Historical Hero Upgrade

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William Wilberforce, renowned abolitionist, in the film Amazing Grace: "Remember that God created all men equal!"
William Wilberforce in Real Life: "[The poor should know] that their more lowly path has been allotted to them by the hand of God; that it is their part ... contentedly to bear its inconveniences."


OK, let's say you're still writing that movie, which is Very Loosely Based on a True Story. You've chosen a period of history that involves a lot of exciting fight scenes and explosions so your audience won't fall asleep and now you need some main characters.

But there's a problem: most of the Real Life figures were morally grey and complex people. How are you going to make sure that your audience knows who the hero is?

Well, all you have to do is to pick someone who was on your side. If you're American, all you have to do is choose a heroic American. Or failing that, an Irishman or a Scotsman (just as long as they fought those dastardly Englishmen/Germans/Commies/Arabs). And if you're English, you'll want to support that brave and heroic King William the Conqueror against those treacherous English bas... Hey--wait a second...

But hang on. There's another problem. Your new hero doesn't quite fit our modern standards of goodness. Maybe he was a slave trader. Or a wife-beater. Or an openly admitted racial bigot. Or... even worse -- a socialist! What are you going to do now?

Well, all you have to do is give your newfound hero a few Pet-the-Dog moments, adjust his looks for modern tastes and cut out or ignore anything of his life that doesn't fit your artistic vision.

Note that just because this trope happens to a person does not mean that he was evil in Real Life; he is simply being portrayed more positively in the work of fiction than he was in Real Life.

Note that this trope isn't always played seriously; sometimes, a character will be retroactively turned into something on par with a Memetic Badass purely due to Rule of Cool, upgraded in ways that are obviously intended to go far beyond any real-world heroism. The most extreme examples of this, of course, often overlap with Beethoven Was an Alien Spy.

This trope is the opposite of a Historical Villain Upgrade. May overlap with Historical Beauty Update, Historical Badass Upgrade, Values Dissonance, Politically-Correct History and Flanderization.

When Fanfic writers do this to a canon character, it's Draco in Leather Pants.

Examples of Historical Hero Upgrade include:

