Today is Yom Kippur. It is sometimes called the holiest day of the year. It is the Day of Atonement, when the sacrifice is made to make atonement for people’s sins. Personally, I remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross to make reconciliation between me and God.
Atonement is a strange concept, isn’t it? My dictionary says reparation for wrong or injury. It’s about unity and reconciliation. It’s not quite forgiveness, not quite justice. It’s making amends. I think humans are the only beings who truly need atonement. Most animals forgive easily, they forget offenses, or they are never offended or wronged or injured. They work on the basis of flesh, of instinct. Humans are the ones who are hurt and who recognize the concept of right and wrong. So, of course, this concept of atonement comes up in our stories all the time.
In my Le Garde series, my main characters Anna and Aaron were best friends through most of their childhood. In sophomore year, though, they had a falling out when Aaron asked Anna to homecoming and she went with his friend instead. When his friend started bullying Anna, Aaron didn’t stick up for her and their friendship fell apart. A year later, in my book Connection, they start hanging out again, but their past keeps coming up. Anna can’t forget how Aaron deserted her, and Aaron begins to realize how wrong he was. He wants to make amends, he wants her to know he’s sorry, but he’s unsure if they’ll ever truly get over that. He wants her forgiveness, but he’s unsure if he can forgive himself.
We all make mistakes. Some of us realize our wrong doing, but others don’t. When writing, this stuff inevitably comes up. Past mistakes, past injuries, being hurt, getting your heart broken. And if it doesn’t, I tend to wonder about those characters and their depth.
And in fantasy, the opportunity for this theme is huge — like villains who cross over to the good side. One of the most interesting characters in the Harry Potter series is Severus Snape, who served Lord Voldemort for years before becoming a spy for the side of light. Yet he spends years bullying Harry before we see his true colors, finding out why he turned from his dark past to help Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix.
In one of my new favorite series, a dystopian fantasy called Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, the main character is Juliette. Her touch has the ability to hurt and kill others, and she’s hurt many people in the past. She deals with her guilt, with hurting people with a curse she has no control over. Her parents turned her into the government, so she deals with that hurt, as well. When she’s kidnapped by Warner, however, we meet a character who puts a new spin on right, wrong, atonement, and forgiveness. Warner evolves through the series into a multi-faceted, fascinating character for whom atonement is extremely important. (I would go on, but I don’t want to spoil anybody — just read it, you will not regret it!)
I could go on: characters who deal with betrayal from parents and friends, broken relationships that need to be mended, villains trying to be good, heroes and heroines making mistakes and paying the consequences later. When I think of what makes us human, I am reminded again of why I write. It’s hard to even put that reason into words, but I’ll try. Because humanity is beautiful even though it’s broken. Because we are so deep and screwed up. Because we have the potential for so much good and so much evil. I write because it all fascinates me, and I want to be able to explore humanity through words, through my characters, through my stories.
I feel like when I write about Aaron and Anna mending their friendship and slowly falling in love, I’m understanding what it means to be human. As they seek atonement for the way they’ve hurt each other, I’m reminded that we are such unique creatures. Although we will always need atonement, we can always find it.