“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” is one of those clichéd expressions that worm their way into fiction the way a clever pop song worms its way into your head and replays for days and days. In real life it’s often true —politicians enact laws with good intentions, but unintended consequences result in all sorts of hellish bad endings.
In fiction, I’m more interested in the impact that the good intentions of an individual have on the bad outcomes of a story. The false alibi meant to shield a friend or loved one that directs suspicion toward the wrong person; the “white lie” to protect someone from an unhappy truth that magnifies the horror when it is finally revealed; and the chain of unexpected events that sometimes follow a well-intended, if irrational, action.
Characters, like real people, make choices based on their personalities, past experience and worldview. If you believe that you must tell the truth at all costs, you are a very blunt and unusual person. Over time, you might learn that your absolute honestly comes with an unintended cost, so the one time you decide to temper your attitude and hold back might be a great moment in a story, a turning point for a character and the linchpin for a twist in the tale.
If you are secretive by nature or an inveterate gossip, you may value stories about other people. Whether you intend it our not, you’ll likely treat those stories like treasure to hold or currency to disperse. When a gossip meets a good listener —the kind of listener who can put together disparate pieces of information to unearth unintended consequences and hidden connections, this can be a great personality trait for a detective. Think Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) or Miss Silver (Patricia Wentworth) —these older lady detectives were the recipient of both confidences and gossip. They listened and noted the paving stones on the way to hellish conclusions and fabulous mystery stories!
The fictional road to hell is paved with both good and bad intentions. Don’t you agree?