It was something I sensed when I first started writing at age eight or nine, but wasn't sure how to put into words. Something I knew when I read Nancy Drew, The Happy Hollisters, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn, Little Women, and on and on. Something I got cranky about as a teenager, going on inner rants like: "How can these people [my classmates] raise their hands and tell an English teacher all about the motives and feelings of characters in books, and not understand or care a thing about kids right next to them?" When I began to take writing seriously, I studied the aspects of craft -- character, plotting, POV, structure, setting, dialogue, revision, how to cut, how to market. But what writing program teaches you to grow the compassion you need to understand many types of people, the compassion you need to be a really good, even great, writer?
We have to be able to imagine where our characters are coming from and what they're going through. How they think and what they feel. Instead of just dismissing someone as snotty, dim-witted, wacko, evil, or whatever, we have to understand who they are on the inside and why they appear as they do on the outside. We need to develop compassion, which is to say that to be good fiction writers we have to become better people. Think of it : better people writing better fiction in better service to readers. Give me plot, absolutely. But please, please, give me compassion for characters. Walk in their shoes. Sit in their chairs. Don't just entertain me, but encourage me that there are compassionate people in the world like you who love and know their creations deeply. And I won't soon forget the world you've created.
Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write, speaks of the Third Dimension in writing, which is the writer's character. "It will shine through the writing," she says, "and make it noble or great, or touching or cold or niggardly or supercilious or whatever the writer is." And she adds, "I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person....now we are apt to say of a man, 'Oh, you must not pay any attention to his personality; it is his ideas that are the important thing.' But I think -- and so did Socrates and Michelangelo and many others -- that the ideas of a meager and dishonest personality are no good."