In a column in the Washington Post, Robert Olen Butler discusses the first and entirely failed decade of his writing life, during which he produced (by his own account) around “a million words of dreck” before finally stumbling upon an approach that made his fiction far more successful. For Butler, it came (oddly enough) in a dream about Richard Nixon, which demonstrated to him the importance of trusting the impulses of the unconscious, while also teaching him a lesson in compassion. Butler writes:
Moreover, the insight itself, as in any work of art, was imbedded not in ideas or abstractions — of which there were far too many in early works — but in the moment-to-moment sensual details: a man dressed in a conservative business suit, sobbing; a pair of socks fallen down at the ankle. Perhaps most important, I understood that an artist has to be compassionate. We create characters — virtual souls — and ask our readers to see them as true reflections of some aspect of the human condition. And we place those characters in situations where they must make choices that inescapably imply a universe of values and standards. In essence, we writers act out the role of God. And if we’re going to do that, then it is incumbent on us to be a loving God.
The God bit is a little grandiose for my taste, but all the same, I think Butler basically right here: writers need to feel compassion for the characters in their stories—even if they’re as unlikable and deeply flawed as Richard Nixon. When a reader feels nothing for a character, there’s little reason to care about the results when that character is put to some kind of ethical or personal test. But when a writer reveals the human in characters who are otherwise repulsive or even evil, those characters’ struggles and choices become meaningful in human terms.