Growing Empathy by Writing in The Voice of Your Antagonist

Last week, I talked about how writing about a positive experience with your antagonist can make your portrayal of that character less wooden and narrow, more three-dimensional. I used the example of making chocolate pudding with my mother when I was a little girl. You can read that post here.

Another method I utilized to create more empathy for my antagonist—both inside myself and ultimately in my readers—was drafting pieces from my mother’s point of view and in her voice. My mother didn’t actually say the things I wrote. I invented them, but she could easily have said them herself. As I wrote exercises like these, I often felt as if I was channeling my mother. Writing in her voice on a regular basis really helped me when it was time for me to recreate dialogue that I couldn’t possibly remember word for word.

None of these exercises made their way wholesale into the final book. But completing them helped me understand my mother’s perspective and the incredibly difficult realities she was facing during the final years of her life. They built compassion.

Here’s one in which I imagined what my mother might have said about the immense frustrations of the early stages of dementia—when she was still aware enough to know what was happening to her, when she could still recognize all that she was losing:

“Dementia feels like this. When I get up in the morning, I have to look at the calendar to figure out what is happening. But since I have both my purse calendar and my desk calendar, they say different things, I can’t really know what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes I recognize what’s written on the calendar and sometimes I just can’t remember.

“Dementia feels like this. Yesterday I went to see my friend, Sherry, who lives near me in my mobile home park. I had my aide drive me, but once we started driving, I couldn’t find it. We did eventually, but it took a long time.

“Dementia feels like this. People never talk loud enough. They’re always whispering or mumbling. And people keep saying, ‘Remember when…’ and I never remember. Sometimes I pretend I do and other times it makes me really, really mad. Why do they talk to me like I’m stupid?

“Dementia feels like this. My daughter who has been helping me so much is trying to tell me I’m senile. She doesn’t say that, but she keeps insisting that I can’t take care of myself when I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself! Who the fuck made her God? Leave me alone, I want to tell her. Back off. I’m not dead yet.

“Dementia feels like this. There are so many papers on my desk, and I simply must organize them. But I never do.

“Dementia feels like this. I keep missing appointments and don’t answer phone calls and forget things and then I deny that I did.

“Dementia feels like this. Stop telling me what to do! Stop taking away my freedom! Stop taking away my independence.

“Dementia feels like this. I am losing everything.

“Dementia feels like this. I am perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with me.

“Dementia feels like this. My memory is getting worse.

“Dementia feels like this. Why are strangers in my house? Why do I have to have this woman I hate, this Mary, who is such a sourpuss, who always talks down to me, why do I have to have her in my house? Why did Laurie hire her for so long without talking to me first? When I said that to Laurie, she said she did talk to me first, but I don’t believe her. She’s lying to me. I know she’s lying to me.

“Dementia feels like this. I want to live alone, and I can live alone. I’m perfectly capable.

“Dementia feels like this. Everyone wants to take something away from me.

“Dementia feels like this. Who is this doctor and why are we going to him?

“Dementia feels like this. I have diabetes? Really? No one told me that before.

“Dementia feels like this. My daughter is mad at me. I can feel it. She’s getting mad and frustrated and the thing that matters most is that nothing comes between us.

“Dementia feels like this. Everybody is telling me what to do and trying to control me. Well, fuck you. Just leave me alone. I’m just fine. Everyone my age is a little forgetful. All my friends talk about it. I’m 84 years old. What do you expect? A perfect memory?

“Dementia feels like this. A long, blank tunnel with no end in sight.

“Dementia feels like this. Getting lost in a dark, dark night.”


The Burning Light of Two Stars is now available for presale. When you buy the book before its release date, you help me by generating interest with reviewers, librarians, and bookstores. To read about the great presale bonuses you can get, hop over here.

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