Examples using real people

Media in General

  • Recently[when?] some people have attempted to give this to Countess Elizabeth Báthory, one of the worst serial killers in history. Nicknamed the 'Blood Countess,' she is believed to be responsible for torturing hundreds of young women to death, but they only had the evidence to convict her for 80 of them. First with her husband and, after he died, as a solo killer with a three friends acting as accomplices, she would order them into her dungeon and sadistically beat them. Despite having hundreds of witnesses testify that young women would regularly enter the castle and only their corpses would come out, some people still claim she was innocent and the victim of a conspiracy by the catholic church and the Habsburg empire that ruled Hungary at the time, claiming that they wanted her money and land, and did not like seeing a woman in power. There are a few problems with these theories: first, her crimes were reported by the Lutheran church (which she was a member of), secondly, the Habsburgs waited about a decade between the crimes being first reported and launching an investigation, and finally, she did not have any land, money, or direct power after her husband died: their son inherited his father’s land, and their eldest daughter acted as regent while he was a minor. While it is true that, as the wife, and later, mother of the Count, she had a lot of pull, she was technically powerless. About the only detail about her life that actually is certainly a myth are the rumours that she would bathe in the blood of her many victims. On a related note, Báthory has the strange distinction of also receiving Historical Villain Upgrades at the same time, as other works change her from the particularly depraved human being she was in real life to a vampire. Two sympathetic portrayals from recent movies are:
    • Bathory took the position that she was completely innocent of any of the murders, and was really a kind a loving mother and ruler who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was the victim of the malicious slanders of greedy noblemen. That's not even getting into the ridiculousness of the monks spying on her.
    • The Countess is similar, but with one main difference: Elizabeth Bathory is guilty of several murders. However, she is driven to it by circumstances, and an attempt to stay young and beautiful while she is in power. In this film, she is definitely a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds. You still feel sorry for her and sympathize with what she is going through
  • George Washington's career has been embellished and exaggerated to a point where it has become hard to tell myth from reality. Some portray his qualities as nearly superhuman, with a personality completely untainted by vice or any flaws whatsoever. Wolverine Publicity aside, Washington was not perfect, and did have flaws, but had a lot of contemporaries who exaggerated his career to the point of absurdity.
  • Wyatt Earp, in portrayals such as My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955), is portrayed as the paragon of the western lawman. Even more modern takes like Tombstone still can't uncouple themselves entirely from this image. In reality, he was much shadier and more self-interested. Earp himself was good at branding himself. The historical record seems to present the Earps and the various families like the Clantons or the McLaurys as no better than each other - more feuding families than cops vs. robbers. On the other hand, most of the supposed Wild West tends to get treated like that. Earp's legend was also partially built on the fact he served as an "advisor" on a number of early Western movies.
  • King Richard I of England has entered mythology as Richard the Lionheart, paragon of knighthood, King Arthur come again. The real Richard was a deeply complex individual, warlike, greedy (according to one story, Richard claimed he would sell London to finance his wars if he could find a buyer), probably not actually an Anglophone, and not above stabbing someone in the back; this becomes a case of Values Dissonance. He did have a good sense of humor, being one of the few medieval kings of whom amusing quips are recorded. Not a cardboard villain, but not the cardboard angel of Ivanhoe and the The Adventures of Robin Hood.
  • Vlad "the Impaler" was a particularly ruthless warlord who usually gets a Historical Villain Upgrade due to his association with Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. However, he is also a celebrated national hero in Romania, since most of that ruthlessness was at the expense of their enemy, the Turks.
  • Brutus
    • While in Divine Comedy, Dante puts him as a great traitor in the deepest level of hell, William Shakespeare saw him as a man who died for the Republic's interests. For a long time the prevailing opinion among liberal-minded intellectuals that Brutus was a shining paragon of republicanism and Caesar a grasping tyrant. They probably patterned this off of his ancestor Lucius Brutus, slayer of the last king of Rome, who (if he actually existed) got a Historical Hero Upgrade in Roman historiography itself.
    • Plutarch wrote in his book of historical biographies, Parallel Lives, that Brutus was the last great republican, so it isn't unambiguously a case of an upgrade.
  • Jeanne D'Arc, of course, does this to Joan of Arc. Another, more peculiar example lies in Giles de Rais, who was an infamous serial killer in real life, but here he is one of Joan's most steadfast allies. By all accounts he WAS a loyal French royalist AND a savage, possibly, Satanic murderer. The two aren't incompatible. That, and there is no small amount of dispute over WHEN his murders started.
    • Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, which Twain called his favorite of all his books, is a rare example of near-total Sarcasm Failure on Twain's part, being a straight, starry-eyed depiction of a Lady of War and her noble death at the hands of evil. A lot of people called him out on this, including George Bernard Shaw, who kept Joan the traditional heroine in his play Saint Joan, but felt that her enemies had been the victims of a Historical Villain Upgrade and opted for White and Grey Morality in his version of events. Quite incorrectly, however, as regards Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who was a swine.
  • Empress/Queen Consort Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary aka Sisi/Sissi got many "biographical novels" describing her as a mix of a grown Manic Pixie Dream Girl and a full-blown Purity Sue who is utterly hated or bullied by her Evil Matriarch mother-in-law Sophie (who was more of an Ignored Expert) and pretty much brings sun and love to everyone else, solving their problems with much class and sweetness. This reaches egregious levels with the Sissi movie trilogy and the Princess Sissi animated TV series. The real Elisabeth, however, was much closer to a Broken Bird Rebellious Princess, unable to withstand the pressure coming from the Habsburg Court and plagued by disgraces and mental illnesses. (Arguably, the most down-to-Earth and realistic portrayal of Sissi in media would Brigitte Hamann's biography, The Reluctant Empress.
    • Pretty much inverted by the musical Elisabeth, which presents her as so damaged and unstable that she spends her entire adult life hallucinating that Death (in the form of a beautiful young man) is trying to seduce her.
  • Christopher Columbus did not only not "discover" America:
    • He didn't set out to prove the world was not flat, - everyone who was educated at the time knew that the world was round - he set out to find an easy route to Asia by going West, to avoid having to go around Africa (which was controlled by Portugal at the time). What made his voyage so outrageously unacceptable was that he assumed the world was only six thousand miles in circumference, which was far below most estimations at the time and under a quarter of the actual figure. Had there not been a huge continent barring his way, he and his crew would have likely starved to death. Some versions have him suspecting that there's another continent there and for whatever reason not letting on.
    • His systematic enslavement of the Taino Indians, his introduction of Old World diseases (especially smallpox) to the New World and his discovery, contraction and bringing back of Syphilis is almost never mentioned.
  • Martin Luther gets this a lot. Everyone knows the old story: An obscure, low-ranking monk in the small German town of Wittenberg became embittered and distrustful of a Church he felt had lost its way. His faith faltered as he saw greed and corruption consume the leaders of his once-proud religion. So on All-Hallows Eve of 1517, he had enough, and in broad daylight, boldly marched up the door of his church and nailed a document detailing 95 grievances, accusing his own superiors of acts he found inexcusable, most involving sales of indulgences, which was basically exchanging divine forgiveness for money. While it initially led to his excommunication and exile, his small voice struck a small spark in the congregation that became a roaring fire, leading to the Protestant Reformation that would change the world. Only problem is, as heroic and dramatic as it sounds, that’s likely not how it happened. For starters, the key event - Luther nailing the grievances to the church door - was first reported by someone who could not possibly have witnessed it, and was not made public until after Luther died. And speaking of which, even on his deathbed, Luther never expressed true disdain for his faith, and considered himself a loyal Catholic to the end; he was not known to have mentioned or wrote of the key event personally. While he did indeed write the document detailing the 95 thesis, they were likely presented in the form of a polite letter to his superiors with his concerns included.
  • Matthias Corvinus ruled Hungary with an iron fist. He was known for imprisoning the nobles who crowned him king, and instituting high taxes to maintain his army of Elite Mooks. Despite this, he is known as Hungary's greatest and most iconic folk hero, for his sense of justice and his rumoured habit of mingling with the common folk. The fact that the kingdom of Hungary was living it's golden age during his rule, and practically died with him, also helps his case.
  • Franklin D Roosevelt was a massive racist (not even remotely Fair for Its Day, as several prior presidents had spoken out against exactly what he pushed for) that extended the great depression by terrible monetary policy, disarmed law abiding citizens, imprisoned US citizens indefinitely without trial for being the wrong race (hiding exonerating evidence from multiple intelligence agencies showing his own claims were baseless to accomplish it), nominated an actual proven KKK member to the Supreme Court (later elevating him to Chief Justice), abused the espionage act to shut down those critical of him, rigged the supreme court, outlawed farmers from growing food to feed their family (to the point of burning crops in a poorly thought out plan to raise food prices in the dust bowl), gave the federal government unlimited power and kept Harry Truman in the dark about everything despite know how he could (and did) die soon. Yet because his cabinet and generals won World War II you'll (almost) never find a piece of fiction that dares show him as anything but a saint.
    • In The Winds of War and War and Remembrance this is subverted; he is generally portrayed well but he is not "a saint" except in the sense that real saints are often recorded as having rather curious lives. FDR is something of a Manipulative Bastard who plays with Victor by alternately offering a combat command which he keeps postponing, and appealing to Victor's idealism to do the job FDR says is most important. Aside from that The Government is miserly about giving passports to refugees, and strands evidence of atrocities in red tape. And while it is not clear who is to blame for that, FDR is the President...

