Today I witnessed a perfect real world example of how motivation is important to character. The scenario was this:
I received a box of goodies from an online shop which, in place of an item I’d ordered, contained a very expensive item. Obviously just a packing mistake in the warehouse, but it left me with a moral dilemma. Do I keep what was delivered or call them and let them know about the mistake?
Various colleagues gave me advice. In particular, two guys who are of similar age, social background and personality, yet gave me opposing advice. Mr A said “their loss, your gain ” and Mr B said “call them – it’s the right thing to do”.
Mr A then got a little offended that Mr B was claiming the moral high-ground, and a very interesting conversation followed, with each expanding their initial position.
Mr B clarified that he, mostly, thought I should call the online shop because he knows I’m a long-term customer and that customers of this shop form a loose sort of community. In other words that because they aren’t complete strangers, it’s more important to act honestly.
Mr A expanded his position to say he felt that it was the shop’s obligation to not screw up my order, so they should pay for their mistake and maybe they’d learn from it. He felt the obligation was all to me.
I found this very interesting, because my first response to Mr A was “aren’t you selfish” and my first response to Mr B was “that’s a little preachy”. On understanding better that B’s motivation was an idea of community, and that A’s was a lot to do with an expectation of service and accountability, my view of both their characters was changed.
As a writer it instantly got me thinking about how often I’ve read a story where I didn’t really get the character’s motivation, or they were presented as fairly one-dimensional so I only had an initial opportunity to react.
Of course a gradual expansion of motivation is also a great plot device in some genres (eg in romance where the lovers so often have to have cause to dislike each other initially).
It was a useful reminder of how subtle and complex people can be.
Oh, for the record, I called the shop and will be returning the expensive item when they deliver the item I originally ordered. My own decision sprang from the following (in order of importance):
- It’s a really expensive item for the shop to lose out on.
- It’s my favourite shop and they’ve always given me excellent service.
- I probably wouldn’t use the item much so keeping it would be greedy.
- My parents would be very disappointed in me.
Feel free to laugh at number 4, but it’s always in the mix when it comes to “being honest” (big part of my back-story after all!). Whether that would have been the deciding factor if the item had been less expensive and of more use to me… who knows.