Novels need both heroes and villains. Their conflicts make the stories move. Unfortunately, the reader generally imagines the extremes. George Washington, in the revolutionary period, is the ultimate hero. On the other hand, we really don’t exactly know what villains looked like. We imagine true villains as dark with deep wheezing voices, like Darth Vader.
My latest book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, was published this past August. Of my three historical novels this book was the most surprising. Heroes and villains seemed to change places as I learned more. The book is about a famous person and when I started I thought I knew something about him and his time period. Most modern literature describes Blackbeard as a heartless villain, but objective research into ancient facts showed the opposite. I found no evidence that Blackbeard ever hurt anyone. In his time, he was respected and popular. Indeed, he was one of the great historic heroes to his crew and to people who knew him.
I know from my experience with Blackbeard that the realities of life during the period are mostly unknown to modern lovers of the Age of Piracy. As to my heroes and villains, my initial villains evolved into ordinary people with character flaws; my heroes became little more than observers caught up in a grand historic play of events.
I’ve begun next project. My story is built around the character of a historic person, unknown to almost everybody. Who will be my heroes and villains? I’ve done some research and interviews with knowledgeable historians. My character left a few letters, owned a flour mill, had a large family, adored George Washington, and followed him from the beginnings of the revolution to Valley Forge and later into politics. He was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and an elector in the Presidential election of 1796. As a member of the electoral college, he lamented his terrible choice between two very bad people: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. His letters are detailed to the point of being comical. Are Jefferson and Adams going to be villains?
Already I’ve found some surprises. For example, Aaron Burr, currently everybody’s Revolutionary War villain (after all, he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and Hamilton is on Broadway) was more than a duelist. Burr, vice president during Thomas Jefferson’s first term as president, favored the rights of people who weren’t of the highest propertied classes. Burr was instrumental in the development of Tammany Hall in New York City as a political machine and was the inventor of the modern American election campaign, complete with scurrilous attacks on candidates by the press and strategic focus on the electoral college. Also, he was a feminist who believed that women should be educated; when he was a senator he introduced a bill in the New York State legislature granting women the right to vote. This happened just after the revolution; Burr was way ahead of his time. Is he some kind of hero?
My heroes and villains are changing my plot line. My main character, who I chose because he makes me laugh, wrote long confusing letters to his loyal wife. I’ll have to invent her replies for the reader to get the full story. I plan to have their children and grandchildren supply the action. Of course, Aaron Burr will be a character, but I’m not sure he’s a hero or a villain.