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Historical Villain Upgrade / Literature

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Historical Villain Upgrades in literature.

Examples using real people


  • Bernard Cornwell does this on occasion in his historical fiction, but at least he's polite about it. In the Author's Notes for the books of his series The Saxon Chronicles, Cornwell apologizes to Æthelred of Mercia for depicting him as a weak and devious snake and terrible husband, a characterization with no support in the historic record, but which makes for a better story.

Common cases:

  • The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas started a trend of adaptations and derivative works depicting Louis XIV as a brutal, warmongering tyrant who wasn't even the rightful king of France. The Man in the Iron Mask is a particularly strong case of this, with the Sun King portrayed as vicious and psychopathic. Louis XIV may not have been a saint, but he's generally considered by historians to have been a successful and benevolent ruler, and there's not one shred of hard evidence that he was anything but the legitimate monarch of the Kingdom of France.

Specific works:

  • In 1632, Richelieu is one of the larger villains of the series. Series creator Eric Flint himself said that he would've liked to make Richelieu one of the good guys, but he needed someone intelligent to oppose the heroes.
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  • Count-Duke of Olivares became a Manipulative Bastard and/or a Chessmaster (although not a Magnificent Bastard) in Alatriste. In real life, he was the power behind a weak king, and of course not exactly a fan favorite of the peasants; however the author provides Olivares with realistic opportunities to be a villain.
  • In Kim Newman's Anno Dracula short story "Vampire Romance", the villain turns out to be a vampirized Richard III, who is worse than Shakespeare portrayed him. He resents Will for saying he sent someone to kill the Princes in the Tower; he dealt with them personally.
  • In the Burton & Swinburne Series, novel Springheeled Jack - Charles Darwin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale are all Mad Scientists trying to breed humanity into specialized castes and have been experiementing on chimney sweeps as their first subject.
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  • In Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood: His Odyssey (as in the film based thereon), the British King James II has the title character and his rebellious fellows sold into slavery for a profit. As such with the story being from their point of view, they see that King as foul tyrant and treat the news of his deposing in favor of William of Orange as a moment of celebration, especially since the new King is eager to emancipate them and recruit them for his navy.
  • Not all of the Jury of the Damned in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" were really that evil in reality. In particular, Thomas Morton was only evil in the sense of being an enemy of Puritans and was an early proponent of treating Native Americans decently.
  • In The Divine Comedy, Brutus, Judas Iscariot and Cassius are depicted as the ultimate traitors, being gnawed upon by Satan for eternity. Judas being there is understandable (being the betrayer of Christ) but Dante considered the assassination of Julius Caesar, the crime committed by the other two, to be the second-worst crime ever committed, as it represented the destruction of a unified Italy and the killing of the man who was divinely appointed to govern the world. (Again, this is Dante's personal opinion.) In fact, the book has a lot of historical figures - many of which are obscure to modern readers - suffering in Hell; for example, Cleopatra VII is among those in the Second Layer, devoted to the Lustful, while The Prophet Muhammad - described by the author as a schismatic - is in the Ninth Bolga of the Eighth Layer, the place for Sowers of Discord. The structure of the layers of Hell and who belonged there is entirely based on Dante's opinion of what is perceived as sin and who he believed belonged there. Another thing to be noted is that Dante could only be as accurate as his sources were, so often what seems him using this trope is really just his sources being unreliable. For example, the reason Muhammed was between the schismatics? It's not a judgment on Islam: Muhammad was sincerely believed by Dante to have been a Christian prophet. The common belief then was that Muhammed began as a Christian, but had been angered by not being able to become Pope and thus set up his own religion with himself at its head, hence the schism.
  • Eurico the Presbyter: Ebas is a Visigothic noble that throws his countrymen under the bus and sides with the Umayyad Caliphate when they invade Hispania in hopes of taking the throne for himself only to be killed by The Hero for his treason. The historical one is Shrouded in Myth and there are several legends that are hard to discern if its true or not, but he is alleged to have fought alongside his fellow Visigoths and barely escaping with his life when the Arabs won, only to be executed by them much later.
  • It is unlikely that General José de Urrea was anywhere near as black as J.T. Edson paints him in Get Urrea!. In particular, historians now believe that the Goliad Massacre was perpetrated at the orders of Santa Anna and not Urrea. Also, while public opinion varies greatly on where Wyatt Earp lies on the scale of heroism and villainy, Edson always portrays him as a petty and vindictive thug with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