Anime and Manga

  • Date Masamune is played like this in many works. In real life, he may as well be categorized with Oushuu's Oda Nobunaga, he killed his brother to rise to power (his nagging mother constantly opposed him and promoted his brother for clan leader) and betrayed the alliance with the other clans without much discussion (and conquering them). He also showed little respect to Hideyoshi when he was called to join the attack on Odawara (and late to come to boot!). But in Samurai Deeper Kyo, he ends up becoming Kyo's ally, though he may be rude and brash (aka Bontenmaru). And in Sengoku Basara, he becomes the Badass Jerk with a Heart of Gold hero with a somewhat charming personality and several Pet the Dog moments (seen with Kojuurou and Itsuki, or in the Drama CD, Oichi)
    • This one is averted in Koei's Warriors series. In Samurai Warriors 2, he comes off as a jerk, but hides a lot of ambitions that are beneficial for Japan. But in Warriors Orochi, he becomes Orochi's henchman and is pretty much loyal to him and has no qualms on bringing chaos into the world. Maybe that's his true nature.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa, Fritz Lang becomes one of Ed's allies in Weimar Berlin, and is depicted as an anti-fascist Badass who opposes Nazism as early as 1923. His real-life political leanings are less well known and Lang actively obscured them with his creative retellings of his life in Germany. However, he was thrown out of at least a couple German exile parties in Hollywood for making anti-Semitic comments, and was known to be abusive to his cast and crew on set. (Granted, it's hard to expect historical accuracy from a film that depicts the Beer Hall Putsch as part of a coordinated effort to take over Germany with the help of a group attempting to open a portal into Ed's alchemical universe.) Lang putting an entire film crew into mortal danger just to get a shot of a dragon for Die Nibelungen seems fairly like him, though.
  • Rurouni Kenshin turns Saitou Hajime into a Badass Anti-Hero. In actual history, he did manage to survive the mess that was the Meiji revolution and became a member of Japan's secret police (pretty much their equivalent of the FBI), but Watsuki freely admits that he pretty much made up all of the other details about Saitou's personality (as a minor note, RuroKen Saitou claims to have given up drinking, while in real life he died of a stomach ulcer as a result of it).

Comic Books

  • 300 conveniently leaves out any mention of Spartan pederasty and slaveholding, which were major parts of their culture at the time, to keep them acceptably heroic to modern readers. The film also leaves out their homosexuality and extreme devotion to religion in an attempt to appeal to gung-ho masculine audiences, going as far as having the hero criticize the Athenians as "boy lovers" and call out their own clergy as "corrupt."
    • Arguably, the film does actually emphasize their extreme devotion to religion, but also has Leonidas himself rejecting the practices as illogical and detrimental to them during a time of war.
  • Charles Fort may be one of the most important figures in paranormal science, but he wasn't much of a hands-on investigator. The only weird event he claimed to be present for was a painting falling off a wall for no apparent reason. In a one-shot comic from Dark Horse Comics, he's not only depicted as being directly involved in the things he investigates, but is upgraded to a badass action hero who saves the world from aliens. A preteen H.P. Lovecraft gets to be his sidekick. At the end of the comic, Theodore Roosevelt puts him in charge of a secret UNIT-like organization.

