How do memoirists manage the ethical problem of writing about their antagonists? Writers who examine real places, events and people face risks that warrant thoughtful consideration before publication. As poet and memoirist Judith Barrington notes, “We have a right to tell our stories, but not to blunder into publication without a thought for the consequences.”

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick advises aspiring memoirists to depict all characters, including antagonists, sympathetically, not only for ethical but also for creative reasons:

In all imaginative writing, sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.

In this essay, I examine seven techniques for portraying antagonists empathetically, and the ways in which three contemporary memoirists have employed these techniques to construct characters who are manipulative and even abusive, but for whom readers feel both antipathy and empathy. I consider:

Portraying an antagonist with empathy allows the reader to engage fully in the protagonist’s dilemma and “fall” for the antagonist in some manner, too. The writer also strives for the reader to see how the protagonist’s view of the antagonist changes, so that when the central character reaches an epiphany about the nature of her relationship, that moment feels significant and earned.

The techniques I investigate below create ethical, multi-dimensional character portrayals and build reader-empathy for the antagonist. If the writer applies this same lens to her own character and other figures she depicts, she suspends judgement and achieves principled, balanced characterizations that dissolve the ineffective good guy/bad guy dichotomy. The reader empathizes with and accepts both characters as believable, making full immersion into the story possible.

Technique 1: Jessica Morrell advocates that writers provide an understanding of the reasons the antagonist acts as he does. Similarly, Laura DiSilverio says the writer should give the antagonist an origin story that shapes his choices.

In The Chronology of Water, for example, Lidia Yuknavitch writes of her father:

He loved to fish and camp and hike. But his wife had a misshapen leg not good for walking and he had two daughters instead of sons, so his disappointment always came with us everywhere we went. We could never hike far enough. Never carry enough weight. Never go as deeply into the wilderness. We couldn’t fish right. We had to pee sitting down and we needed toilet paper. A crippled wife and two daughters. We couldn’t even breathe right. Ever.

This insight helps the reader comprehend how the father justifies his abuse.


Technique 2: Identify the wound each character is trying to hide, advises author Maaza Mengiste. An antagonist’s wound is a past hurt that has not been addressed and that can lead to malicious behavior. Revealing a person’s wound is ethical if it provides context for the protagonist’s internal problem that is the heart of the narrative. When the reader sees the villain struggle, the reader witnesses the character’s humanity and forges an empathetic link.

Yuknavitch writes of her father in The Chronology of Water: “I do know his tongue was cut. When I look at my son and think of that I think I could kill a woman who could cut a boy’s tongue. Before my father was my father he was a boy. Just a boy. Before I hated him I loved him.”


Technique 3: Your antagonist needs to be equal or superior to your hero in some arenas, proposes DiSilverio.

Yuknavitch in The Chronology of Water:

Before my father’s hands moved against us he was an architect; lover of art. Before my father was an architect he was a navigator in the Korean War. Before my father was a navigator he was an artist. Before my father was an artist he was an athlete. Before my father was an athlete he was an unhappy altar boy. That’s the best I can do. I think. Goddamn it. Let me try again.

In this thoughtful passage, the reader senses some level of admiration in Yuknavitch’s description of her abusive father and a desire to understand him more fully.


Technique 4: According to DiSilverio, the writer should show an overlap of feelings and experience between the protagonist and the antagonist.

In Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro reveals that both she and Lenny are liars: “It takes one to know one, and I have so little regard for the truth in my own life that I have developed a sixth sense, radar for his deceit.”

Showing that truth was not always a priority helps the reader understand the dysfunction rests in the intersection between the characters, not just the antagonist.


Technique 5: Show the antagonist doing something nice early on, says DiSilverio.

In Excavation, Ivers reads Ortiz’s writing to the class: “‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘This is great work. This is what I asked for. Thank you.’”

Ivers recognizes Ortiz’s abilities, building empathy for Ivers.


Technique 6: Also advocated by DiSilverio is showing readers that the antagonist regrets something and might change.

In Slow Motion, Shapiro is subpoenaed and discovers that Lenny has been seeing five other women. In the courtroom, an FBI agent says, “But with Dani, here, it seems Lenny was more … open … than usual. He seemed to almost be trying to set up a life with her.” Shapiro builds empathy for Lenny by showing that he may have had intentions of a more serious relationship.


Technique 7: Finally, Gornick recommends that the memoirist self-implicate: “In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement…” The relationships between the primary, opposing characters and the older and younger selves becomes the heart of the story, and it’s a story that is ethically told because the conflict is with the younger self in addition to the antagonist. It’s not possible or reasonable to expect self-implication in a story where a child is abused by an adult antagonist, as is the case in Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Ortiz’s Excavation. But Shapiro self-implicates in Slow Motion:

Who needs things like college degrees, nice hometown boyfriends, starter jobs at advertising agencies? My friends are all playing a game, and I have stepped to the sidelines. I have chosen to sit this one out. Instead, I am playing house with Lenny, zigzagging across the country at his beck and call.

By examining and then employing these techniques, memoirists can achieve what Gornick calls the “divided self,” where the reader witnesses the writer’s mixed feelings about both the antagonist and the protagonist’s younger self. The memoirist must be as ethically investigative about herself as a character as she is of the antagonist by writing responsibly, accurately and non-judgmentally, and by keeping the focus on the protagonist’s internal conflict. If the writer successfully applies these standards and techniques, the reader sees the antagonist within the protagonist and feels empathetically toward her, and, likewise, can’t help but feel empathy with the antagonist. The divided self is the ethical self.

Perhaps this is the ultimate reward that overrides the risks of writing memoir: We recognize not only the external enemy but the foe within. We show ourselves and our readers not only what and how we overcame but why. We are teaching ourselves what it means to be human.


Wendy Staley Colbert’s writing has been featured in The Huffington PostSalon and Jezebel, in the anthologies SpentThree Minus One and Just a Little More Time, at Seattle’s Lit Crawl and Listen To Your Mother, and more. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and is working on a memoir.