  • In The Gods Of Manhattan, Willem Kieft is portrayed as a Sinister Minister. Also, Aaron Burr is the series' villain.
  • Nikola Tesla gets this treatment in Goliath. His real-world eccentricities are ratcheted up several levels.
  • William Makepeace Thackeray's historical novel Henry Esmond has an extremely negative presentation of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, presenting him as an amoral Magnificent Bastard willing to betray anyone to advance himself. His wife, Sarah, is presented as a social climbing bitch. Worth noting is that John's descendant, Winston Churchill was prompted to write about his ancestors in part to address the portrayal in the novel.
  • Gregory Maguire's Mirror, Mirror combines history with the tale of Snow White and casts Lucrezia Borgia in the role of the wicked queen. Though the Borgias were not a nice family, there's little evidence Lucrezia had the expertise in poisoning she was later accused of (in fact, the attributes of the poison she was most famous for don't even exist in any real substance). And, obviously, the Snow-White-like events of the novel don't have much basis in real history either.
  • In Musashi, the titular character's Foil and Worthy Opponent Sasaki Kojiro is given this. Although not without noble qualities, he is for the most part arrogant, sadistic, and only interested in his innate talent so much as it can make him rich and famous. In Real Life, the main thing against him is that he was killed by Folk Hero Miyamoto Musashi. Debate still rages as to whether or not Musashi cheated or if he had been ambushed and murdered by a group, with or without Musashi's knowledge.
  • Several of the Red Swords in Paladins. Gray's sword is implied to be Genghis Khan and believes in solving every problem with slaughter, and though we don't have any specifics on the Sandoval the time period and the name suggest Emil Sandoval may have been an alternate history version of a famous Conquistador with the rest of his achievements left in the dust in favor of playing up speculated abuses of the natives.
  • In Gideon Defoe's The Pirates series:
    • The first book makes Archbishop Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce into a mad scientist who kidnaps women to turn them into a facial scrub that gives him his astonishingly youthful appearance. (He is in his late thirties, but looks like he's in his mid-thirties.)
    • The third book makes Wagner into an unrepentant smear artist, working for Nietzsche, who has constructed a huge robot suit in order to crush Europe beneath his boot. He is doing this because he thinks it will impress girls.
    • The fourth book features Napoleon Bonaparte, and while he's not given much of a "villain upgrade", he does become the Pirate Captain's Sitcom Arch-Nemesis.
  • Older Than Print: Romance of the Three Kingdoms does this for several historical figures. The kingdoms of Wei and Jin are often depicted as a cruel sinister empire bent on crushing everyone opposing them
    • Cao Cao was a very capable ruler, well-versed in matters military (he annotated Sun Tzu's The Art of War) and literacy (he was also an accomplished poet), despite his attitude getting in the way of certain things. In the book, he's simultaneously upgraded to the Big Bad of the tale (despite there being three kingdoms, remember?) via his negative traits being highlighted more, and downgraded to a chump whose schemes to take over the whole of China get persistently foiled by Zhuge Liang. His Dynasty Warriors portrayal however, is starting to see better light in terms of how reasonable of a ruler he can be, which may be akin to how he was in real life.
    • Lü Bu, who in real life was a brilliant administrator as well a good shot with the bow, is treated as a Blood Knight who is only out for himself while he can't run an empire worth a damn. The reason why the story turns him into a dumb villain is because he was the antithesis of Confucian ethics, along with the unpleasant rumor that he had an affair with Dong Zhuo's maid. Even outside of his exaggerated status in Dynasty Warriors (don't pursue Lu Bu!), Lu Bu was even a demonic villain in the PS4 version of Knights of Valour.
    • Minor warlord Zhang Lu. In the novel, he's greedy and craves power/territory as a means of playing up the righteousness of Shu and Ma Chao (who's a definite case of Historical Hero Upgrade). In Real Life, Zhang Lu was one of the more fair rulers of the time, building roads with free rest stops and food and using taxes collected to support the commoners instead of indulging himself. In fact, when he was forced to retreat during Cao Cao's invasion of his territory he explicitly left behind his wealth proclaiming that it belonged to the country and not him, an act which greatly impressed Cao Cao, causing him to let Zhang Lu peacefully surrender.
    • Sima Yi was one of Cao Cao's trusted officers who was one of Wei's loyal officers but the novel depicted him as an Evil Chancellor who destroyed Wei from within. This gets played up in older titles of Dynasty Warriors before the 7th title.
