In the wake of the publication of Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee’s first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, there have been a bunch of hot takes about how much more “realistic” the Atticus Finch character is in this book because he is racist.
That doesn’t make him more realistic. It makes him more in sync with societal standards at the time, but it doesn’t make him more realistic.
In my writing classes, I often have a kid say during workshop that so-and-so isn’t a realistic character because almost everybody does X and this character does Y. To which I ask, “Does it make sense for this character to do Y?” If the answer is yes, then that character is realistic, regardless of what most people do.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is, as far as we are able to tell, very much not racist. This is not an unrealistic character trait for him because he is portrayed as someone who is guided, quite strictly, by reason and as someone who sees evil in society as the product of a divergence from reason. Those two things could very well lead to a man in Alabama in the 1930s not being racist. Yes, of course, most white people in the 30s were racist. Especially in Alabama. That’s why Tom Robinson is convicted. But Atticus Finch as a non-racist is not unrealistic, it’s just uncommon. It is the uncommon things about characters that make them interesting. In fact, I defy you to find a single interesting character who behaves as we would expect them to based on the societal norms that surround them.
In the case of Atticus, part of what makes him different also nearly causes his downfall. His inability to believe that there is such a thing as true evil (in the form of Bob Ewell), causes him to discount a threat to his children, who are then nearly killed as the result of his negligence.
To Kill a Mockingbird is often dismissed by those who don’t have a good grasp of the text because they only read it in high school or middle school, but it is a complex work that showcases the full range of human morality. Atticus, certainly, represents that which is purely reasoned and moral, but people such as him do exist. His existence in an unlikely location doesn’t make him unreal (or perfect – a perfect man would not leave his children unprotected). It only makes him interesting.