Male protagonists are a dime a dozen, but not a particularly diverse bunch. Take any popular movie or video game and the marketing for it will likely feature a tall muscular white man with short dark hair holding a weapon, staring towards whatever enemy looms on the horizon. Plenty of exceptions exist, but when in doubt writers seem to fall back on the same sort of heroic mold. While tropes by themselves aren’t bad, there are unintended consequences to this heroic male archetype.
The generic male hero is not just lazy writing. The gung-ho wisecracking stoic hero in its current incarnation comes off as a sort of wish fulfillment at a time where there is chronic psychological insecurity for many men. We’ve seen great progress in the number of women characters that break the traditional mold in recent years but the portrayal of men remains pretty much unchanged. These portrayals in fiction bleed over into real life. As one New York Times article notes, there are many routes of self-expression open to today’s girls, but acceptable conduct for boys still falls into this archetype. This social rigidity is further exacerbated by a decline in traditional male-dominated fields (such as manufacturing) in favor of office jobs, creating a gulf between an outdated norm and what is feasible in today’s society. This gulf is not without its consequences, and numerous studies lament that men show weakening academic performance and declining labor force participation, which results in a retreat from social life in favor of virtual experiences.
To reverse these trends, we need more male characters in fiction who break this traditional mold, and Atticus Finch is a great example of a non-traditional hero. While typically renowned for its discussion of racism, To Kill a Mockingbird covers a lot of ground with regards to gender issues. To some degree, this is not surprising. Any book critiquing the culture of the Deep South couldn’t easily avoid discussing the gender norms that underpin this culture. Atticus Finch is defined by how he interacts with and rejects certain aspects of the culture he is placed in, and this gives us a blueprint for how to write better characters.
Compared to most male protagonists in fiction, Atticus is both attainable when set as an ideal and comes off as heroic despite not embodying many stereotypical male traits of the time. Atticus is not a superhero with unique abilities or even Einstein-levels of brilliant. He’s a lawyer and a widowed single father trying to do the best he can for his kids. Much of the respect he earns in the eyes of the reader stems from him trying to raise his children right, even though raising children is typically considered unmasculine. He doesn’t want his children to grow up accepting the rigid hierarchies of Maycomb County and works hard to present alternatives to the culture Jem and Scout live in. He is uncompromisingly moral in pursuing this goal and insists that his children take the more difficult route rather than resort to violence or insults.
Atticus openly rejects violence as a shortcut to changing people’s minds. He admonishes Scout for fighting with a cousin who insults him for defending an African American and tells Jem and Scout to turn the other cheek when dealing with insults from classmates. Given the plot, it’s not surprising that we don’t see Atticus pile driving white supremacists with a copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis, but too often fiction (and male heroes as a result) ignores the consequences of violence and tries to equate power with morality. This separation of might and moral action is key as Atticus ultimately loses the court case, but does his best to win. He knew he would likely lose the case before he began, but through his willingness to do the right thing and pursue it to the end he impacts the lives of those around him for the better.
This moral fortitude stands in contrast to his attributes and interests. He’s accused of being a “soft” parent by his sister, plays the harp and is too physically fragile to play football with the other dads. Though a good shot with a rifle, he downplays and hides this ability from his children because he doesn’t want them to view courage as “a man holding a gun.” He’d rather them see courage as an old woman breaking a drug addiction. Atticus falls well outside the community’s masculine ideal but doesn’t cling to his traditionally masculine traits to try and compensate. It’s clear Atticus holds a separate worldview about what constitutes proper or moral action that frees him from these concerns.
Though this worldview is at odds with many of the town’s residents, Atticus does not respond by separating himself from society. So many works of fiction are about misunderstood or isolated loners who appear out of nowhere to quickly solve the problems of the larger world. While this may appeal to people who don’t fit in, the reality is that much of the world we live in is dependent on trust and social connections. The real world isn’t like a Fire Emblem game or one of those evangelical pamphlets some weird guy in front of Arby’s was handing out; people don’t just switch sides when given a schmaltzy speech from a stranger.
In contrast, Atticus is heavily involved in his community, which gives weight to his arguments. He’s Maycomb’s elected representative to the Alabama State Legislature and has a longtime law practice in the town. The townspeople are his friends and clients, and his conduct towards them in the years he’s lived there give him the opportunity to create change. When Atticus is seen protecting Tom at the jail, it’s Scout’s friendship with Mr. Cunningham’s son that leads the mob to disperse. In addition, Atticus is given the Tom Robinson case in the first place because of his friendship with Judge Taylor. It’s connections like these that allow Atticus to have a shot at changing the minds of the community, and this opportunity wouldn’t have been granted if he were some outsider, even though his ideas meet fierce resistance.
Atticus’s impact as a character continues today, and many lawyers cite him as a reason for going to law school. If one character in one book can affect the lives of so many decades on, think of the impact that can be made if we make an effort to show men that there are more options available than what’s presented to them now. Fiction both influences and is influenced by the society that creates it, and care must be taken in how our stories are told if the world we see tomorrow is to be better than the one we see today.