Compelling Historical Villains
November 10, 2017
by Anna Wahler
Historical fiction is no different from other genres in that a strong antagonist makes for a strong story. But when it comes to history, your villains can no longer be wizards, starship captains, or dystopian overlords. They have to come from real places, and often involve real events that had devastating effects. That’s why I believe that historical villains need a little extra attention.
You still have to empathize with them
Though it can be a formidable task, empathy is still one of the most powerful tools for making a compelling villain. It may be repulsive to consider putting yourself in the shoes of someone responsible for real acts of violence, but until you can find out why your villain is the way he or she is, you risk them becoming a stereotype.
You may find it helpful to try thinking of who they would be if you took the villainous ideology or affiliation away. They still have to be a person, underneath the role you have given them. Who were before your book started? What do they care about and love? If you rely on strictly the antagonistic role to define your character, then you aren’t bringing much originality to your story. Instead, look for ways to get inside the head of your character, or for common ground that you can share with them.
Who should you cast as your villain?
When creating your cast of characters, it can seem straightforward to assign protagonist and antagonist roles. But it shouldn’t be so cut and dry. In a story from the point of view of a British Air Force pilot in WWI, the simple choice for antagonist would be a German soldier. After all, that’s who the British were fighting. But War Story by Derek Robinson has an antagonist in just the opposite place. The character who makes life miserable for the main character, Paxton, is actually a fellow British pilot.
Not only does this thwart our expectations about where to expect the antagonist, but it brings Paxton and his unpleasant bunk-mate into a lot of tense scenarios. They are forced to rely on one another to survive, and risk death if they can’t cooperate. It also shows that just because two people are fighting for the same thing, they might not differ greatly in worldview and temperament.
Take a look at your current project and ask yourself what would change if the antagonist belonged to a different group. More specifically, what if he had a lot more in common with your protagonist?
Look out for where your cultural perceptions come from
Certain groups of historical villains have appeared in an overwhelming number of historical books, films, and TV series. In cases like these, it’s almost impossible to escape the cultural saturation that has taken place. One example is the Nazis in WWII fiction.
Not only are there other sources for antagonists when it comes to WWII, but it gives us a heck of a lot of bad examples of these sorts of fictional characters. By this, I mean that some depictions of Nazis rely on the fact that the character is a Nazi to explain their evil behviour, rather than giving them any deeper motivations or characterization. Whatever affiliation your antagonist has, they will keep the reader’s interest far longer if they have a genuine goal of their own that doesn’t necessarily have to do with their ideology.
Christoph Waltz, who played the main character in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds described his character Hans Landa in a similar way. He describes Landa as being unideological, and thinking more in terms of his own personal gain than the good of the party, which is what makes Landa such an interesting character.
Take inspiration from real people
Wherever in history your story is set, there are bound to be real people that share the views of your antagonist—whether they are a Viking, a Spanish conquistador, or a southern plantation-owner. That means that there are also real humans that you can draw from for inspiration. And these people are bound to have all the strengths and weaknesses that a fully-fleshed-out antagonist should have.
To return to the previous example of Inglourious Basterds, some movie analysts have suggested that Landa’s cruelty, intelligence, and egoism were based on the real-life Reinhard Heydrich—though this has not been confirmed by the creators of the film.
It may also add to your story if you combine elements of different individuals from history when trying to create a villain for your story. This allows you to find some elements of humanity, or quirks you find interesting, while still retaining a force that will provide opposition to your protagonist.
On the flip side, taking inspiration from other fictional villains might not always give the best results. With each step you take away from the original men and women who were a part of history, you risk straying from the way these people truly thought, and into our present-day perceptions of them. If you want to truly capture the way people in history thought, it may be worth it to go directly to the source.
Portraying real-life antagonists in your story may be even harder than crafting an interesting protagonist. When we deal with various groups of historical ‘villains’ there’s a lot of cultural and social baggage that comes with their crimes. In my own experience, it’s been helpful to create a character outside of his or her ‘role’ in the story first, and then develop them into a force that will cause havoc and propel your plot.
Do you have any favourite villains from historical fiction? What about them do you find most interesting?