Manslaughter’s Gray Lesson

A main character’s motivation should not be black-and-white. In life there’s denial and inner conflict to the extent that it can be difficult to know your own motivation at times.

You think your grandmother’s doctor is an uncaring jerk, out for money. The President of the United States has backed you in a speech, saying that doctors remove legs unnecessarily for the money.

Only a criminal sociopath assaults someone, cripples them for life and steals their money, but the President says doctors do it. That makes doctors, surgeons at least, an official group of violent criminals. It’s now officially OK to dislike them as a group (another PC-passable prejudice) and sue them as often as possible. Grandma’s evil doctor deserves whatever she gets.

You’ll sue her.

Sure, Grandma liked her doc at one point. But the doc failed to notice that the oxygen tank had been turned off. Oxygen is a medication, a doctor’s responsibility.

She killed Grandma!

Of course, there’s the fact that the oxygen was physically turned off by your nephew who was visiting. That kid is totally undisciplined. His parents are too enlightened to ruin his self-esteem with the ignorant abuse we once called “raising kids.” You remember saying to your husband, “That kid’s parents killed Grandma.”

But that was before the lawyer mentioned a law suit. Big money.

Wait, this is not about money for you. It’s a matter of principle. You’d sue that quack even if you knew you’d lose and be forced to sell your home to cover lawyer’s fees.

Well, maybe not. Bankruptcy and homelessness are extreme.

Anyway, the lawyer says it’s a slam dunk, and the negligent doctor should pay for grandma’s funeral, at least. If there’s extra money, you’ll give it to charity – if your husband agrees.

But his job, selling insurance, is shaky now that the government competes with him. How can a salesman compete with a government monopoly that’s giving away his product? And Washington doesn’t have to turn a profit?

But everyone has an equal right to medical care because it’s a life-and-death issue. Like food, water and a place to sleep. Of course, if Washington is really going broke they won’t be able to keep giving things away forever. But they can’t go broke. They’re too big to go broke. But didn’t Rome go broke? Isn’t Greece going broke? No, that’s political nonsense. Greece is tiny anyway.

If there’s extra money after the lawsuit, you and your husband will talk about charity then.

A year later you win the case and wonder if you sued for the right reasons. To be honest, you’re not sure.

Motivation, like most everything in the universe, can be plotted like dots on a bell-shaped curve.

Dots on the left are less selfish decisions. Dots on the right become progressively more selfish. The vertical axis keeps track of the number of dots (decisions) with each degree of selfishness. Most fall near the middle…

Near the comet in this upside-down photograph of a night sky over mountains.


You married your spouse because she was lovable, smart, great looking and didn’t yell. This was selfish. But her good genes will be passed along to your kids. That’s unselfish. Of course, you hope to be proud of your kids, that’s selfish. But maybe that pride will be good for them, that’s unselfish.

Motivation is gray. Its color should be just as central to fiction writers as it is to the law.

You slug a guy in the face for insulting your husband in a bar. To your horror, the guy dies. The DA doesn’t go after murder, just voluntary manslaughter.

The next day, you’re driving below the speed limit, not using a cell phone, when a kid runs out in front of your car to show his friends how brave he is. You almost stop in time, but no, the poor boy dies. The charge is involuntary manslaughter, not voluntary. Certainly not murder.

The doctor who failed to keep a child away from grandma’s oxygen tank? There was a strikingly similar case (R v Adomako) in which the doctor was convicted of “criminally negligent manslaughter.”

And rightly so. Anyone so money-grubbing and evil as to become a doctor (a professional criminal by Presidential assertion, after all) should be expected to detect the absence of oxygen (not) coming from a tank that was turned off by a child. The doc must have been sleeping through her four years of college, four years of medical school, four years of residency and two years of fellowship. Obviously fourteen years of education and training never taught her the first thing about parenting… other people’s kids.

In writing fiction we take pains to make things real and emotionally true.

I go over passages of dialogue trying to hear how my protagonist would actually sound – trying to put myself in her moment. I look at the courtroom through her eyes wanting to feel what she feels. And why does her head hurt? What worries her the most this morning? But…

None of this can counteract the cardboard effect of black-and-white motivation – all good or all bad, homogeneously selfish or 100% unselfish.

When a real hero gets behind the underdog she does it for mixed reasons. Sure, she cares deeply about victims. But helping them brings a euphoric rush that makes her neglect her husband, kids and goldfish. That’s interesting, messy and real.

To help readers know the truth of her motivation, it helps to show the depth of her inner conflict:

She admits to herself (and to the reader, especially if it’s a first-person story) that the recent “heroic” behavior of hers – donating a kidney to the woman who stole her husband – is, at some level, a selfish reaction to the looming question inside, “Am I a good person?” After what she did in high school to that special-needs boy, the question haunts her. Plus, just today in court she ruined a country doctor’s life by winning a case that deep down she hoped to lose. “I mean, what did the woman do wrong?” she asks herself now that the court battle is over.

It would also help her become a genuine hero if she has a sharply contrasting but complex antagonist who admits to hating children and all fuzzy animals (cardboard stuff), but also scoffs at the rumor that he helped incite the ’47 Lymean uprising and organized the Steen’s polar invasion that saved all those Danes from the torture slabs.

M. Talmage Moorehead