The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Good advice for living, and good advice for writing. Andre Dubus believes we are better people when we are at the desk writing, and there is perhaps no finer quality to bring to your work than compassion.
Why compassion? Because it is not a writer’s job to judge, it is the writer’s job to reveal. Leave the judgment to your readers, if judge they must. Everyone in the world wants to make up their own mind, after all; in fact, everyone in the world must make up their own minds, even if they make up their minds to let someone else tell them what to do. So don’t bother trying to make your reader’s mind up for him or her – show them what you must, and let it go.
And nowhere is this truer, nowhere is compassion more critical, than in character creation. No one in the world believes what they are doing is wrong; everyone has a logic behind their actions. If you want a believable villain, have compassion for him or her. You don’t have to agree with what the villain does, but I believe you must find a way to understand why the killing makes sense for the killer, why in the killer’s mind, at least at the moment of killing, killing is right.
It does no good to say someone, anyone, is just broken, is fatally and irrevocably wrong. Because if someone in the world, even the lowest sadist, is simply a broken person, then anyone could be a broken person, even you. I don’t know you, but I know you aren’t broken. I know you have failed and lied and been afraid and given up, but I know you aren’t broken. I know you are dynamic and evolving, and nothing in your life is fixed, no failure or success.
Yes, people do terrible things, and some people die doing terrible things, die even believing that terrible thing was justified. This doesn’t matter at all. If you want to believe in your own capacity for redemption, then you must grant it to everyone else. It will make you a better writer, and as the Dalai Lama pointed out, a happier person to boot.