Thursday, December 12, 2013
The Mark of Character
by Pamela Palmer
I spend a lot of time thinking about heroes and what makes a person heroic. A lot of my characters skirt that line from time to time. Many have done things that have bothered their consciences, sometimes to the point of haunting them centuries later. So what makes a person honorable and/or heroic? There are the obvious things, of course, like putting others' safety and needs above their own, particularly in a time of crisis. That kind of sacrifice makes for a great fiction hero. But what about in real life? Rarely are we faced with crises of that magnitude...thank goodness.
For me, the mark of honor...and character...is revealed in how a person lives their life every single day. Does he open the door for the lady with the baby, or rush through before her so he can get in line first? Does she let the store clerk know he forgot to ring up one of her high-dollar scarves, or keep quiet? Does he consider how a decision impacts everyone involved, or only care about how it serves...or doesn't serve...him? And what does she do when she makes a mistake?
It's that last one I'm talking about today because I had a prime example of it this week. Everyone makes mistakes. You do. I certainly do. Though they might not be happy to admit it, all my characters do. Most of the time, our screw-ups are minor, like missing our turn on the way to the store. Other times they're disastrous. Often they fall somewhere in the middle.
The act of screwing up itself has no bearing on whether or not a person is honorable. Because, hard as we try, we're going to from time to time. That's what comes of being human. (Or vampire or shape-shifter, for that matter.) What's important is what happens next. What she does about it is the true mark of character. Does she make excuses and explain why it really wasn't her fault? Does she promise to fix it, then never get around to it? Does she blame someone else for the mistake? Or does she own up to it, apologize sincerely, promise to make it right...immediately...then follow through...immediately? That's the true mark of character and tells me I'm dealing with a person I want to work with again. (Unless, of course, the original mistake was a matter of gross negligence or incompetence. A surgeon who accidentally leaves a surgical implement inside a patient isn't someone I'm going anywhere near, sincere apology or not.)
A couple of days ago, my car started making a funny sound, a sound I recognized as a bad alternator. I took it to my dealer's service department and they determined it was, in fact, the alternator. Which had, unfortunately been bad long enough to wreck the battery. And, oh by the way, the rear brakes they'd warned me were going to need to be replaced the next time I came in ought to be done, too. Merry Christmas to me. Over $1000 in repairs.
The service rep called me late afternoon to say the car was ready, so my husband drove me over to pick it up. Less than twenty minutes after I got home, the service rep called again. "I have an odd question for you. Did you pick up your car?" "I did. Why?" But I knew. "You weren't finished with it?" I asked. He coughed. "We haven't even started it. The technician just came to get your keys so he could start working on it. Apparently we put your folder in the wrong pile." Needless to say, my jaw dropped. I'd not only handed over $1000 for work on a car that hadn't been touched, but I'd already been without my car all day.
I had every right to get mad...but I didn't. Because the service rep continued, "I'm so sorry. I know this is a terrible inconvenience, but I want to make this as easy on you as possible. If it's okay with you, I'll send a porter to come to your house, pick it up, and leave you a loaner. You won't be without transportation. We'll do the work this evening and as soon as it's convenient for you, we'll bring yours back and pick up the loaner. Tonight or tomorrow, whatever time works for you. Will that be okay?"
You know what? It was. They goofed. We all do from time to time. But they apologized sincerely and fixed it immediately, and with a minimum of inconvenience to me. Honestly and character. There's nothing more I can ask. Had they handled this differently, I might be looking for a new service department. Instead, I'm more loyal than ever.
Posted at 4:00 AM