Tuesday, January 22, 2019

right thing/wrong reason

On Friday, May 11, 2018, you wrote the following: “I'm always drawn to complex characters who do the wrong thing for the right reason, or even better, the right thing for the wrong reason. Characters who are perplexed when people don't understand their "pure motives."” I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Can you please give an example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason?


Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane leaps to mind.
If you haven't read it, take a look.

The Wire is full of examples, starting with the first episode. McNulty tells Judge Phelan that the drug trade, now controlled by Avon Barksdale, is running rings around the cops.  Phelan shames the police hierarchy into creating a task force to go after Barksdale. Of course McNulty doesn't care at all about Barksdale's drug business; he just wants to show off.

And one that I have always thought would be a good start to a novel: you find a hungry, grimy toddler on the stoop of a brownstone in Brooklyn. No one is around. No adults in sight. You wait with the kid for five minutes or so. Still no one. So you scoop him up, and  take him home. Feed him. Bathe him. Clothe him. And keep him. And don't tell anyone. Ever. (And I don't mean keep him locked up. You treat him your own kid. You always wanted a kid, right? And this one clearly needed someone to be a good parent to him. I really can't see the harm in this. Can you?)


I'll bet readers have some examples!

Readers?

23 comments:

Arri Frranklin said...

I think Jack Reacher counts. He's a classic hero, saves the underdog and all that. Except he's said before (and Lee Child has said before) that he doesn't do it for the little guy. He does it because he can't stand the conceit of the big guy that makes him more arrogant than Reacher.

...Sorry if the example's obvious or garbled. Didn't sleep well, and I don't do caffeine.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love that story - lost toddler in Brooklyn. I wrote something similar in short story version, but less clear cut with the abandoned child. More of an envious park snatch. However, this opening would be more intriguing to me. Would the court give the kid back to the parents? Would the well-meaning adult be prosecuted? How would they explain the appearance of the kid to friends and family? Would they move? Change their identity? Forge adoption papers? Oh, so much to play with.

It is always interesting to dive into motivation, want, and choices with your characters, all of them - even the minor ones. Why did they do what they did? If someone is a total jerk, screws over my protagonist, I have to understand why at least as far as the character would understand it themselves. We can't always describe why we behave as we do after all.

Always, I believe a character (or any human for that matter) believes they are in the right, even when doing something horrific. And that is in itself terrifying.

Pericula Ludus said...

Not Brooklyn, but that's basically "The Light between Oceans". A baby washes up on a remote island, the only inhabitants raise her as their own. Such a wonderful act of charity...
I think a classic example is "The Crucible". The characters all have reasons for their actions, some very big and moral reasons. Who's right and who's wrong? To me, the very end really encapsulates that. Elizabeth watches her husband go to his dead and instead of begging him to save himself, she says "He have his goodness now, God forbid I take it from him." — There's so much to unpack in that and it fascinates me.

Colin Smith said...

Hmm... there's an interesting angle with this "neglected child" scenario... what if... hmmm... *scribbles note*... That could be interesting...

Carry on. Nothing to see here. ;)

Karen McCoy said...

This immediately made me think of Tyrion from Game of Thrones. Someone who was probably also neglected as a toddler.

There's also right thing/wrong reason. Thanos comes to mind.

Karen McCoy said...

Whoops, I meant wrong thing/right reason for Thanos.

Ryan Neely said...

I think my favorite example of this is Kennit Ludluck in Robin Hobb's Liveship Trader's Trilogy. Kennit is a pirate who is absolutely detestable. You loathe every ounce of his being, but he is constantly doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that draws people to him and gives him power.

For example: at one point, he has gone to visit his favorite prostitute in some dive coastal town. He doesn't even see her as a person and is ... not brutal, but not kind to her. During their time together, rival pirates come after Kennit. They want to kill him. They have him cornered in the prostitutes room and then the set the building on fire, which will force him out the window where the rival pirates will be able to pick him off easily.

Kennit knows this, and so he drags the prostitute out with him to use as a human shield. Through other reasons, both Kennit at the prostitute survive. The pro sees Kennit as her savior and believes he must be in love with her (after all, he sees her exclusively, and now he just saved her life--which was the right thing to do, but he did it for the wrong reasons).

She becomes a major character in the story (along with a handful of others who Kennit has meant to use for his own benefit but who enx up seeing Kennit as a kind of savior because his actions seem magnanimous based on their outcome).

It all works out we'll for everyone but Kennit in the end (who does get his comeuppance), but it's fun to watch it all unfold.

