Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Accidents Happen

So my daughter called me yesterday at work... the first time was to ask for reimbursement for something she wanted to buy school clothes-wise... then, not ten minutes later she calls back.

“Mom, you're gunna be so mad.”

He doesn't LOOK dangerous... the little trickster...
Okay... for those of you hoping to NOT give your mom a heart attack, I don't recommend starting with these words. Maybe start with... “Mom, it was an accident.” No... not much better... “Mom, something happened...” Yeah, that's better. Start with that.

But I could tell she was scared, and while I miss a good 80% of human cues, I can recognize fear in my children and most of the time managed to not compound it, so I drew out the WHAT of what happened.

“I tripped over Joel and I fell... and the next thing I knew it, my elbow went through the wall. There's a big hole!”

Well see... I'm across town at my desk and am picturing a GIRL SIZED hole... It's not so bad... it is more an elbow sized hole...

It got me thinking about intent.

The elbow-sized hole...
There is a psychological test of children to test moral development... it boils down to “You break a dish” but you do it sneaking a cookie, or trying to help mom clean the table... There are variations where it is a small plate versus an expensive bowl... younger and less mature children think the size of what is broken makes the difference... but at a certain point of maturity, people come to understand that accidents happen and INTENT is what matters. (okay, even some adults don't get this—zealots, in particular).

But what a fabulous thing to play with in writing.

There are good characters who can have accidents, or do bad things for the right reasons... and there are bad characters who do bad things for the WRONG reasons... and then there are morally gray characters who do the right thing, for perhaps dubious reasons.

Also in shades of gray are people who THINK they are doing things for the right reason (often some authority—an institution, religion, belief system).

I feel like a one trick pony because I can think of Harry Potter characters for each of these profiles, but I am coming up short in the other books I've read... So I will go with it...

Good who has occasional accidents: Harry is most obvious, though one could argue with Sectumsempra he KNEW it was 'for enemies' so there was negative intent there, even if it was NOT the deadly intent that might have come out.

Full on BAD characters: Voldemort and Bella are the worst of it...

Right thing for perhaps dubious reasons: I am going with Narcissa who saved Harry NOT to save Harry, but to get into the school to reach her SON (not a bad reason, but not a good reason in that good versus evil battle—had Draco already been dead, she would have ratted Harry out). And I know there are people who'd disagree here, but I'd put Snape in this category. He didn't help Harry because it was RIGHT. He helped him because of Lily.

People who THINK they do right: Dolores Umbridge seems this way in OoP, though later seems truly evil in DH. Fudge, though, we can argue is willfully ignorant, which is wrong... Percy sticks to his guns

Do you have any favorite tales that center around INTENT?


mooderino said...

She must have hit that wall quite hard. I ruined various objects in my youth but I don't recall takinbg out a wall.

I like the idea of using intent to add complexity to a story. Useful for making things interesting.


Jessica Bell said...

I can't really gauge how big the hole is without something to compare it to. Care for taking a photo with you next to it? ;o)

Christine Murray said...

Pride and Prejudice. Darcy hides the fact that Wickham preyed on his sister for her fortune out of pride, and so the Bennett family suffer. He did the wrong thing, but for the right reason, to protect his sister's name.

Manzanita said...

I don't have an "intent" story, but your daughter could have broken bones in her elbow to make any kind of a break on wallboard. It even hurts my elbow to bang it against the wall without breaking through. That really must have hurt.

Old Kitty said...

Ouch! Hope your daughter is ok!! Oh dear!! I love the way she started to tell you!! LOL!! I know from past experience how to speak to my mum about such things but it's taken me years to learn! LOL!

I'm currently reading "I shall wear midnight" by Terry Pratchett and the central character Tiffany is surrounded by this little MacFeegles who are full of good intentions but they always backfire! LOL!!

Oooh I must use the word NAKED! So there! :-) Take care

James King said...

My kids learned a little trick about delivering bad news to me. They start with a little phrase intended, in a most devious way, to ensure that I react with a little bit of perspective: "Dad, I have something to tell you, but first you should know that no one got hurt."

Lisa said...

I'm working on something right now and the scene is showing the intent of someone to do something that a lot of people will disapprove of and yet, I hope that he remains sympathetic. It's a tough balance.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I would've been more worried about her than the hole. I take it she was all right?

Hart Johnson said...