  • A lot in The Royal Diaries book series, which are fictional diaries about real princesses. An example is Mary I in Red Rose of the House of Tudor, who is portrayed as devious, cunning, and hateful towards her younger siblings. While her relationships with Elizabeth and Edward certainly cooled later in life, during their childhoods, the much-older Mary acted as a mother figure, and was on record as being hopelessly naïve and guileless. The enmity between her and Elizabeth didn't really kick into gear until after Mary became queen; it's not until she starts burning Protestants that she really deserves this.
  • Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu in the Sano Ichiro series. He indeed ruined the currency system of the time, and instituted policies that did nothing to alleviate suffering under the shogun's rule, but nothing indicates he was as scheming, vicious and relentless as he is in the books. He was little more than a yes man to the shogun.
  • The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel has a sort of variant. The villains are historical figures (specifically, they're John Dee and Niccolò Machiavelli), but it's implied that the way they got immortality made them worse. Their actual historical lives are portrayed at some points, with great accuracy and not a lot of undue villainy.
  • A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, includes a mild case with Brigham Young. He doesn't serve as an antagonist for Holmes, but he's portrayed as a crazed religious zealot with zero sympathy for anyone outside his devoted group of followers, and he turns out to be directly responsible for the events motivating the sympathetic vigilante who commits the murders.
  • The SPQR Series by John Maddox Roberts, which is a series of murder mysteries set in the last years of the Roman republic, almost always has a historical figure as the murderer and frequently has the murder reveal an underlying scheme for world domination. Special recognition goes to the books' version of Julius Caesar, who as of the thirteenth book is just finishing up his elaborate plan to become God-King of Rome.
  • Alexandre Dumas does this with a few characters in The Three Musketeers, but still keeps the characters three-dimensional:
    • Cardinal Richelieu is something of an Anti-Villain and Well-Intentioned Extremist. Although he hires the main villain of the first book, Milady de Winter, uses underhanded methods, and stands in opposition to the heroes, Dumas takes some time out to note that he's still a loyal and skilled servant of France (and very grateful to D'Artagnan for disposing of Milady when she went rogue.) His overt villainization is reserved for condensed and simplified adaptations—especially the movies. In reality, he's remembered as one of France's greatest statesmen. Dumas had to write another novel (The Red Sphinx) portraying Richelieu in a sympathetic light just to reassure people he really wasn't trying to demonize him.
    • In 20 Years After, Richelieu's successor Mazarin is portrayed as greedy, vain and cowardly, but he's also very shrewd. The stories emphasize how unfairly he's judged by the French for his Italian heritage.
  • Alexander Hislop's book The Two Babylons has a good deal of this.
    • It claims that the Assyrian empress Shammuramat (referred to as Semiramis) invented polytheism (and with it, worship of Mother Goddess figures) as a means of securing her own grip on power. Hislop also claims that Semiramis committed incest with her son (the Biblical king Nimrod) and even identifies her with the Whore of Babylon.
    • As for the Catholic Church, it's depicted as a veiled continuation of the religion Semiramis invented, the product of an Ancient Conspiracy.
  • In a particularly weird literature example, the villain of The Wild Road, who performs cruel experiments on cats to learn their magic, turns out to be Isaac Newton. He tries to ascend to godhood by trying to surgically add cat body parts to himself and wields an evil magical staff powered by cat skulls.
  • Wolf Hall
    • The book is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, and he does not view Thomas More in a positive light. Although Cromwell has respect for More as a jurist, More is portrayed as a bad husband with a cruel sense of humor. Whenever Cromwell is meeting with one of his Protestant friends, the specter of More hangs over the conversation thanks to the debated charge that More personally tortured heretics and the less-debated fact that he presided over the burning of six Lutherans, with each one noted in the text. Cromwell also gripes that More is probably going to give himself a Historical Hero Upgrade in his writings after Henry charges More with treason.
    • The author admits in a note at the end of Bring Up the Bodies that the view of Jane Rochford as a vindictive woman who hated her sister-in-law and sold her brother to the scaffold is a retroactive characterization applied after her involvement in Henry's disastrous fifth marriage to Catharine Howard. Jane was turned into Anne's nemesis because Mantel didn't want to add even more names than there already were (and the books already have Loads and Loads), and she points readers towards the book Jane Boleyn by Julia Fox for a better view of the historical woman.
  • It's hard to upgrade history's most famous serial killer, but Jack the Ripper gets a lot of the treatment anyway. In the short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper", his murders prove to be an occult means of extending his lifespan and he's still alive today to kill the narrator.

In-Universe examples


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