Films -- Animated

Films -- Live-Action

  • Braveheart upgraded William Wallace into the architect of Scottish Independence and downgraded Robert Bruce to little more than a background character. William Wallace raped women and burnt down schools with children and monks still inside. Robert Bruce is one of the great heroes of Scottish history and his guerrilla campaign against the forces of King Edward I and II was much larger, went on for much longer and was far more successful than Wallace's. Plus, it shows Bruce betraying Wallace. He never once betrayed Wallace (Everyone else, sure - but never Wallace).
  • Kingdom of Heaven:
    • Balian in the movie is elevated from a knight who made a courageous and humanitarian decision to negotiate with Saladin into an archetypal heroic Everyman knight embodying the best of the chivalric ethos. Balian wasn't as nice as the film made him out to be. Not only was he raised a noble, not a blacksmith as he is in the film, but he betrayed his oath not to fight Saladin on more than one occasion, sold many of the peasants in the siege into slavery and threatened to massacre his Muslim prisoners if Saladin wouldn't accept a surrender.
      • A tad unfair. Balian was ruthless, certainly, but his oathbreaking was forgiven, possibly due to prior excellent relations with Saladin, but he also threatened the destruction of Muslim holy places under the threat of a repeat of the 1099 1st Crusade capture of Jerusalem, when almost every inhabitant of the city was slaughtered. He also paid the ransoms for thousands of the poor out of his own pocket and offered himself as a hostage for the rest.
    • Saladin gets a bit of a Heroic Upgrade too in the film. He's been receiving Historical Hero Upgrades from both Muslims and Christian Europeans (to whom he was a Worthy Opponent) for so long that it's probably harder to represent him badly. Ironically, the modern lionisation of Saladin flows from the European depiction of him - until the late 19th century he was mostly forgotten in the Muslim world, in large part because the empire he created barely outlived him.
  • The real Rob Roy was both a murderer and a cattle thief. The movie Rob Roy turns him into a heroic man of impeccable honor, though strangely it still does make passing mention to cattle-thieving.
  • In Valkyrie, apparently the German officer corps actually cared about Jewish people, was disgusted by their slaughter, and masterminded a plot to assassinate Hitler that would include the closing of KZs. Never mind Stauffenberg's views of the Poles as "an unbelievable rabble" best under the whip, and their country as one filled with "a lot of Jews and a lot of cross-breeds".
    • The movie is wrong in its portraying of Stauffenberg and Co. as democrats, but despite their Anti-Semitic and racist views they did despise the industrialized murder of the Jews, and their planned cabinet consisted mainly of Social-Democrats and Liberals, some of whom actually were in KZs at the time of the coup. So the Upgrade is not from A Lighter Shade of Grey to Heroes, but from the historical Anti-Heroes to Knights in Shining Armor.
    • The German officers who attempted to assassintate Hitler were primarily old-guard conservatives of a monarchist bent; they despised Hitler not only for his crudeness, but also the fact that he was the representative of the "upstart" middle/lower classes. Many turned against him simply because he was losing the war.
    • Various members of the July conspiracy and the Kreisau Circle had different views. The vast majority were monarchists, various members were anti-Semites (though generally of the religious rather than racist variety), most wanted an authoritarian future, but several protested the treatment of Poles and Jews. The film's mistake is portray black and (fairly light) grey morality as Black and White Morality.
  • Lord Guilford Dudley in Lady Jane. In the film, despite his bad boy persona, he's actually a virgin with a passion for social justice. In reality, Guilford had a well-established reputation for being a Jerkass (including a widely-reported temper tantrum when, after her coronation, Jane refused to make him king). The film has him falling in love with Jane (and she with him) despite the fact that the real-life Jane actually refused to see him on the night before his execution.
  • John Nash and his (first) wife in A Beautiful Mind. In the film, she is still with him in the 1990's when he got his Nobel prize, making it a heterosexual triumph-of-love story. In real life, she divorced him in the 60's when he got caught hanging around in public toilets picking up young men, and he wasn't allowed to accept his Nobel onstage due to being off his meds. He did, however, reconcile with his wife and get back together.
  • Eliot Ness of the The Untouchables. In the two TV series and in the film, he's the ultimate lawman who spearheads the effort to bring down Al Capone. In reality, his only major contribution to crimefighting was taking credit for bringing down Capone. He was also an alcoholic who notably blundered the pursuit of a Cleveland serial killer.
    • Some historians claim that Ness was successful in stopping the Cleveland Torso Murderer, albeit indirectly, and that a political rival related to their preferred suspect smeared Ness in the aftermath. YMMV, naturally.
    • Not quite; a sleazy journalist pestered him for a story and then wrote about the downfall of Al Capone in Very Loosely Based on a True Story terms, with Ness as The Hero. But Ness actually lamented that, since he knew full well his role in Capone's downfall was limited and didn't like that the credit was stolen from other people.
    • He's a bit more sympathetic in Brian Michael Bendis's comic Torso. As Cleveland's head of Public Safety, he tries to prevent pedestrian traffic deaths (about 400 people a year) while the public is more concerned with a serial killer who's stalking prostitutes and immigrants in a tent city on the outskirts of the city that most of the population didn't care about anyway.
