Find Empathy for the Villain

In the story of my relationship with my father, there is one person who plays the villain. 

I won’t say who. 

I can’t write about this person. 

I am still – after 20 years – too angry.

The problem with this is that it makes the writing of the story very difficult. 

In many stories, there is a villain. Sometimes the villain is us. 

What I’ve found as I explore the stories where I feel I’ve been done wrong is that I can’t see the villain as anything other than the perpetrator of the wrongdoing. 

But consider this: if you’ve ever done someone wrong – and we all have – how do you hope that they consider you in their stories?

I have been writing about the story of my estranged relationship with my father for years, and it remains incomplete. Why? Because I am really struggling with finding any empathy for my villain. 

I have come to see this as the work of my life. And it’s the story that I have to write. So the guidelines I offer here, to you, are really for me. 

Let’s try this together. 

Write down every thought you are having about this person. Just notice the thoughts as they arrive and jot them down. Remember, these thoughts have no power. They are neutral unless you make them them something. So write them all down – even the ones that make you cringe. 

Now, look at your list. Is it a complete, three dimensional picture of them as a human being? Probably not. Draw a line under your list of thoughts and opinions and write down five intentonally positive thoughts about the person. Is he good at the guitar? Is she a talented spaghetti-maker?

Notice how you are feeling, and remember that you are choosing how you remember this person. (S)he may be the villain of your story, but (s)he is a whole person with qualities that go far beyond the scope of the story and, likely, beyond what you even know about her/him.

Here is what I know for sure: in writing true personal stories, our emotions about the events and the people involved shapes the tone of the piece. If you can only see the negative – the villainy – of the person, that is all your audience will see, too. 

And discerning readers don’t usually like one-dimensional characters. 

Being able to bear witness to the person as a whole human while also sharing YOUR account of the events is a skill that must be strengthened over time. The more they have hurt you, treated you unfairly, or impacted the quality of your life, the harder it is to consider them with any emapthy. 

If you want them to come across to the audience as pure evil, then leave the positive details out of the story. But just by taking the time to consider them, you will write that character with a more 3-dimensional touch. 

One last thought: if you absolutely can not consider the person without filling with the bile of rage, then it might not be a story you are emotionally ready to share. Just something to think about. And there is nothing wrong. I’m right there with you. 

Stories are at their most powerful when we have the ability to see the human behavior of the people involved for its incredibly complex nature. 

Life is at its most powerful then, too. 

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