As an author, I often come across the advice that protagonists should not be squeaky clean but should be flawed in order for them to be three-dimensional. I thought about this as I was reading George MacDonald’s The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret, two novels that follow the rise of Malcolm MacPhail from fisherman to marquis. I doubt, however, that Malcolm would consider his new title a step up, for in his mind a person is to be judged by his moral rectitude, not by his station in life. That, of course, is an invitation for the reader to judge Malcolm’s character, and at first, my sense was that he had no flaws. As a result, I didn’t find him to be an engaging character.
Malcolm’s positive traits are many: hardworking, loyal, dependable, honest, truthful, respectful of women, unassuming, longsuffering (to a point), and on top of all that, humble. I could list even more! He is respected by his community, and most of the women are particularly fond of him because he is not afraid to face ridicule when he joins them in their tasks as fishermen’s wives. For a fisherman, he’s well educated and reads Shakespeare in addition to the Scripture. The Bible is not just another tome of literature for him, however. He is God-fearing and seeks to live according to the Bible. So, I’m thinking this guy’s too good to be true.
His virtues and noble character, however, do get him into difficult situations. Because of his unassuming nature and guilelessness, he is often the brunt of practical jokes and a source of entertainment, particularly for the “genteel” folks of the manor. But what really gets him into trouble is unabashed honesty and truthfulness. He is not shy about calling out people for their wrongdoings, wickedness, and dishonest dealings, with the result that they view him as their enemy. In The Marquis’ Secret, Mr. Crathie, the factor (agent) for the Lossie manor, wants Malcolm to sell an intractable horse without warning potential buyers of the mare’s vicious nature—because that is just the nature of the horse business. As a man of conscience and of God, Malcolm could never be party to such dealings, and the factor becomes his adversary. His chief antagonists, Mrs. Catanach (no, not Katniss) and Mrs. Caley, are so incensed by his goodness they seek to disgrace him and even to send him to his grave.
In the end, I amended my judgment about Malcolm and decided there was a “flaw” in his character. His passion for justice and righteousness is so fierce that he can’t help but erupt in wrath and indignation when he sees injustice. On several occasions, his anger leads him to land physical blows on scoundrels. Malcolm’s former teacher, Mr. Graham, has seen Malcolm become “white with passion” and attests to his struggles “to master the fierce temper his ancestors gave him” (those ancestors being none other than Campbells!). Malcolm, though, is not blind to his shortcomings and applies the same standards to himself as he does to others. He admits to his future wife that he is “so swayed toward wrong, so fertile of resentments and indignations!”
Thus, the farther I traveled with Malcolm through his perils, the more I liked him. His story is one of a principled young man struggling to establish himself in a world of unprincipled people. Along the way, he faces temptations to abandon his ethics, and yes, at times he falters, but that does not deter him from seeking to live a righteous life. Thus, he is an encouragement for us to live with integrity and to stand for what is right in the face of ridicule, misunderstanding, temptations, and schemes to make us fall. Besides, as a former horse owner, I’d rather buy a horse from Malcolm any day than from Mr. Crathie.