It’s your birthday. You’ve suffered through a long day of work or school, and finally you’re home. And you’re excited because – presents. So you start tearing into the brightly wrapped packages – only to find a new sweater or package of socks from that one elderly relative (and let’s say it’s a terrible sweater, you hate sweaters, and it’s 100 degrees outside). You’re disappointed. And your mom leans over and whispers, “It’s the thought that counts, sweetie.”
Another story. You just get home from an exhausting day, your significant other is asleep. It’s only 5:00. There is no dinner, the garbage hasn’t been taken out, the pets haven’t been fed. You try to tell yourself that they’ve had a long day too, but you’re angry anyway. And beneath all the anger, you feel hurt. Because if they can’t even try to help out around the house, they can’t possibly love you. When they wake up, you confront them, you tell them how you feel, and they say, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” And you say, “But you did.”
So is it the thought that counts or isn’t it? The first story, the one we’ve all experienced, in one form or another, tells us that yes, the intention is more important than the result. But the second story, which I’m sure just as many of us have experienced somehow, says that the action itself is the more important than the intention. But these are contextual situations. If we take the context away, does intent matter more than action – or the other way around?
Let’s take a look at U.S law. There are different charges for killing based on intent. In fact, if you accidentally hit someone with a car and kill them, they don’t even call it murder. They call it manslaughter. (There’s a whole complicated chain of different charges with killing, this only scratches the surface. So if you are interested, go look it up.) They say the action gets you punished, but the intent determines the punishment.
There are whole other discussions to be had here as well (did someone intend a comment to sexist, or are they just completely unaware? did someone really mean for their terrible driving to make us mad, or are they just oblivious?) but I think you get the point, so I want to get to mine.
When we’re writing, this is something to remember. Sometimes our characters are going to be so hurt and confused by what someone did, they won’t see the good intentions behind it (a betrayal by a friend to keep the character safe, for instance). Other times they are going to forgive based on that same intention. Did their friend really mean to betray them, or were they just trying to help out?
Whether you choose for actions or intentions to be more significant to your character will depend, almost entirely, on the character. And maybe they will fall in the gray zone where some intentions are more important and some actions are more important.
What do you think? Are actions or intentions more important?