Two nights ago, Bob and I watched the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for, like, the bazzilionth time. In my opinion, it takes its rightful place on the list of the most beautifully-made films ever. In Harper Lee’s powerful story, Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the 1930s deep South is charged with defending a black man against the rape of a white woman. In the process, his children witness not only his love for them, but his compassion for the vulnerable, his ethics, and his unwavering commitment to standing up for what he believes in.
For some reason, in my physical and digital space the last couple of weeks, this film was on other people’s minds, too. At the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference, as we were discussing the development of our stories’ main characters, a workshop presenter posed these questions:
“Are they writing characters like Atticus Finch anymore?”
“Are we moving more toward ‘anti-hero’ characters?”
The instructor at the conference used Breaking Bad’s main character, Walter White, as an example. (As a disclaimer, I haven’t watched the show myself, but have read a lot about it and heard other people discuss and dissect the episodes, mostly in next-day Facebook posts.) If I am wrong in anything I say here about White’s character, please feel free to correct me.
I see White as an ‘anti-hero.’ His ultimate sin appears to be loving his family so much that he will do anything to ensure their survival after he dies, presumably from his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. To achieve this goal, he gets into the business of making and selling crystal meth.
And yet because of his motives, he remains a sympathetic character, despite his choice to go down a criminal path.
But in the end, is Walter’s top priority still his family, or does he morph from sort-of hero to villain?
Are there any heroes on Breaking Bad?
The Hero and the Anti-hero: Atticus Finch and Walter White
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we had a sharp contrast between good and evil, and that is what made Atticus such a powerful character. I instinctively knew who to root for, who to believe in. And while “too good” can make for an unbelievable story character, still I need someone who I want to succeed—against all odds.
I found him in Atticus Finch.
A scene that still moves me to tears takes place in the county courthouse, after Atticus has lost Tom Robinson’s case. The spectators on the second floor, many of them black people, are standing in respect as Finch prepares to leave the courtroom.
One man, hat in hand, tells Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
This one scene, only a minute or so in length, tells us so much about Atticus Finch:
On the other hand, the character of Walter White is flawed and conflicted. We don’t always like him. But in order for the story to work, we need to cheer him on, to see him overcome the obstacles in his life.
White reminds me of Jean Valjean’s character in Les Misérables, but on a larger scale. As Les Mis begins, Jean Valjean is faced with a moral dilemma. Stealing the loaf of bread is wrong, but seeing his sister’s children die of hunger is even less acceptable to him. So is he morally justified to commit a crime to save his nieces’ and nephews’ lives?
Perhaps it wasn’t a storybook ending, but through the Breaking Bad series, we come to understand the choices Walter White made and wonder if we would do the same things given the same circumstances.
Is the anti-hero the new hero?
Or has he/she to some degree or another always been around?
In our society today, it is not always easy to sort everything into right and wrong, black and white. It takes more thought, more weighing than that.
Life is more complicated.
What do you think? As a writer, reader and/or viewer, are you more drawn to morally ambiguous characters?
Can you still root for an anti-hero?