How to Write Your Memoir’s Villain

Writing a memoir is a deeply personal journey, but it’s not without its challenges, especially a memoir portraying a villain in our stories. These characters, whether misguided acquaintances or malicious abusers, play a pivotal role in shaping our narratives. However, addressing their presence can be daunting, especially when considering the potential repercussions on relationships and legal implications.

If you’ve found yourself paralyzed by this dilemma, unsure of how to navigate it without demonizing those involved, fear not. In this article, I’ll share valuable insights to help you tackle this challenge with tact and integrity. Don’t miss out—stay tuned for essential guidance.

If you find yourself embarking on the journey of writing a memoir but feeling lost in the vast sea of uncertainty, you’re not alone. Many aspiring memoirists struggle with uncertainty about where to begin and how to navigate the winding path ahead. The absence of a clear plan often becomes the stumbling block, causing many to abandon their cherished projects.

To address this common challenge, my team has crafted the Memoir Method Checklist—a comprehensive, step-by-step guide designed to illuminate your path from the inception of your idea to the triumphant moment of holding your finished book in your hands. This invaluable resource, available as a free download at, empowers you to embark on your memoir-writing journey with confidence and clarity. Happy writing!

Understanding the Complexities of Memoir Villain

Memoirs are filled with characters who play various roles, but perhaps none are as crucial as the villain. These antagonists span from well-intentioned but misguided figures to outright malevolent abusers, yet they share a common thread: to create tension and conflict within the narrative. Despite their adversarial role, villains serve as catalysts, propelling the protagonist along a path of growth and resilience.

One of the most frequent inquiries I receive revolves around the handling of the memoir’s villain. Typically, individuals seek guidance on how to authentically portray their truth without facing legal repercussions. This issue resonates deeply, as illustrated by a current coaching client documenting her escape from a cult, where the deceased leader’s family members still reside. Struggling with the dilemma of preserving community ties while narrating her truth, she epitomizes a universal challenge.

Disclaimer: I am not a legal expert, and this article does not constitute legal advice.

The Impact of a Villain on Memoir Writing Progress

Writing a memoir with a villain in it, can be both rewarding and tough because often we’re recounting challenging, sometimes traumatic experiences that we didn’t deserve. However, these difficulties are crucial to share because they lead to growth and resilience, making the eventual triumph even more powerful.

Consider Jeanette McCurdy’s memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” Despite its shocking title, the book humorously explores surviving a narcissistic parent. McCurdy reflects on her early years in the entertainment industry, revealing instances of her mother’s harmful behavior, such as encouraging an eating disorder. These scenes are vital for understanding McCurdy’s journey, including her struggles and eventual recovery.

Yet, when writing about villains, it’s tempting to overexplain or justify their actions, especially when reflecting on past trauma. This inclination often stems from a desire to defend ourselves, a common response to trauma. However, it’s essential to remember that readers need to connect with our past selves and understand our experiences authentically.

While it’s crucial to share the details of what happened, it’s equally important to convey how those experiences affected us emotionally and psychologically. This shift in focus helps readers empathize with our journey and fosters a deeper connection. It’s challenging, especially after trauma, but trusting in our readers’ understanding and empathy is essential for effective memoir writing.

Practical Strategies for Writing About Villains

Now, let me share some practical strategies for writing memoirs that involve a villain. These techniques aim to not only make your writing engaging but also to fulfil the needs of your readers by providing the help and insight they seek from your story. Here are some actionable steps to consider as you draft your villain scenes.

Tip 1: Keep the Focus on Yourself

As you write your scenes and reflections, it’s crucial to consistently remind yourself to center the narrative on your own journey. While it’s undoubtedly challenging, remember that readers are invested in learning about how you navigated and persevered through adversity rather than just focusing on the actions of others.

Consider your mindset during those moments and strive to paint a vivid picture of who you were at the time. Reflect on your level of awareness and understanding of the situation. If you weren’t fully cognizant of the circumstances, avoid projecting your current perspective onto your past self. It’s essential to authentically depict your experiences as they unfolded, allowing readers to witness your growth, development, and resilience over the course of your memoir.

While specific examples are necessary, ensure that the overarching framework emphasizes your personal journey rather than solely placing blame on others. While it’s natural to feel compelled to point fingers, directing the focus towards your own healing and growth will ultimately result in a more empowering and cathartic writing process. By framing your story from your perspective and expressing how you experienced these events, you’ll create a more impactful and fulfilling narrative.

Tip 2: Show, Don’t Tell

Besides emphasizing the importance of keeping the focus on yourself, another piece of advice I want to share is about “show, don’t tell.” Now, this advice is often thrown around in writing circles, but it’s not always perfectly suited for memoirs. While it’s valuable, we have to recognize that in memoirs, there are instances where telling is necessary. It’s about finding the right balance between showing and telling.

