People admire compassion. We love stories of other mammals protecting their offspring—and ours. We’re all for compassion, though sometimes more theoretically than literally. And this reality impacts both the characters we create and reader response to the characters we create.
For example, evaluate your feelings for this character from Emma Straub’s The Vacationers: “Franny always wanted to carry in the most impressive-looking dish, no matter that everyone knew she’d cooked everything on the table.”
The sentence probably doesn’t encourage you to like her much. But what if, after thirty-five years of marriage, her husband just slept with a twenty-three year old? And, worse, that it’s common knowledge in her circle and at his former job? Our response changes, because no one’s immune to betrayal, vulnerability, the nightmare of public humiliation.
Characters aren’t just what they do, but also why they do it. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, protagonist Michael Beard gets divorced five times, has endless affairs (simultaneously), lies about his politics, steals research, and frames his wife’s boyfriend for murder.
There’s no one to love in this novel, yet it works from beginning to end. Some of that’s great writing. The rest? A little empathy for Michael Beard, who “had to have his wife back, and dared not drive her away with shouting or threats or brilliant moments of unreason. Nor was it in his nature to plead. He was frozen, he was abject, he could think of nothing else.”
When a character, however egocentric, resonates with the egocentricity each of us strives to quell, we respond not with contempt but compassion. Both inside fiction and out, we react very differently when we understand why so-and-so behaved that way. We react very differently when we have lots of information instead of merely what’s obvious.
What’s that got to do with you as a novelist?
~ Have your characters yearn, because that’s so human. But never let them whine, because that’s so annoying!
~ Include backstory not because you did your “writing homework.” Help readers understand character motivation. That’s the only reason for backstory.
~ Make your characters screw up. Then either let them save themselves or let your readers wish the characters could.
~ Play with irony. Readers enjoy predicting a particular outcome. Later? Reveal that the truth lies elsewhere.
~ Use your most private emotions. Those are everyone’s most private emotions.
Tip: Supply enough insight to surprise readers with how much compassion they feel—and for whom.