Do Historical Villains Suffer?

The fate of most antagonists in fiction is preordained. They suffer the punishment they deserve, traditionally at the hands of the protagonist. The damaged fabric of the world is repaired. What happens, however, to real-life villains that we know from history walked away from the mayhem they caused?

This question poses a challenge to a fledgling novelist who may be more adept at inserting research than exploring characters—which is where many novelists begin. The task of describing a satisfying character arc is complicated by the fact that villains are easy to write about. Evil is shunned in the real world, but in a novel it’s fun. It’s the main reason we’re reading. So as the writer catalogues one cynical real-life deed after another, they* believe a well-rounded character is emerging.

The problem, of course, is that life is flat. It’s nice to believe that the meek will inherit the earth, but the truth is, they will remain poor. That’s not satisfying, and the unrest caused by the moral indifference of reality is another reason we read novels. When viewed through that glass, the accumulation of evil deeds in a novel increasingly calls for restitution of some form.

History is hardly an infallible record, particularly when the chronicler attempts to assign psychological reasons for a personage’s behavior. Therein lies a novelist’s gateway to their own interpretation of what motivates an evildoer. Probing into such a psyche can yield how the malefactor justifies their actions. This occurs not only during self-examinations but, importantly, when they talk to others as well.

An author can create a companion character whose opinion the evildoer values. A daughter is a perfect example. For example, while wearing sheets with eye holes forms a brotherhood in the adult world, that same father wants his daughter’s esteem. He might be desperate to hide his involvement in the lynching of the father of his daughter’s black friend. Still an evil son of a bitch, but one with a conscience imposed on him by a relationship.

Exploring gaps in the historical record provides another benefit as well. It forces an author to dig deeper into the character. In uncharted waters, you have to put yourself on the line in order to come up with satisfying character motivations. Now the evil that we all have within has a chance to express itself on the page.

Exercise: Luckily for the fiction writer, no man is an island. Think about the people that the historical figure knows. Could one be chosen that appears at regular intervals, serving as a benchmark for the evildoer’s descent into hell? Maybe the world can be damned, but that one person: I can’t have that one think badly of me.

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”
—Tom Clancy

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

*When not specific, non-gender personal pronouns are used in this blog.

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