Let me illustrate this with an example:

When recounting the actions of your villain in your life, that’s where you want to show, not tell. Let’s use the example of Jeanette McCurdy’s memoir. In the scene where her mother is teaching her to develop an eating disorder, Jeanette doesn’t interject with commentary about how awful it was. Instead, she paints a vivid picture of the situation: where they were, what her mother said, and why the conversation happened. By showing us these details without overt commentary, the impact is much stronger.

On the other hand, if Jeanette simply told us, “My mother taught me to have an eating disorder when I was 11 or 12, and it had harmful repercussions,” it wouldn’t have the same effect. By showing what happened without heavy-handed commentary, it allows the reader to see the situation for themselves and form their own conclusions.

So, the key takeaway here is that showing, not telling, when it comes to the actions of your villain allows for a more impactful and effective portrayal in your memoir.

Tip 3: Use the “I” Language

Now, for my third piece of advice, it’s something you’ve likely heard from relationship experts, but it applies just as well in memoir writing: use “I” language. In conflicts, whether with family or partners, experts advise starting sentences with “I feel” rather than pointing fingers with “You did.” This same principle holds true in memoir writing.

Memoirs are inherently about the author’s experiences, so it’s crucial to maintain that “I” perspective. Instead of accusing the villain with “he/she/they,” focus on expressing your own feelings and experiences. Keep the narrative in “I” language throughout your memoir, especially when recounting interactions with the villain.

For example, instead of blaming the other person by saying “You didn’t empty the dishwasher” or “You said something mean,” focus on your own emotions and experiences. You could say “I feel lonely” or “I feel abandoned” or “I feel overwhelmed by pressure.” This approach is effective in diffusing tension and fostering understanding.

Similarly, in memoir writing, it’s essential to maintain this “I” perspective. Memoirs are typically written in the first person, so rather than using third-person pronouns like he, she, or them. Avoid pointing fingers or placing blame on others; instead, focus on sharing your perspective and how you navigated through challenging situations. Keeping your narrative in “I” language ensures authenticity and resonance with your readers.

This approach isn’t about preserving the relationship with the villain, but rather staying true to the memoir’s purpose: sharing your feelings, growth, and thoughts. It’s easy to slip into blaming the villain, but always redirect the focus back to you as the author.

Tip 4: Be Specific

Another essential piece of advice, which complements everything discussed thus far, is the necessity of specificity. Reflecting on my therapy sessions, I remember the tendency to present a laundry list of issues, even reading from journals filled with reflections. However, this generalized approach doesn’t effectively convey our experiences.

Instead of lumping instances together, we must highlight specific examples. Avoid phrases like “he did X and Y and Z” or “they always did A and B and C.” Such broad strokes lack the depth necessary for readers to truly grasp the gravity of the situation. Focus on exemplars — singular scenes or examples that vividly illustrate the broader pattern.

By selecting these key moments, we provide readers with a tangible understanding of our experiences. This approach fosters credibility and enables readers to draw their own conclusions, aligning them with our narrative.

In McCurdy’s memoir, she adeptly utilizes a technique common in trauma memoirs: recounting therapy sessions. This allows readers to experience the emotional journey alongside the author, fostering a deep sense of connection. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to incorporate specialized terminology authentically, enhancing reader understanding without seeming contrived.

By sharing not only what happened but also how we discovered its significance, we invite readers into our world. This approach, coupled with expert voices like therapists or support groups, creates a powerful narrative that resonates with readers on a profound level.

Final Thoughts

I trust this article has been enlightening. For those embarking on trauma-based memoirs, I urge you not to be deterred by apprehensions about how your story will be received. Remember, this is your villain narrative, your truth, and it deserves to be told. Maintain a narrative voice grounded in “I” language, sharing your feelings rather than assigning blame. Embrace specificity, allowing key scenes to vividly illustrate your experiences. And above all, stay true to your story. Your journey is powerful, and by bravely sharing it, you not only empower yourself but also offer solace and understanding to others.

As you continue on this profound journey, know that you are not alone. If ever you need support or guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out. Your story matters, and I am here to help you tell it. Happy writing!

Embarking on the journey of writing your memoir can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also feel daunting without proper planning. That’s why my team has created the Memoir Method Checklist, a free resource designed to guide you through every step of the memoir-writing process, from initial inspiration to holding your published book. With detailed steps and a clear timeline, this checklist ensures you’re always on track, empowering you to navigate your memoir-writing journey with confidence. Download your copy at, and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts with me. I’m eager to hear about your book and how your writing is progressing!

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Amanda Edgar

Dr. Amanda Nell Edgar is an award-winning author, ghostwriter, and book coach and the founder of Page & Podium Press. Co-author of the forthcoming Summer of 2020: George Floyd and the Resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Amanda has authored two nationally award-winning books and ghostwritten many more.

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