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Writing Villain Characters In Historical Novels, by Gary Worthington

Some of my favorite characters are ones most of us would think are bad people. Each of us is a mixture of virtues and faults but the so-called villains usually have flaws that outweigh the good points.

Often no motivation is given in fiction for why bad people behave the way they do. Frequently there’s an implicit assumption that they’re just born that way. Although that may be true for many evildoers or bullies, it certainly isn’t true in all cases. With exceptions I’ll discuss later, I personally feel it usually makes for a more satisfying story if the reader understands, at least a little, just why the villain is such an unsavory character.

As with an honorable main character, it can help to use a checklist such as the one I outlined in the previous post for inspiration in developing the motivations of your villain and making him or her more multidimensional.

In my own historical novels set in India, readers usually intensely dislike Dev Batra, who plays key roles in my tale of a search for a maharaja’s hidden treasure during Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” in 1970s India. Batra and his two violent and somewhat creepy henchmen do dirty work for prominent politicians. He loves both the power he wields and the wealth it has brought him.

As in so many countries, corruption and influence peddling are widespread among the governmental leadership in India. I envisioned Dev Batra as symbolic of this serious and pervasive problem. Batra’s appearances in the story add conflict and frustration for the hero Vijay Singh, who is often exasperated by Batra’s interference. And Batra’s unwanted lusty attentions dismay the lovely princess Kaushalya, who urgently needs his help to get her unjustly imprisoned father out of jail.

Batra’s main motivation isn’t revealed until near the end of the second of my two India novels, when he says to the princess Kaushalya, “I will tell you what evil is. It was in ’47 [during the horrific widespread violence at the partition of India and Pakistan] when our neighbors, people we’d known all our lives… came and killed my father and raped my sister. Because we weren’t the same religion, and because they wanted to steal our farm and decided they could get away with driving us off.” Batra goes on to say that he’s worked so hard to acquire a farm to replace the one stolen from his family.

While I’m sure most readers still would not feel that Batra is justified in acting the way he does, at least they can now understand him to some degree. And Batra isn’t a hundred percent bad. He can be loyal to those who have helped him. Many months after the protagonist Vijay Singh saves Batra’s life, Batra – despite some reluctance – honors Vijay’s plea to help one of Vijay’s employees whose home is about to be demolished in an ill-conceived urban redevelopment scheme.

A favorite character of mine in another of my tales has some distasteful major traits, but many readers find him intriguing. Madho Singh is a fat Rajput (warrior caste) prince from Mangarh who loves to eat constantly. He is also greedy for wealth and will go to almost any length to seize it, whether by looting a city or betraying an ally. The novella featuring him in India Fortunes is set in the 1660s and portrays his interactions over a number of years with the famous Hindu warrior hero Shivaji.

Despite his gluttony and greed, Madho is exceedingly loyal to the men of the cavalry troop he leads, even to the extent of risking his life and much of a looted fortune to ensure the safe return of one of his men from a mission in a city overrun by the enemy.

Madho also has a passion for art. Much of his craving for wealth is because he wants to acquire paintings for his collection and even to be a patron of the arts with his own workshop of painters. Although this obviously doesn’t justify his willingness in the pursuit of fortune to manipulate and betray those who trust him (after all, Hitler and many of his Nazi hierarchy were also obsessed with art to the point of confiscating it from Jews and looting it from conquered cities), it humanizes Madho and helps readers understand him.

I do believe that some bad people actually exist without an obvious explanation for why they’re bad, and sometimes you may feel such a person fits well in a particular story you’re writing. One of my favorite villains I’ve created is a warrior called The Mugger, meaning “The Crocodile”, in my novel Elephant Driver (also published as one of the tales in India Treasures in America and in The Mangarh Chronicles in India). The character got his nickname from the villagers he oppressed because a crocodile is an animal that torments its prey before killing it. The Mugger continually threatens the young hero of the story and even the hero’s family.

Although I would never want to encounter The Mugger in real life, I’m fond of him as a story character mainly because he is so extreme in not having any obvious redeeming virtues. He’s evil and he loves it. He adds a continuing element of suspense – not just for the menace, but because we also wonder if our young hero will ever somehow be able to nullify The Mugger’s threat even though that seems almost impossible. I never saw the need to justify why The Mugger is so vicious. Certainly the protagonist and the others who have to placate him don’t concern themselves with why he’s like he is. They just want to avoid being maimed or killed by him.

A memorable villain with no apparent redeeming virtues created by another writer is Obadiah Hakeswill, the protagonist’s nemesis in some of Bernard Cornwell’s novels about British soldier Richard Sharpe set during the Napoleonic Wars. The depraved Hakeswill is a larger than life character in many ways. While still a child he was wrongly sentenced to death but survived the hanging. This leads him to believe he cannot die, and indeed he survives numerous episodes that would kill most men. He hates the hero Sharpe obsessively and betrays him and tries to murder him numerous times over the course of several military campaigns. Again, I wouldn’t want to ever meet Obadiah Hakeswill, but his menacing presence adds immensely to the protagonist’s perils and to the liveliness of the tales.

Much of what I’ve learned personally about writing historical fiction has come from reading and analyzing the work of other authors. In creating your own villains, you’ll likely find it helpful to read stories such as these and others to see how the writers portrayed the rogues and scoundrels.


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     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeA Secret AlchemyWounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)The Salt Road

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m writing a novel as if it were an eighteenth century novel and this problem is an interesting one because during the eighteenth century the notion of understanding a criminal is one which is only beginning to take hold. Inspired by this article, I wrote this explanation of my main antagonist.

    ‘Now, the more careful readers of this history may have noticed an interest in Locke and his ideas upon the accumulation of a person’s character as they grow and mature throughout their life; that a person can start life as a blank wall in a prison cell and like that wall can accumulate all manner of graffito, scratched and carved upon it by all those who find themselves living near such a wall. The reader may also be wondering what sort of life Mr Steele had led to impress his own character with the selfish and ruthless traits that he then carved with great force in others characters, nightmares and faces. The reader could then expect me to recite an eternal litany of unfortunate situations which would lead the reader more sensible to the soft emotions to feel a degree of understanding and pity for a much wronged against man. I would need to disappoint this reader. To assume that a person must always been driven to acts of cruelty in the manner that a herdsman drives his cattle to the slaughterhouse is to forget one very important fact, that the Devil always tempts. To put it in less theological terms, that cruelty, to the open mind can be a reward in itself.’

    August 3, 2013
  2. When it comes to villains in historical novels I find it hard to go past Harry Flashman, eponymous anti-hero of George McDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ series. Neatly lifted from Hughes’ ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ and placed, as an adult, in a very realistic Victorian setting. Brilliant literature.

    August 4, 2013

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