We love villains; they bring out the best in the protagonists we love to love. Peter Pan becomes a man thanks to Captain Hook. Lyra grows up when she sees that Mrs. Coulter is a cold, selfish woman. Harry becomes extraordinary thanks to Voldemort. They offer themselves as ciphers for our dark feelings, a place to plant our angst.
This is all well and good in the realm of fiction. But for the essay/memoir writer, what does one do when there is no easy villain, wearing a black hat and twisting his greasy mustache?
This question has become very personal as I’ve been working on the words to tell a story that begs to villainize a central “character” of my life. It’s got all the right elements, too: a terrible alcoholic who lives almost as a recluse, brooding on decades of loathing for the wife whose money allows him this privilege. Maybe he chose security over true love. Maybe he preferred the vodka bottle to his wife’s lips. And maybe, when drunk, which was often, he acted in ways that made others around him uncomfortable, nervous, even scared. Maybe he did a poor job of acting as an adult role model for the child of his wife’s best friend. It gets darker. The bad guy’s wife dies. Nobody knows about it for six months, and by then it’s too late: he’s moved away, cut off all communication. The past festers as the people who loved the wife seek answers, direct their sorrow at him.
Maybe his wife was awful to him when no one was around; maybe he felt emasculated, unloved. Perhaps he regretted that exchange of money over love, and alcohol reduced his pain to a beautiful dull throb inside which there was no pain. Maybe the child he was supposed to “look after” when she came to visit squeezed at his own guilt over his failings at being a young father to his own grown daughter. Maybe he was too ashamed to face the friends of his wife at the end of her life.
You see the point. Maybe his villainy depends on the perspective.
The fact is, villains bring us false comfort, of justice served, of pain ended. When the villain is vanquished, we are told, so is our suffering.
Except that’s not how it goes. Injuries linger, shape our behaviors and reactions and it is in our hands to learn how to live and heal. And certainly, there are very real scars and traumas enacted at the hands of abusers, sometimes far removed from their humanity. Yet villains seem to free us of blame or culpability. They are the bad ones. They have made us hurt, and will have to atone for it.
I know that someone will say: “But what about children, who have no choice in what happens to them? What about the woman who walks down the dark alley and is attacked?” Yes, in the simplest sense of the word, these people are victims in the moments of their suffering. But the point of writing about these kinds of events is to make sense, to explore the feelings. Until the child grows up and the woman heals, there may be no way to write about these things.
The problem for writers is that victim stories are hard to swallow. We read memoir to find points of understanding and entry into others’ experiences, to live vicariously, to heal and process vicariously, too. My favorites all involve very difficult, sad, and even horrifying circumstances: The Glass Castle, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, Lit, The Liar’s Club, but the writers tell these stories with the intent to understand something, not rehash the horror.
Here are some tips I am trying to put into practice, myself, as I work with my own villain:
Process Off the Page: As you write your way to an understanding, you’ll write several drafts, maybe dozens, hundreds that beat around the heart of the truth. You may not get there right away, and don’t readers to connect to an an essay that hashes out raw, unprocessed feelings. Those drafts are for you, for your journal, for your family.
The Entry Point: There has to be an entry point into your story, the one you wish to tell. It’s hard to read about “all the times” difficult things happened to someone. Enter your story at the “emotional end” and ask: what have I healed, or what am I trying to heal/learn/discover? Write from there.
Fall on Your Sword: You can be angry and hurt in your essays or memoirs so long as you also admit your own flaws and failings, too, and explore how you hold onto, or use your pain (as well as transform/overcome it). You may have been a victim of someone’s abuse, but now you’re a person with choices. Show us how you’re working through it, what meaning you have or are making out of your strife. You don’t have to be perfectly healed or forgiving, just in process.
Carve out Compassion: The most difficult thing of all is to bring a level of compassion to your writing, to the subjects, even the “villains.” But you can. Fiction writers must make their bad guys “rounded”—so that the reader understands the motivations of the evil-doer. You can bring a fictional eye to your villains. Most of us have been hurt by people we loved. Explore the intersection of love and hurt—what is betrayal? What happens to us in the face of disappointment? What do we do with feelings of helplessness? These kinds of questions rather than, “Why did s/he do that to me?” or “How could she have been so awful?” bring the possibility of flexible understanding, allow you to make meaning rather than assign blame.
Go Gentle: Where necessary, be gentle with yourself and others. You don’t have to let anyone off the hook, but neither do you have to skewer them with spears of accusation.
If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my books: Night Oracle, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and, Forged in Grace. And check out my Plot & Scene Writing Retreat with Martha Alderson at the Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, May 30-June 1, 2014.