Writing Characters with Compassion - 5 Ways to do it Better
I found this note from my line editor in the Still Life manuscript:
If we, as authors, don't genuinely cultivate a compassionate attitude toward our characters, our readers will sense our apathy - or worse, disdain - in our books. For me, as a novelist, this is one of the worst possible outcomes because one of the most important things driving my writing is the idea that the compassion readers feel for characters can translate to "real life" compassion for those we encounter every day. Yes, people are changed through fiction; that's how what I do becomes more than just putting words on paper.
Here are five ways to treat characters with compassion:
1. Care about your characters. All of them.
It's not difficult for an author to extend compassion to their main characters, especially if these characters have traits the writer admires. And those interesting, quirky minor characters are also often drawn with great tenderness. However, "single purpose" characters - props, if you will - are easy to hold in disdain and come across to readers as unidimensional; lack of compassion renders them paper thin.
2. Don't write props. Write people.
In reading, the two most predominate types of "single purpose" characters I've commonly seen written without compassion are the Lesson and the Obstacle.
The Lesson: In this case, the author uses a flawed character only as a lesson in morality. The drug addict who (of course!) is in jail because of his decisions. The woman who loses her family (and doesn't she deserve it!) because she gave into the temptation of an affair. Through these characters, the reader comes away not with a greater understanding of humanity's brokenness, but with an air of superiority (thank goodness I am not like that so-and-so!) and, more than likely, dislike for them.
The Obstacle: These characters exist only to block the main characters from their goals. But our novels must have antagonists, you say. True, true. However, antagonists who have no purpose outside of standing between the beautiful heroine and her soul mate, or between the brilliant-but-tortured detective and his promotion - well, this type of antagonist could just as well be a boulder or a locked door. In other words, they haven't much more life than inanimate objects. Antagonists must have their own stories, growth, and change.
3. Give each character a backstory.
When I was in college, I was quite involved in theater and I had a wonderful director who encouraged all his actors to develop the histories of the characters they played. These journaling exercises helped us delve more deeply into our characters, creating motivation, desires, and a concrete identity outside our own personalities.
Sure, we writers think about some aspects of our minor characters' pasts, but often only in ways directly relating to our plots. Dig deeper. Create a richer life tapestry for each person in the novel. Yes, this woman will do anything to get the hero to marry her, thwarting your protagonist and standing between true love. But why? Why does she love the hero? What will happen to her if he marries the heroine? How is her future impacted if she doesn't get what she wants or needs. What happened to her when she was five years old that makes her act the way she does today? Find out. None of these facts will necessarily make it into the book, but it gives an author a greater sense of empathy for the characters, which will come across in how the characters are treated in writing.
4. Characters who feel bad, act bad.
Don't we have more compassion for people in our real lives who act from a place of hurt, disappointment, fear, rejection, or physical pain? No one likes characters who act mean for the sake of being mean, but in the real world, most people who behave in unacceptable ways do so because of some underlying issue. Allow readers to understand your characters' wounds so they will also understand their misguided actions.
5. Remember, an explanation is not an excuse.
It's all well and good for your characters to believe they have reasons to be bitter, or ruthless, or disagreeable. But eventually, readers will become tired of those excuses. One of the most compassionate thing you can do for your characters is move them - not through "preaching" but through the realistic growth that comes through struggle, circumstance, and self-awareness - into a place where healing can begin.
So writers, what are some techniques you use to write your characters compassionately?