Loving Characters, Flaws and All
Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set A Watchman has many wondering how the author could have ruined the legacy of Atticus Finch. But for author Kyra Davis, flaws only make characters more interesting.
If there was any doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword, Harper Lee put the matter to rest with Go Set A Watchman. It spurred literary critics around the world to write the same cutting sentence over and over again, “Atticus is a racist.” You could almost see the bloody, mutilated hearts of idealists strewn across the floors of coffee shops, bookstores and school campuses everywhere as the words delivered their merciless assault, “Atticus is a racist.”
And when I heard it I too felt the stab of the blade. But it was the pain you experience when a friend tells you their grandfather died. You feel awful for those who are mourning but have no profound feelings for the one in the coffin. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the absolute masterpiece that is To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee’s brilliantly simple prose is gorgeous. The spirited, purposely-improper Scout charged right into my heart. But Atticus? Sure, the Atticus of Mockingbird was a great guy but, well…I have never been a lover of saints.
Every character I have ever written has been highly flawed. Mercy of Just One Lie is my most troubled protagonist yet. She’s a vibrant, reckless albeit well-intentioned indie rock singer who suffers from occasional bouts of depression, impulse control and a compulsion to self-medicate. Her lover Ash is trying and failing to be better and more important than he is. Her friend and drummer Brad has a serious white-knight complex that both complicates his life and disempowers the very women he’s trying to save. And all these characters live in my romance novels. To paraphrase the lyrics of one of Mercy’s songs, it’s their flaws and messiness that makes these individuals beautiful. But perhaps most importantly, it’s what makes them human.
So if these are the characters I create for my genre fiction obviously I want to see even more flaws in the characters woven into my literary reads. It’s why I fell in love with Anne Rice’s most beautiful fiend, The Vampire Lestat. It’s why the social climbing, self-defeating Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House Of Mirth moved me to tears. It’s why Brontë’s Wuthering Heights remains my favorite love story.
That said I do understand why people cherish the saintly version of Atticus just as I understand why we all stand in awe of J. R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf. These are aspirational characters. We hope they are reflections of our best selves. If they’re not, we want to change ourselves so we can reach their levels of honor, decency and dedication to all that is good. I don’t blame people for feeling lost once Harper Lee snatched back the rose colored glasses handed out by Atticus’ adoring young daughter, Scout. Now we’re forced to share the disillusionment of the more clear-eyed, grown-up daughter, Joan. For many the very idea that Atticus might be a damaged product of his time is a kind of betrayal.
But me? I’m the gal who would rather run off with the law breaking Jay Gatsby than the too-good-to-be-true Sir Galahad any day of the week. As far as I’m concerned Go Set A Watchman has made Atticus a lot more interesting. I want him brought down from his pedestal. I want him messy and flawed.
I want him beautifully human.
Kyra Davis is the New York Times bestselling author of Just One Night, “Just Once More,” the Pure Sin series, the Sophie Katz mystery series, and the novel So Much for My Happy Ending. Now a full-time author and television writer, Kyra lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, son, their leopard gecko, and their lovably quirky Labrador, Sophie Dogz. To learn more, visit KyraDavis.com or follow her on Twitter @_KyraDavis and Facebook.com/AuthorKyraDavis.
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