Megan V said...

I think the right thing for the wrong reason is something readers will come across a lot in anti-heroes.

There are many book examples, but my personal favorite example is from Television. Dr. House diagnoses and treats people suffering from rare medical conditions just because he wants to solve a puzzle. Right thing, arguably the wrong reason.

And in general, parents who want the best for their kids are an example of doing the wrong thing for the right reason.

Lennon Faris said...

Well I guess we all know now why Janet's going to end up on America's Most Wanted.

Anyone else ever imagine why they'd ever become a supervillain? I think, if I didn't have people depending on my sanity, some days I'd actually consider it. The vigilante-supervillain kind.

It's one of THOSE days, folks.

BrendaLynn said...

Doesn’t the right thing/wrong reason usually involve our ego in one way or another?
Samson and his first wife—pride and embarrassment
Arthur Less ((Less) leaving town—pride and embarrassment
Math (the brother in Things I Never Told You) as he defends his sister—pride and ...wait a minute!

As for wrong thing/right reason—Sunburn, of course, and the new Tana French

BrendaLynn said...

*Nath

Claire Bobrow said...

This makes me think of Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Bill takes a baby (wrong!), but for all the right reasons. It comes out well in the end, as picture books usually do:-)

BrendaLynn: I recently read Less. It was so good I cried at the end!

Adele said...

Ego and fear. Lots of people give to charity from motives of ego ("the Joneses just gave $1,000 - we gave $2,000. Hah! We won!"). And in the Middle Ages, lots of nasty people bequeathed their estates to the Church so that they could get into Heaven despite what they did in life.

John Davis Frain said...

Elmore Leonard books are filled with wrong thing/right reason characters. Makes 'em so endearing.

Gone, Baby, Gone is brilliant (although I would have said wrong thing/right reason). In any case, you won't be disappointed if you keep reading Dennis Lehane for a couple more titles like Shutter Island and Mystic River.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Dealing with nefarious animal abusers over the last 30 years, I've done a few wrong things for the right reasons. Anything to get a starving horse out of the clutches of these nasty creeps. When I write the stories I always change the breed, color, and location where the horse was found - and sometimes tone down the wrong thing I did.

Interesting topic. I'm taking note of the book suggestions.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

From Into the Woods:
Rapunzel: You kept me locked up in a tower for years, without company.
The Witch: I was only trying to be a good mother.

That toddler example actually happens in Started Early, Took My Dog. The retired lady cop (I think her name is Tracy?) actually buys a little girl off of a mother who is obviously abusive. Then she has to go underground with her.

Janet Reid said...

Melanie Sue Bowles I don't think there's a wrong reason to rescue a horse. Or any animal.

Well maybe someone other than you who intended to sell a rescued dog to the Duchess of Yowl to be used as a sneer toy...


but otherwise, I think you're pretty solidly on the side of the angels.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I LOVE stories where the main character is an antihero or in general Not a Nice Person and then they're confronted with a moral dilemma that gives even them pause and they stop.....and think.....and go "Oh hell" and do the right thing.

Though it's also fascinating when an ostensibly GOOD person (like, squeaky clean) does something unthinkable, unjustifiable, and somehow manage to justify it in their heads, and live with it.

I'm knee-deep in rewriting/drafting Run With the Hunted 2: Electric Boogaloo (title pending but I haven't come up with a better one yet) and leaning heavily into my unreliable narrator, but also the fact that my three main characters (thieves and antiheroes and all that) do not lie to each other.

Konnie Enos said...

I'm reading all these comments and the one anti-hero who came to my mind was Hans Solo. When Luke Skywalker found him Hans was a pirate looking for a PAYING job. He didn't give one rip about the rebellion he just wanted his money. Sure he helped, but the only reason he got dragged into it was because he was promised he'd be paid. He stayed because he liked Lea.

Furthermore, the character was originally only supposed to be in one movie. He was so well liked, well they kept asking Harrison Ford back. Ford finally got them to kill his character off.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Thank you Janet. Life can be furiously complex and then gloriously simple. I struggle to find balance in the face of suffering.

Craig F said...

The roads to money and/or love, either eros or agape,have lots of potholes to knock off the road of right thing, wrong thing. The end of those roads are all the reasons for most stories.

Back to beating my head against a query.

Joseph S said...

"To save the village we must destroy the village"

Mike Mullin said...

The toddler book plot was done well recently in Not Her Daughter by Real Frey. It's excellent.