Death of a Villain

I like to say that all fiction is memoir, and all memoir is fiction – by which I mean that all fiction is based in some way, if only emotionally, on the author’s life, and all memoir is an artistic translation of memory. One of the biggest and often most challenging differences between fiction and memoir, however, are antagonists. Fiction often depends on them; memoir cannot have them. In fiction, the antagonist is usually a kind of shadow version of the protagonist. The antagonist embodies the protagonist’s fears, hubris, and even cruelty, but in an exaggerated expression. We call this antagonist a bad guy, or evil, and we put him in a black hat, and have him commit an unpardonable sin for which death is his necessary and inevitable punishment. If done well, this can be very satisfying, for the protagonist must find within himself the strength, courage, love, or compassion necessary to defeat the villain. When the villain dies, the hero is resurrected free of sin.

But in memoir there are no villains to kill. This can be a particularly difficult reality for the memoirist who is writing about, say, an abusive parent or boyfriend: people in the memoirist’s life who have committed monstrous acts. How easy to become transfixed by violence, to see only what is happening outside of us and to lose track of life as it is still being lived within us, where the real story about every monstrous act is really being told.

In this way, to write a memoir is to rewrite the story of our life. The pain we feel when we remember the violence or poverty or insults of our past is the pain of forcing ourselves to tell a story of our powerlessness. The pain is not punishment, but a call to amend the story until it is in alignment with the truth of who we have always been. Then and only then will the villain perish, reborn as a friend who had temporarily become lost within a story he did not know he was telling.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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