Friday, December 11, 2009

Naughty or Nice?

Oh, I see all of you running in here to see the Tart's latest iteration of mischief, but I'm going to give you some actual psychologically grounded food for thought, so how's that? (Aren't I naughty?)


People can look at that and think a lot of different things. In literature, the act could be made sympathetic ages before any psychological theories were out there (Look at Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and both his motivation and the significant consequences). So I want you to think about this.


He was hungry.
He was starving.
His family was starving.
He saw some children on the street who were starving.
He saw it as a challenge and wanted to see if he could.
He wanted to show off to his friends.
He was impulsive.
He hated the bread vendor and wanted to cause him problems.
He's in love with the girl selling and wanted her attention.

From WHOM?

The window of a hungry family.
From the donation truck for hungry families.
From a wealthy widow baking loaves.
From a wealthy widow baking loaves for the orphans.
From a wealthy widow after providing her with some much wanted company.
From a street vendor.
From a small shop.
From a national chain.


At the end of the day when it is mostly stale anyway, he nicks a last loaf unlikely to sell.
When it is first set out for sale, hot fresh and irresistible and it makes his tummy rumble.
When there are dozens of people gathered and it is most daring.
When the vendor turns his back, he nabs it and runs.

There are people who believe it's wrong no matter what—that right and wrong is a matter of black and white (I almost gave them a political affiliation, but stopped myself—wasn't that good?) But most of us think there are circumstances by which stealing is a reasonable offense.  Most of us would attribute different shades of right and wrong, based on the circumstances and motivations of the bread thief.

In Our Writing

I have a long fan fiction up for the 2009 finals at HPANA and was rereading some of it (editing a little) and caught some of the comments recently—I managed a writing coup. The story was about the 'Marauders' (Harry's father and his best friends, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettygrew) and I wrote their pranks and antics in such a way that the Marauder LOVERS (a large, loyal group of people who adores this bunch—other than Peter, anyway) thought they were funny and fabulous, and the Marauder HATERS (often Snape sympathetics, though I fall into a third group who thought they were ALL boys behaving badly) thought they were horrible, awful people.

Before WRITING this complex group and their antics, I had thought some writers were too forgiving and wrote it all as light fun, and some were too merciless and wrote them as awful. I tried to draw from both my psychology and from some boys I knew when I was a teen, and I think I managed to nail that gray area. How people felt about the Marauders I wrote depended largely on the feelings about 'boys will be boys'. [this group might think the thief above was in his rights if he stole in a very daring manner to see if he could get away with it, though not from starving children—something like that]

So I am trying to use such shades of gray in my more recent books, but it isn't easy. I tend to cut people in dire straights (hungry or backed into a corner) a break but not be very sympathetic to flashy antics for fun. I need to remember though, that some of those mischief makers are sympathetic to part of my readers, and there is nothing better than stirring up a bit of controversy!

And because I can’t bear to disappoint you (though baring is another matter entirely)… a little seasonal naughtiness…


M.J. Nicholls said...

Cause and effect is crucial for creating a well-rounded character, mefeels. We can still love the unpleasant ones if we understand their motivations, methinks.

I'm working on making my protag more sympathetic towards her melodramatic mother. Defining actions and motivations is crucial, mebelieves.

Watery Tart said...

Mark--totally with you--I actually LOVE that task... making a terrible-seeming person suddenly understandable by revealing a piece of history or some such thing. Most of us get through life 'trying our best' so it isn't so hard.

Kevin Morgan said...

There are many many people who see it as completely wrong whatever the circumstance, and not viewing it in shades of grey is in my opinion quite silly.

One thing that's often overlooked when casting our judgements as readers is the victim of the theft in certain situations. I.E. The man feeding his hungry family, or similar.

In the stories I read you see side-stories that may not forward the plot but enhance it by showing how cruel the world is, or the alternative perspective, blurring the line between evil and good.

I think more writing needs to explore that. It makes for an interesting read when you become sympathetic to the plight of that starving man and thus condone his actions, only to realize that his actions caused worse plights for others.

I've seen some stories do this on a minor scale, but only a few have pushed this to the point of making me become enamored with what one might typically assume an evil character, or making the typically good characters leave a foul taste in my mouth.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Making well rounded and shades-of-grey characters is not an easy task. Even if you know what the shades of grey are, working them into the story without dragging out the plot is a challenge.

Best, Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Jan Morrison said...

ah, yes. The difference between melodramas and nuanced fiction in the gradation of motive and chance.

Kevin Morgan said...

Fair point, Galen. Which is why, unfortunately, S.Erikson and GRR.Martin have ruined a handful of authors for me.

There seems to be a rising trend in popular fiction to blur the lines of ethos, leaving everyone as a shade of gray and the judgment of the character at the discretion of the reader, as opposed to the typical fare in which the author decides what is good and evil and diametrically opposes them.

It also seems that novels that do this are hailed for their craftsmanship. So it seems the distinction between an author that can visualize and work it into the story without dragging the plot and one who can't has a close correlation (IMO) to the skill of the author.

Of course, I may be a less than typical reader who prefers epic stories blended with realistic and nuanced characters.

@Jan: Yes. :-)

Watery Tart said...

Kevin, I LOVE stories with interwoven subplots like that--in fact I like them for character growth--a character who does something with a 'justification we can understand' and then the consequences to someone else are much graver than he's forseen, thereby causing the character to reevaluate... Also very nice in tragic circumstances tales... it's a zero sum gain--if you eat, someone starves... who should get to play god?

Galen-absolutely--VERY difficult. I aspire to it anyway! (I've recently pulled off a brainwashing, so I am feeling up to it)

Jan-I can still enjoy a melodrama, so long as it recognizes itself for what it is, but yes... not much patience for the perfectly good versus perfectly bad.

Kevin, did you just growl at me? *snort* sorry... will have to check out those authors! (and yes, you're atypical)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Love murder mysteries where I end up wanting the murderer(s) to go free. ("Murder on the Orient Express" was a well-known example.)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Marjorie said...

I think it was very good of you not to give the black and whiters a political affiliation, because you would be wrong Tarty-Tart. Completely wrong, in my case at least. I enjoy stories that involve various shades of gray. Take Dumbledore for example. Was everything he did exactly the right thing to do? Perhaps not, but he believed he was doing the right thing at the time. I end up loving Dumbledore even more for his flaws than for Dumbledore when he was a brilliant Christ-like figure to Harry. What I mean to say is the more human a character the better the writer and the story.

Watery Tart said...

Elizabeth-GREAT point! Making the murderer sympathetic is totally tricky, I'm sure--I mean other than the self-defense cases... but now I want to read that! (I haven't)

Marjorie-I stopped because it would have been too sweeping, I know... it is the 'three strikes' set I think I really refer too--hard on crime, minimum sentence standards REGARDLESS of the story behind it... THAT group. And I am totally with you on DD--love him all the more for his flaws, but I sensed them even early--a man THAT into love isn't alone without having made some grave errors...