Moody-yeah, I don't know how brittle the plaster is, but it is almost 60 years old, so it may have just been the angle.

Jessica-the square in the middle is about the size you'd put a light socket into, though it is crumply around that.

Christine-YES! Good example!

Manzanita-she scratched herself, but must have hit at an okay angle--nothing too serious.

Jenny-She is--she's fine. And nice example--reminds me of Dobby, actually!

James-that IS a good start! Definitely keeps it in perspective.

Lisa-that does sound hard! Good luck with it!

Alex-Me, too, but somehow SHE didn't know that!

VR Barkowski said...

When I was in grad school, I used to put the front doorknob through the wall regularly - we couldn't afford one of those wall protector thingies. Never tried it with my elbow. Ouch!

The road to hell is paved with good intentions is my favorite proverb and always a great starting place for fiction because it's so damn scary. Not only is it the whole raison d'être for the amateur sleuth, it also applies to political extremists, church ladies, and over-protective mothers. The possibilities are infinite.

Deb said...

Hart, the one I have always said when something bad happens is "first of all, everyone is fine" and then I go on to tell the tale. I love the focus on intent. I use intent to gage everything. I have a friend who hurt me for years with her often unkind comments. I confronted her finally and told her they hurt. She broke down and said that she really didn't know. She said that because she was around comedy people all the time she felt she had to fit in. Not being naturally witty, she would just chime in with put downs because it was the only way she could get her foot in the door so to speak. I forgave her and understood and now I always look to the intention. Great post.

L.G.Smith said...

Great observation and examples! Motivation and intent are so important to believability, especially when writing bad guys. Love playing with those gray areas in characters.

Michael Offutt said...

All of George R.R. Martin's villains in his Song of Ice and Fire epic are these types. They are villainous simply because they are following their own intentions and motivations which are at odds with someone else. It definitely is the strength at the back of his series.

Munir said...

An accident is different. Our neighbour's son ran with a broom stick (reverse) into their wall to bug her for not paying for the lemo for his prom. She had suggested dropping and picking up him and his girlfriend. He proved that he was not mature enough anyway. Good for his Mom. Paying for a wall is better than going to the ER and or dealing with a DWI even if she gave them her car she said.

Journaling Woman said...

My family (not my children) always--always start out a phone call "nothing's wrong". That drives me crazy. But, I do get nervous when I think something is wrong with my children.

That's not such a big hole. My son went in the attic one time and the next time I saw him was when he put his leg through the ceiling. I might have screamed and collasped to my knees. I'm a little too dramatic they tell me.

Hart Johnson said...

VR--we've had a few of those spots, too. In fact our bathroom tile has a crack for it, but we put on one of those door catches.

Deb-a very good starting statement! And so interesting to see peoples misguided attempts just to fit in!

LG-they ARE the best to play in, aren't they?!

Michael-yes, those opposing belief systems work really well--probably best in fantasy as you don't have to moralize, exactly.

Munir-yeah, THAT woulda been paid for! And you are exactly right on what it proves about maturity (or lack thereof)

Teresa-my son keeps asking to go into our attic and that is EXACTLY what I keep telling him could happen! (and I'm not normally dramatic, but the daughter definitely can be)

Laura Josephsen said...

Intent is SO important in stories, and those HP characters were an excellent example of various intents. Even a bad guy being BAD probably won't look at what he's doing and be like, "I'm EVIL." Well, okay, he might, but he might just think what he's doing is right to him.

Oh, gray areas. They leave so much to explore in novels.

Clarissa Draper said...

Wow, interesting post! I have no examples right now but I like the grey characters. Good vs Bad and Black vs. White are too easy, I like it when bad people do good things for the wrong reason.

Helena said...

Dolores Umbridge infuriated me because she was so self-righteous and smug about being so wrong. Gee, are there people like that in real life?

SP Sipal said...

Love this assessment, Hart! You've nailed all the HP character motives. Personally, I think sectumsempra ranked high as Harry's lowest moment.

And I've got a hole in my wall that looks remarkably like yours! I love it when the first thing I hear is "Mom, I'm all right, but..." or even better, "It was my brother's fault!" :-)

Tripping Tipsy said...

OMG you just made me realise that they cut the entire "Percy is a douche" storyline from the last three HP novels! I feel so betrayed... now I've finally noticed.