A while ago, I wrote a blog post in which I showed compassion for someone that many people consider a villain. Though I in no way agreed with or condoned what this person had done, I was sympathetic toward them. It was a very unpopular viewpoint.
I received a lot of feedback on the subject – mostly from people letting me know that they had no such compassion. What surprised me the most was how many of the people telling me that my compassion was misplaced were writers.
Why would this surprise me? Because, as a writer you are required to have compassion for everyone. I can already feel the knee jerk reaction to that statement. Did you just get indignant by the word “required”? I’m betting many readers have and are already commenting below without finishing this post. To the rest of you who are curious enough to ask why I believe that, please continue reading.
When a writer sits down to create a character we want (or should want) that character to be as full of life and well-formed as possible for the reader. Even the villains. How can we do that if we cannot empathize with them?
Without compassion, villains become Snidely Whiplash twisting his moustache. Evil for the sake of evil. A one dimensional, cartoon character plopped on the page with as much thought as tossing away a used tissue.
If you’re looking for a good example of an author having compassion for all the characters in a book then read Jodi Picoult. Her books are a study in seeing all character’s perspective. In the novel My Sister’s Keeper, I cast the Mother as the villain because of the pain she caused her daughter. I prepared to hate this character. Instead, Jodi so deftly wove the character together will heart, emotion, and compassion for what this character was going through that it was impossible for me as a reader to take sides.
I saw a news story about a woman who after dinner with some friends hit and killed a man on an exit ramp. Yes, she had been drinking at dinner. She panicked and fled the scene. At first, I was angry but then I felt compassion for her. Notice that I did not say forgiveness here but compassion. I could feel her fear and panic in that moment when I put myself in her place.
Now our natural sense of superiority makes us say, “That would never be me. I would never drink and drive.” That may be true but have you ever taken your eyes off the road for a moment? Glanced at a text message? Glanced over your shoulder to see what your child was doing? Bent to pick something off the floor?
What about, have you ever changed the radio station in your car? That’s all it took for a man passing my home. He looked down for a moment to change the radio station and veered up onto the curb colliding with my mailbox. Lucky for him that a few minutes before a school bus had picked up the kids who wait there every morning, or it could have been much worse. He was lucky in that all he had to feel was embarrassment instead of anguish.
What if the bus had been late? What if he had struck a child? What if he had killed a child? What if you had?
Not everyone who makes a mistake, even a mistake that is criminal, is evil. Some are driven to the edge by circumstance. Some are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some make a poor judgment call. Some just take their eyes off the road for a moment. If you’re a writer, you need to know how you would feel in that position, and what could bring you to this place. In fact, you need to feel every moment deep inside before you can ever sit down to write that scene. If you don’t feel it, your reader won’t either.
As a writer, you don’t have the luxury of not having compassion for other human beings no matter what they’ve done. It’s your job to tell their story, and you can’t without compassion.