So, you’ve got a great idea for a story of historical fiction. You know who the protagonist is. You know who their sidekick is and their love interest. You’ve imagined them full of contemplation at the midpoint and you’ve thought about what would drive your hero to despair during the whiff of death moment. But you don’t have a villain?
Your first thought was to use that really cool historical figure. You know, the guy who everyone hates in the history book. That sadistic general, or sleazy politician. The out of touch monarch or the self-righteous moral crusader. But the time line doesn’t match, or maybe you want to save that dastardly villain for another book. What’s a writer of historical fiction going to do? Fear not, gentle reader! I have come to your rescue!
Here are the Top Four ways to craft a historical villain!
1. Make your villain fictional.
I know. I know. You’ve read a lot about the time period and you’ve stumbled across the perfect this really jerk who can be the antagonist of your plot. But the problem is that real historical people tend to be in certain places antithetical to your plot. Let’s say your villain is none other than Joseph Stalin. Great! Read bad guy! But the problem is Stalin tended to have his locations recorded most of the time. If you want to write a scene that takes place in the Ukraine in 1944, chances are Stalin was in Moscow or Eastern Poland. Your story will be criticized for the inaccuracy.
“But I have a secondary villain who is Stalin’s henchmen,” you say.
OK. So why not make the henchmen the true villain? This gives you a lot more flexibility then having an historical character. That antagonist can be places historical figures can’t, and can do things historical figures can’t. Stick with fictional villains.
2. Make your villain symbolic.
What’s really cool about fiction is that you can infuse themes into your story. Do that with your villain. Aimie Runyan did that very well with her fictional priest in Promised to the Crown. A running theme of the book is how men lay multiple and over lapping claims on women’s bodies. Fr. Cloutier, the head priest in Ms. Runyan’s book, is a stand in for the power of the Roman Catholic Church in 17th century Quebec.
Or, what about Nurse Ratchet in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest? She is clearly a stand in for institutional medicine and the power of bureaucracy. A villain who represents what’s wrong with your society helps you develop your theme. Such a villain can also allow you to explore the values of antiquated societies and show them to your reader in a modern light. Either way, it’s a great way to add some spice into your story.
3. Make your villain a reflection of your hero.
There is nothing better than a fun-house mirror version of the protagonist. Maybe they’re the exact opposite. Maybe their very similar to the hero, but just a little off. Great villains should make your hero question themselves, their motives, and their actions. Great villains should humble the hero when she realizes there, but for the Grace of God, go I.
4. Make your villain have cause.
There is a great saying going around about villains. Every villain is the hero of their own story. This is so true! Every villain was once a potential hero, now corrupted. Make your reader understand your villains tragic arc. Of course, the story is about your protagonist, but leave enough room so that your readers can sympathize with your villain, even if they don’t agree with them. Think of the Monster in Frankenstein.
Remember that villains are just as important as heroes are. Sometimes, they’re even more important.
Jason Henry Evans: Life is funny. In 2004 I moved from Los Angeles to Denver, newly married with a desire to be a great teacher and husband. I dedicated myself to public education and realized my heart was not in it. So I moved on. At the same time I stumbled into a creative world of art and literature I now call home. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile.