One of the blogs I follow, Janet Reid, Literary Agent had a post recently about right thing/wrong reason. and how it (and its inverse) can help make characters more complex and intriguing. It got the hamster wheel in my brain turning and I was just going to post a comment, but, of course, I began to ramble on well beyond the suggested word count. So, I thought I’d post it here.
The example that come to my mind was this:
Right Thing / Wrong Reason:
Assisted in the suicide of his terminally ill sister, with her doctor’s confirmation of rational-decision-making ability and with her written and notarized request / because he wanted to watch her die.
And I immediately also mentally flipped it with:
Wrong Thing / Right Reason:
Murdered his unsuspecting terminally ill sister / because he wanted to end her suffering.
It’s a fine line between “right” and “wrong” here. In the end one person killed another and most all feel strongly about that one way or another. That gut reaction to the action also helps to generate interest. Was it right? Was it wrong? Does the end justify the means? Does the intent behind the action matter? However, this example is also, forgive the pun, terminal. The deed is done, they do not have to continually make decisions to keep doing the right (or wrong) thing for the wrong (or right) reasons.
The example Janet gave us readers for fodder was someone taking a seemingly abandoned child in off the street / then caring for them as if the child were their own because, well, they’d always wanted one.
This scenario easily invokes mama/papa bear and protect-the-innocent-child instincts, but then twists it with the reason behind the action.
Yet the scenario is not as simple as action / reason. That person did the right thing, but only so far. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where to put the “/” in that one – it’s not as clear a pattern as my simple examples. It’s more action / action + reason or right thing / wrong thing + wrong reason. The real right thing, I think, would be to immediately notify the authorities. As soon as they didn’t do that they crossed a line into doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.
So then the fun in this scenario becomes how to twist things so that they are continually doing the right thing, but still for the wrong reasons. Or layering of right/wrong and wrong/right to self-justify their actions. Can it be simple though? It seems to me to get very complex and requires compound reasoning. Heck, diagramming (don’t judge me, it’s how I think) some possible decision points even to get to the call / don’t call the authorities is pretty complex – and I didn’t even follow all paths or include all possibilities for the ones I did – much less the ongoing decisions that must be made to continue down that particular path.
I think most would agree that engaging the child and checking for their parents is the right thing, versus telling the child to go away or ignoring them completely. Then probably most would agree that calling the authorities at that point is the right thing to do. However, it is also probable, for most people, that it’s also the right thing to do to take the child inside and at least give them some food, maybe clean them up a bit.
OK. Do you do that before or after you call the authorities? What twist or wrinkle could be generated by having the adult take the child inside first? Could the parents see the adult whisking their child away and call the police themselves? Could a neighbor see it and do the same? Could the child choke on food (or have an allergic reaction or slip in the bath or or or) and die? What does the person do then? What if the landlord comes in – for a previously notified maintenance item they adult forgot about – while the adult is undressing the child for the bath? What then?
The questions and possibilities could on, and on, and on ….
Our choices, our actions, or lack thereof, define our lives. So do those of our characters. What impact do those choices and actions have on our characters? Why do they do (or not do) the things they do (or not do)? How does that affect their thoughts and future actions? Had this person chosen to ignore the child, they’d have to live with that decision, maybe never knowing what happened to the child. Would they care? What character trait enabled them to ignore the child in the first place? What if they found the child dead on the doorstep the next morning? How would that impact them for the rest of their lives? What if they told the child to go away, and the child did, but kept coming back, day after day, weaker and weaker?
So, what if they did bring the child in and raise them as their own? How would your character justify doing that? Could you? What psychological or emotional issues or wound(s) in their own past enabled them to ignore the laws of society and, effectively, steal this child? How do they get a birth certificate so they can enroll the child in school? Do they home school and delay that issue until later? Do they continue to live where they are or do they move and start a whole new life? People – neighbors, coworkers, etc. – would presumably know this child is not theirs. Or would they? If not, why not?
Could you continually find ways for your character to justify the ongoing decisions and actions needed to raise this child who’s not officially theirs, even though it’s possible for them to have done all the “real” right things and end up raising the child with legal endorsement?
Run, hamsters, run!