Compassion in Fiction

Cold-Blooded or Compassionate?

In fiction contrast is important. A villain can’t look like a knight in shining armor. An evil witch cannot resemble a good princess. The novels I enjoy reading always have a very human side. Compassion is evident throughout these novels.

My trusty Roget’s Thesaurus defines “compassion” as “sympathetic, sad concern for someone in misfortune,” equating it with “pity.” It also says “compassionate” is a “concern for human welfare and the alleviation of suffering” or a synonym for “humanitarian.” Compassion also expresses pity, feeling, sorrow, or sympathy. “Compassionless,” on the other hand, means totally lacking in compassion or cold-blooded.

Although I can never remember seeing “compassionate” used as a verb, Roget’s Thesaurus says it means “to experience or express compassion, as in “to feel.” Perhaps a good mantra to recite before bedtime in these strange times would be “I compassionate.”

Creating a Compassion Scale

To help me place my characters on a continuum from cold-blooded to compassionate, I decided to create a compassion scale. The scale became so complex that I decided I needed two, resulting in a “Cold-blooded Scale” and a “Compassionate Scale.”

To create the scales, I had to start from a complete lack of compassion and move to functional, flowering compassion. I searched out words which fall on a continuum from cold-bloodedness to compassion, then I assembled a graded series of near synonyms.

On the cold side, I listed a continuum from most cold-blooded to least cold-blooded: cold-bloodedness, hostility, iciness, frostiness, coldness, coolness, hard-heartedness, callousness, stoniness, surliness, unsociability, inhospitality, antagonism, animosity, unkindness, ignoring, remoteness, indifference, and unfriendliness. 

On the warm side, I listed a continuum from least to most compassionate: courtesy, goodwill, consideration, thoughtfulness, understanding, friendliness, concern, care, generosity, altruism, philanthropy, charity, magnanimity, kindheartedness, kindness, benevolence, helpfulness, sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

The two lists helped me to understand how I could develop characters with varying levels of affect. It also gave me a way to think about how I might show change in a character as he or she develops or disintegrates in the course of the story. Of course, a complex character could appear to fall on the warm scale but have a dark, hidden side that slides deeply into the cold-blooded scale. Or a character who suffers from a cheerless childhood, could begin somewhere within the cold scale to blossom into a person who shows much compassion to others as an adult.

Compassion and Religion

Being presented with diverse religious viewpoints when I was I child made me an independent thinker as well as a student of religion. My parents didn’t go to church, unless their children were in a program or they attended a funeral, but they were both compassionate individuals.

My mother’s family practiced Christian Science, following the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. When they came to visit, we always went to the local Christian Science church. I particularly liked the sign on the wall which stated, “God is Love” but I remember a beloved aunt of mine saying, “Buddhists believe God is within us. We believe we are in God.” My aunt was compassionate with me when I was a teenager enraged at my own mother. To my surprise, she told me my mother was a very loving person. I remember my mother keeping her Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures at her bedside when I was a child and later after my father passed away. She never spoke about it, but its pages showed significant use. I appreciated my aunt’s focus on God is Love, rather than a rigid adherence to avoiding medicine. Although our family did benefit from necessary medical care, Mother did always remind us to never overdo or abuse medication. She also reminded us to be compassionate with those less fortunate.

At the Methodist Church, which I attended from kindergarten through high school, I remember a teacher I liked very much. Mrs. Culp believed that God was continuously expanding, growing, and learning. This perspective helped her understand why sometimes it appeared that God had made a mistake. I ponder this explanation whenever inexplicable occurrences make me question if God really is Love. I still find her explanation compelling.

In the Buddhist writings I have read, I see compassion used in what seems to be a more expansive way than the Roget’s Thesaurus definitions imply. The Dalai Lama’s first commitment is “to promote human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline.” Buddhist meditations, such as tonglen, invite practitioners to learn to express compassion for themselves, then for those close to them, then to those for whom it is difficult to feel compassion, and finally for all sentient beings.

As I continue to fine-tune my stories and my characters, the modulation from cold-blooded personalities and behaviors to compassionate ones continues to fascinate me. Now when I read new novels, I read with my scale in mind and try to observe how the authors have shaped the portrayal of their characters.

Compassion as a Literary Theme

Eleanor Oliphant is Feeling Fine by Gail Honeyman depicts a young woman who deserves compassion from those around her but is shunned instead. Eleanor is rather disconnected from others as well. Her own transformation begins when she accidentally becomes involved in helping an old man who has fallen. Her friend, a kindhearted, helpful guy, asks for her assistance, then assumes she will visit the injured man in the hospital. Through the example and compassion of her friend, Eleanor eventually faces the terrible events which occurred in her childhood and caused the scarring of her face and her emotions.

In Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a teenaged son expresses compassion for his mother by pretending to be ill. He refuses to go to school. He refuses to leave his bedroom. His mother, who is an alcoholic, has to sober up to focus on helping him. To encourage him to eat, she prepares noodles and leaves them outside his bedroom door. Then, she goes out shopping. When she returns the noodles have been eaten. Compassion elicits a response.

In my novels, compassion is definitely a subtheme. Despite the differences in setting, time, and story, the interplay between cold-bloodedness and compassion is evident in the development of my characters and the final outcome of the stories. The impact of religion and compassion is also a subtheme in my novels.

Writing Goals for 2020

  1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

Since my last blog, I have worked on character arcs in each of these novels using my compassion scale.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

During the last four weeks, I finished reading through the pages I wrote during the March 2020 Novelrama. I made small corrections, and reordered and renamed files.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is July 7, 2020, I am posting my seventh blog of 2020. When I started writing my blog two and a half years ago, my plan was to document my progress. I didn’t realize how much writing the blog would help me think about and accomplish my writing. Practice definitely allows for reflection.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month, Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group discussed Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain which was published in 2019. About a dozen of us are presently meeting monthly on Zoom instead of at the local library.

Dianne Blomberg presented an online workshop, “Writing a Children’s Picture Book,” for the Denver Women’s Press Club. I’ve written a few (unpublished) stories for children so I attended the Zoom meeting to learn more about that field of publishing.

I also joined the Membership Committee for the Denver Women’s Press Club. We held our first meeting via conference call and discussed strategies for keeping the membership involved via online connections. The import of Black LIves Matter in the press has also reminded us to expand our membership to include more women of color.

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