking about one in particular right now. Like many other contemporary versions of familiar stories, Man of Steel gives the villain, General Zod, a sympathetic motivation: he was bred to protect Krypton and only wants to restore his people. So far, so good. He poses the ethical dilemma to Superman — save the people of his birth, or of his adopted home? Supes considers for all of two seconds before choosing the latter.
Now, it’s not like he got it wrong, but that’s kind of the point. The movie might allow you to sympathize with Zod, but it pushes him right back into cartoon villain territory so you aren’t tempted to agree with him. I see way too many of these cake-or-death softballs, where the hero gets faced with a choice that isn’t really a choice. He’s the good guy, so he’s right. End of discussion.
For the most part, Atticus Finch is right about the world, as well. A mob backs down when a little girl forces them to realize that the man they’re planning to attack is a father. The Black community recognizes that he tried to save Tom Robinson, even though he failed. Scout gets her final moment of clarity on the Radley porch where she sees her childhood through Boo’s eyes. Repeatedly throughout the story, having empathy makes the interactions between people easier.
But empathy isn’t always the answer, and there are two significant points where it fails, with tragic consequences. Tom Robinson’s sympathy for Mayella Ewell is directly responsible for his downfall. On the stand, his pity is damning, because how could any Negro think himself in a position to feel sorry for any white person? As for Atticus, his belief that everyone is ultimately decent leads him to underestimate Bob Ewell as a threat. If not for the intervention of Boo Radley, this misjudgment would have cost his children their lives. The fact that showing compassion is the right thing to do doesn’t mean that it’s without risk.
What is your hero willing to risk for what he believes? And — the more interesting question for my money — what isn’t he willing to risk? Not everyone weights their own values equally, and when they come into conflict, it forces that person to choose one over the other. Atticus hates guns, but when a rabid dog threatens his neighborhood, he still pulls the trigger. He takes Tom Robinson’s case explicitly because he can’t choose his reputation over his conscience. The scene where Atticus keeps vigil over Tom’s cell pits several of these factors against each other: he has no qualms about putting his own personal safety on the line, but when he realizes that his children might have to watch, or might even get hurt themselves, that’s when he shows fear. And again during Tom’s trial, right at the moment that Atticus has pinned everything on, he’s willing to walk away (at least temporarily) because his children might be in trouble. There’s a clear hierarchy of the things he values.
This question of risk is one of the reasons Man of Steel didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel like Superman had any skin in the game, like there was any personal cost of failure. Yeah, billions of lives and all, but that’s a statistic. It’s also hard to think that he’s that concerned about human life as a general concept given his role in the destruction of Metropolis (not to mention it’s hard for the audience to care when it was apparently rebuilt pretty much overnight). With all the flashbacks, there’s nothing that ever backs up Jonathan Kent’s fears that horrible things will happen if Clark reveals himself, so when he’s willing to die rather than risk exposing his son, it just feels pointless instead of tragic.
Doing the right thing — knowing what the right thing even is — is frequently difficult in real life, and thus it should be in fiction. It’s somewhat rocky territory for the writer because we’re pushing away from the safe shores of easy answers and into ambiguity, but don’t shy away from it. This hearkens back to that tricky “show, don’t tell” chestnut. Don’t just tell us what the character believes in; make him prove it.
Temper the idealism
I keep coming back to Superman because he’s kind of the archetype for this paladin sort of character. And I’m sure that some of you are just itching to get to the comments, so you can tell me all about why Man of Steel isn’t really a fair representation of the character, and how other writers have handled him and made him more interesting and blah blah blah fanboycakes. But I think the failings of this most recent incarnation show exactly how difficult it can be to reconcile this sort of character with such a jaded world. So it’s tempting to shove him into broody angstdom, but there are other ways to strike the balance.
To Kill a Mockingbird gets accused of being somewhat saccharine, but it’s surprisingly unromantic when you get down to it. After all, no matter how badass a lawyer Atticus is, he can’t overcome the deeply ingrained racial prejudice of his time, and he doesn’t even get to try for an appeal because Tom commits suicide by prison guard first. If this were a fairy tale sort of story, Boo Radley’s heroism would make him a cherished family friend and would be enough to conquer whatever issues kept him shut in his house all those years. But it’s not a fairy tale, and Scout never sees him again. For all its idealism, it doesn’t flinch away from the harshness of reality.
The other important thing to remember is that, while Atticus Finch is definitely the most significant character and the main driver of the story, he’s not the protagonist. That’s his daughter Scout, who’s also the narrator. She’s a much more capricious character, which relieves Atticus of some of the burden of carrying the drama. Scout doesn’t understand him and is sometimes critical of things like his age and his habits, and her perspective keeps things more interesting than if we spent the whole time in Atticus’s head.
Hopefully all of this gives you some things to try if you get stumped by a squeaky clean character, and perhaps a new appreciation for the old crap they made you read in high school. Sometimes it’s more relevant than you’d think.