Creating Characters: Compassion and Conflict

I was quite taken with this post from Sandra Pawula on compassion when I read it last weekend. (I'm actually quite often taken with admiration for Sandra's posts.  If you haven't discovered her blog, go read it now.) Paper-pink-texture-64137-l

In the post, Sandra writes about how compassion is linked to boundless, deep love and then, and this is what really blew me away,  she defines love. "This is one truth I have come to know with certainty: When you love completely from the depth of your heart, your wish for another person’s happiness becomes greater than your own perceived needs, wants, and desires."

So, because anything I read or think about eventually gets connected to my writing, I started to think about how we authors feel deep compassion for our characters.  We fall in love with them, and want the best for them.  We want them to be happy.

But, then we have the other C word.  You know what I'm going to say: conflict.

The basis of all story is conflict (or tension, if you prefer).  In order to create a story, be it short story, memoir, or novel, there must be conflict.  And lots of it.  The more the better.

But we love our characters!  How can we show them the compassion they deserve (and in my mind, need if we're going to write them) and still create the conflict the story requires?

There's actually conflict in that there dilemma, which is a bit of a starting point.  And, I think for me it helps to remind myself that conflict is the crucible through which we deepen ourselves, our lives, and our capacity to love.  And if it's true for humans, it's true for the human characters about which we write.

In order to write multi-dimensional characters (and I just finished a novel with one-dimensional characters that ultimately disappointed me) we, their creators, must approach them with equal thought given to both conflict and compassion.

As always, I'm feeling my way through this topic as I write it, and the really juicy development of it will happen in the comments.  So, please chime in!  Do you feel compassion for your characters?  How do you bring yourself to torture them with conflict?

Photo by MeHere.

, , ,

10 Responses to Creating Characters: Compassion and Conflict

  1. Don 06/11/2013 at 07:34 #

    Passion is the key that gives your characters heart and soul and is crucial to the success of them. Passion is what helps to make your characters real, human and ones that you want to cheer on and read more about.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 06/11/2013 at 10:19 #

    Love this, Don–thank you!

  3. Sandra Pawula 06/11/2013 at 13:23 #

    Conflict is inevitable aspect in life that can lead us to learning how to live in less conflict. But, on the path, we may aspire to limitless love but we will be torn in my pieces as we try to achieve it. Thus, I think compassion and conflict are intertwined, at least at the beginning, and life is learning about untangling them. So it seems only natural to give characters, as you suggest, exactly what they need for their growth.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 06/11/2013 at 13:30 #

    Oh, such true words, Sandra!  We need to give characters the conflict they need for their growth and not be so fearful of it in our own lives.  You tied the two together so beautifully–thank you!  And thanks for the post that inspired this one in the first place.

  5. J.D. 06/12/2013 at 05:10 #

    You’ve written one-dimensional characters? Charlotte, you are so lucky; my characters sometimes have no dimensions. I often get so caught up in the plot, that I forget to make the character sympathetic. I won’t read a book if I don’t care what happens to the characters. How do we create such characters? Conflict. Some of my favorite protagonists are people who want to do good but they are put upon by others. That’s how many of us see ourselves. We just want to get along but people keep treating us so unfairly–with no justification at all. So we create someone who is misunderstood by his lover or he can’t pay the bills or he has an asshole for a boss. Then he overcomes everything this shitty world has to offer. That’s pretty one-dimensional, but I think it works. When I get caught up in the “He went there and did this and then did that” thing, I create a character with no dimension. There has to be something about the protagonist the reader can relate to or he won’t give a damn what your main character does. However, do this can be damn difficult.

  6. J.D. 06/13/2013 at 04:34 #

    What I described really is the simplest of characters. The way I butchered the last sentence points to the difficulty of getting even that right. I thought some more about your comments yesterday when I picked up the book I had been reading, “Too Much Money” by Dominick Dunn. He writes wonderful books. I somehow feel a connection to his characters, though on the surface we have little in common. Perhaps we are all interested in sex (not that his books have any of this) and money. I’m not sure how to construct a character with multiple dimensions but his must have that.

  7. Charlotte Dixon 06/13/2013 at 07:34 #

    I struggle with making my characters sympathetic also. As I’ve written here several times, the response to Emma Jean was that she was unlikeable and I’d gone back in and softened her! So I feel your pain. And yeah, its conflict and also how characters react to it. I think readers like the character who shoulders on through adversity. we live vicariously through them doing that.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 06/13/2013 at 07:36 #

    A client had a marketing meeting with a man who has made a lot of money and this man kept saying that marketing is all about evoking the 7 Deadly Sins. I think we writers can pay attention to this, too! Sex, money, life and death–all that good stuff is what readers like. The question is how to shape it according to the dictates of what you’re writing–the 7 Deadly Sins look different in a mystery than they do in a women’s fiction novel.

  9. J.D. 06/13/2013 at 17:08 #

    Emma Jean 2.0 isn’t all that likeable but she interesting so I kept reading. And then a funny thing happened: In the last third of the book, I did come to like her. That was fun, to experience that change in my feelings.
    It’s funny that I post about no sex in Dunn’s books. LOL. There was no sex until I reached page 100. That’s rather puritan, don’t you think, no sex before page 100. I have read two or three of his books. Apparently, my memory slipped. I like that 7 Deadly Sins thing but a couple of them I will pass on.
    Just a note, perhaps I don’t understand one-dimensional, but I didn’t find Emma Jean–if that is the novel you were referring to. I think of one-dimensional as having one trait, one layer right there on the surface. She’s different than that; hence the change I spoke of. Cya.

  10. Charlotte Dixon 06/13/2013 at 20:37 #

    Thanks for the thoughts on Emma Jean. I've heard that a lot of others have felt that way. I love that you ended up liking her! The tricky part is getting people to hang in with her while she's not like able. I'm working on a stand alone short story with her as the heroine and I hope I'm writing the like able Emma Jean! The art of creating multi-dimensional characters is compiled to be sure!

Leave a Reply