A tree which lies low grows least.
—Old English Proverb
Many times, you’ll hear the complaint that certain characters in literature are too good to be true. They set the bar too high, people claim. They’re bad influences, supposedly, because they give us expectations about ourselves and others that no one can possibly live up to. I’ve heard this said about several characters, from the great Atticus Finch to the lowly Edward Cullen. But are “unrealistic” characters really a bad thing? If you ask me (and you must have, because you are reading this post 😉 ), the problem lies not in the characters themselves, but in how we approach them. And if we can approach them in the right way, we will see how fantastic they really are.
A lot of people seem to be of the mind that fictional characters should mirror real people exactly. They also believe that if a character is nobler than what the reader is used to, he is unjustly inflicting “unrealistic expectations” upon his readers. Now, if these people prefer their stories with a heavy dose of realism, that is completely a matter of taste (though I don’t really see the point of reading fiction if it is exactly like real life). But what people need to remember is that the purpose behind many characters, especially in older stories, is not to show humanity exactly as it is, but as it should be. These so-called “perfect” heroes are not created to tell us what the world is like outside of our four walls; instead, they are meant to inspire us with awe for the qualities they possess, things like courage, honor, and faithfulness. They are also meant to challenge us to be better than we are now. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the ideal man (or woman, for that matter) should be brave and strong and honest and loyal. I thought most people did. So why do we complain about the characters who embody those characteristics best? No one should expect himself or anyone else to be perfect, and for that matter, no one should try. But we can always do better and reach higher. That’s what these characters are there for: to inspire us with the goal of being better people.
We all wish our lives could be like the novels we read and most of us, at some point, have probably been sorely disappointed that life wasn’t like a novel. But just because we’ve responded to literature the wrong way doesn’t mean we have to change it. On the contrary, we are better off with our unrealistic heroes and our make-believe scenarios. It’s the impossibly brave characters like King Arthur who remind us to be courageous. It’s the unbelievably good characters like Atticus Finch who encourage us to live above the world, not in it. If we don’t have high standards, we will never be the best we can be. If there is no mark to aim for, we will never come close to the target.
Image Credit: Project Gutenberg.