Compassion and Character Study

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Every writer knows that bad writing usually includes one-dimensional characters. Readers aren’t satisfied by a story in which the heroes are sugary sweet and the villains seem motivated only by pure evil. Not only is it difficult to get emotionally attached to characters with superficial personalities, but their actions don’t add much to the story. We already know what they’re going to do before they do it, and why. Because they’re good. Or because they’re evil. Case closed.

Complex characters, on the other hand, can electrify a story and get the audience to make that strong emotional investment needed to turn casual readers into rabid fans. But how do you draw a life-like, multi-layered character out of thin air? Like all works of art, the best inspiration comes from real life. You can observe the people around you, like your family, your coworkers, or celebrities in the media, and take your observations one step further by consciously practicing compassion.

Compassion is sort of a buzz word these days. Popular books, bloggers and lifestyle gurus tell us that compassion, forgiveness, and living in the present moment are the keys to a happy and simple life. But none of these are simple concepts. Practicing compassion is sometimes confused with approving of someone else’s bad behavior, or accepting conditions that are intolerable. But the art of compassion is not about approving or disapproving. It’s not about judging.

It’s about seeing with clear vision and loving intent.

For instance, if your main character commits a fatal hit and run, the judging part of you might think, “What a horrible man. I would never do anything like that. He’s just a complete jerk.” That kind of judgment labels your character as pure evil, and the story is back to boring. As soon as the judgment comes in, the rich texture of realistic human motivation goes out. The character falls flat.

However, if we pause and take the time to put ourselves in the character’s shoes, things look quite different. Really sit and imagine yourself as the perpetrator of that hit and run. Envision the fear you might feel, the panic scrambling your thoughts, and the adrenaline rushing through your veins. Think as your character would think in that situation. Does he already have a secret that this accident might blow wide open? Had he been drinking before he got in the car? Is this event just the latest in the downhill slide of his life?

Compassion calls for imagination, curiosity, and courage. You must have the imagination to place yourself in someone else’s life and someone else’s body. You must have the curiosity to ask questions and pursue the tiniest details of the answers. You must have the courage to experience revelations that others may choose to judge, instead of understand.

You can start practicing compassion every day by looking around for real-life examples. There are countless personalities in the news and celebrity media that most of the population judges as either “good” or “bad.” Choose a handful of famous people and imagine being in their shoes. What would it be like to live every day followed by cameras? Or to have to make decisions that affect millions of people? Or to have your words and actions recorded and commented on by others? What would be your thoughts if you lived in that kind of situation? What kind of emotions would you experience?

Now, apply these realizations to your work. Is the “bad guy” in your story really so bad? Look at his past, his current circumstances, his hopes and his dreams. What does he really want, at the core of his being? Do the same thing with your “good” protagonist. Has he done things in his life that he feels ashamed of? Does he experience emotions like jealousy, anger, or fear that push him to do bad things? Does your hero have a dark side?

Practicing compassion is work. It takes time, effort and energy to be willing to ask questions and be thoughtful instead of making quick judgments. It can also bring up a lot of fear. We use our judgments as a security blanket. When we can label something “good” or “bad” we can then immediately fit it into our worldview and feel safe. This is very tempting, especially if you live in fear most of the time. The practice of compassion asks you to take risks, to suspend your judgments and operate from a place of love. It asks you to embrace the uncertain, which is a challenging thing for all humans to do.

The payoff is huge though. By practicing compassion you evolve as a person, and as an artist. Your work takes on a richness and depth that unfolds naturally. Your characters stretch and grow in ways you never thought possible before, and so do you.

I invite you to take the risk. Shift out of fear and into love. Embark on the practice of compassion.

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7 Comments

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 22 August, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Plenty of sound advice there, Lauren. Weak writing is often a result of a failure to imagine characters fully. It’s often the unseen work that the writer has done that brings a character to life for the reader. You can’t expect the reader to empathise with your characters if you haven’t done so yourself. And you can only do that if you’ve thought through how your characters arrived at the point where the reader encounters them.

  • Reply J. Michael Palmer 22 August, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Great post!

    People are complex, and that’s why I love fiction: you can explore all aspects of a character and create someone who truly feels real, more than any other media.

    As a result of various anxiety disorders, I walk around constantly feeling like I’m judged. It’s an awful feeling, so it’s no surprise I write characters who can be easily judged one way but in truth are much different. It’s so hard to step out of yourself sometimes and keep from labeling people. Labels are comforting, but oh so divisive. I think the world would be a much better place if we could get over making snap judgments and display a little more compassion.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 August, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      It IS really hard to keep from labeling. I think it’s a lot more mental work to suspend judgment, but the rewards are worth it.

  • Reply Maria M 23 August, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    A great post that has me dissecting my characters to search for flaws that will make them more human. Thank you for posting

  • Reply Otto von Münchow 24 August, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Great post with plenty of good advise.

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