Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s supposed sequel to her pulitzer prize winning masterpiece, was released not too long ago. It brought with it a shocking revelation.
Go Set a Watchman told the story of a grown Scout Finch returning home during the civil rights movement, and finding out much to her dismay that her father, Atticus Finch, was in fact a racist the entire time. She becomes progressively disillusioned with her home life, her father, and her roots, eventually cutting ties and moving on.
For a character as revered and loved as Atticus Finch, it came as quite a shock. Many viewed the character as a desperate plea to those in positions of power to treat their fellow human beings with compassion and understanding. To find out he in fact held similar views to the villainous Bob Ewell was a gut punch.
Of course, people are forgetting one little thing.
Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is the first draft.
In Harper Lee’s own words, Go Set a Watchman is the parent of her highly revered novel.
Taking this into account, that gives the novel an entirely new meaning. Stories and characters, just like people, change. From the moment an idea is conceived, it is in a constant state of change and flux until it is finished. The bigoted fool in Go Set a Watchman grew to become the persecuted father in To Kill a Mockingbird. As such, literary nuts rest assured, the character of Atticus Finch remains the same saintly figure we can all admire.
This so called latest vision of Atticus was a work in progress, and provides an interesting look at Harper Lee’s original, and much darker vision for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Looking at earlier drafts of stories is a very fascinating look at their origins. One of my favorite examples is The Terminator.
The original script was a much more complex and multi layered story. James Cameron eventually decided he packed in too much information and edited the story down to its most essential elements, resulting in a very different narrative.
These changes included the villain. Originally, Sarah was stalked not by one, but by two killer cyborgs. One of them was a liquid metal shapeshifter. Sound familiar? This villain was excized from the first film and resurrected in Terminator 2 as the T 1000.
By far the biggest change in the story was the loss of a complete arc. This segment actually made it into the can and was shot, scored and edited. Cameron again however deemed the scene unnecessary and removed it from the film. In this scene, Sarah and Kyle have an altercation where Sarah suggests they blow up Cyberdyne and prevent the rise of the machines.
Again, this element was cut out of The Terminator, and resurrected as the main story arc in Terminator 2. It even includes the signature “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” line that many believed originated in Terminator 2.
Many stories do this. The mine cart chase in Temple of Doom for example was originally written for Raiders, but Spielberg decided the script had too much action and put it on the back burner. It eventually became the signature scene of the sequel.
This happens often in writing. Scenes and characters are excised, re-written, and sometimes re-used when they do not fit in the context of one story, but are perfect for another. My story is no exception.
Back when Zhyx first began to resemble a story it told a very different Wizard of Oz style tale. The plot was that three teenage boys on a camping trip are whisked away to a magic land by a yet unexplained phenomenon. The rest of the story is a chase, with these three boys on the run from a large red dragon who, in later drafts, would become the central protagonist. Though the dragon does save the boys in the third act, for the most part, he was a false antagonist, distracting the reader and viewer from a much more serious threat. That draft was a script written back in twenty ought twelve. Eventually it became the book, the dragon became the hero, two of the boys became and elf and an orc.
Writing a draft, be it a book or a script, is a way for an artist to get something on the page. This makes it easier to see what works and what doesn’t, and sometimes, in the case of Go Set a Watchman, show an author that their original story may be but a mask for something far more compelling.
Due to pressure from her publisher, Harper Lee began to elaborate on her character’s childhood, and something new and magic happened. Atticus sacrificing his standing to defend a wrongfully accused citizen, the whispered rumors of the mysterious Boo Radley, and the villainous Bob Ewell stalking two children on Halloween night. The bigoted Atticus Finch died, and he became a man of conviction, who would take the spit and insults of every one of his neighbors as long as he knew he was doing the right thing.
The same thing happened in Zhyx. While writing those early drafts, whenever the red dragon interacted with one of the boys, a shy and introverted lad named Derek, there was something there. Some kind of magic. Eventually the red dragon wrenched my hands away from the keys and told me something. ‘This is where your story is.’
I have been taking his advice ever since, because lets face it. The dragon can weave a much more interesting tale than I can.
That is the way drafts go. They are the birth of a story, and like people, stories grow up, they change, grow more complex, and learn new things. The tale of Scout losing her father to bigotry became the story of how he tried to protect her from it. The story of Sarah and Kyle trying to prevent armageddon became the story of them trying to survive it. And the story of a red dragon pursuing three scared kids became the story of how that same dragon had to save the world.
For those fearful or angry at this newly revealed Harper Lee novel, fear not. The story of To Kill a Mockingbird will forever remain the same treasure it is. This new book however does offer an interesting glimpse into what the story could have been, but ultimately was not.