  • Lucilla, sister of the Roman Emperor Commodus has been given a Historical Hero Upgrade in both Gladiator and the 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (where she was played by Sophia Loren). The real life Lucilla was indeed involved in a plot to assassinate her brother... but according to contemporary historian Herodian it was because of her own jealousy and desire for power (in fact he even blames her attempt to have Commodus killed as what made him so paranoid in the first place).
  • Early in the USA's history, General Custer was often depicted as The Messiah, a brave hero who fought against the Indians and died alongside his men. This myth extended to both literature and eventually, film. This is most notable in 1941's They Died with Their Boots On. More modern sympathies with the Indians have caused him to no longer be portrayed this way, however. Custer's heroic myths are due to his wife, who outlived him (she died in 1933, a little under 50 years after him). She wrote three books depicting her late husband as a folk hero. She was afraid he would be blamed for the humiliating defeat and slaughter his troop suffered, and thus spent the rest of her life lobbying extensively to make her husband look a hero.
    • They Died with Their Boots On also manages to fail history forever by portraying him as a champion of Indians' rights.
      • By the standards of the 1870s, he was better than average when it came to Indian rights. He didn't want to kill all of them, which actually sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.
    • Custer really was a hero...but at the Battle of Gettysburg, not at the Little Bighorn. On the third day at Gettysburg, Custer's cavalry brigade managed to turn back Jeb Stuart's entire division, preventing a cavalry charge from the rear that had been key to Robert E. Lee's battle plan. At the Little Bighorn on the other hand, while his bravery is undeniable, it most certainly was his poor planning that led to the defeat.
      • And this was accomplished by a dead last Second Lieutenant who was accidentally promoted to Brigadier General at the age of 21.
  • Princess of Thieves upgrades Richard the Lion Heart's illegitimate son Philip of Cognac, a historic figure about whom almost nothing is known, into a full-blown Action Hero who prevents his Evil Uncle Prince John from claiming the throne and wins the girl, who happens to be Robin Hood's daughter.
  • Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness. Although somewhat true, he was somewhat more of a Jerkass than he was in the film.
  • Cecil B De Mille's Samson & Delilah does this to the latter, whether she existed or not. Delilah never felt remorse for chopping off Samson's hair and removing his strength and her part in the story ends after that. His version has her truly fall in love with Samson and feel bad when he goes blind.
  • Nicholas Garrigan in The Last King of Scotland is based on Bob Astles, who was imprisoned twice for his association to Ugandan presidents, Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Astles in real life was a Minion with an F In Evil; Garrigan on the other hand is a Loveable Rogue/Jerkass Woobie who, it is implied, helps bring down the Amin regime.
  • While not much is known about the actual personalities of any of the well-known military leaders in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, they are depicted in Red Cliff as having considerably modern views on things despite living in third century CE China.
  • The film version of V for Vendetta paints Guy Fawkes as a Doomed Moral Victor and Tragic Hero who died to strike a blow for freedom. It fails to mention that he and the other members of the Gunpowder Plot were essentially Western Terrorists mainly interested in replacing the Protestant monarchy with a Catholic one. People in the UK tend to have a neutral view of him (he's famously referred to as "the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions"*:Those intentions, of course, being to blow it up and kill everyone present. But at least he was honest about it.), since the government at the time was pretty draconian and handing out excruciating deaths rather freely. It is also notable that Fawkes was the last man brought into the plot, and was brought in due to having worked as a mercenary in Spain, which gave him the necessary Catholic sympathies and demolitions expertise.
  • Thirteen Days was critized by historians and then still-living members of Kennedy's administration because the movie intensely exaggerates the role that Kenny O'Donnell (the main point of view character played by Kevin Costner) played in preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating. The chief agent in the American government who pulled the administration together during the crisis was in fact Ted Sorensen, who's instead relegated to such a minor role that he's barely noticeable.
  • No less a luminary than Joe Montana has criticized Rudy for far overstating his role on the team and understating how much work everyone else was putting in too.
  • Pearl Harbor; in one scene, President Roosevelt (who as most modern Americans know, suffered from polio) forces himself to stand up in order to give an angry tongue lashing to his staff. Dramatic, yes, but the real FDR wouldn't have been able to do that if his life depended on it.
  • The Untouchables gives far too much glory to Eliot Ness. While he was indeed in charge of the group who brought Al Capone in, Ness himself had very little to do with that particular case.


  • Older Than Print: The Arabian Nights gave Haroun al Rashid a Historical Hero Upgrade. The most memorable event in his real reign was his execution of a powerful aristocratic family, therefore making his empire weaker. Is it ever mentioned in the stories? Sometimes, but they don't go too far in the opposite direction to Harun himself. In most stories, he's a lovable eccentric going on fantastic adventures—except in stories featuring Ja'far (The Three Apples especially), in which he comes off as a bit unstable.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a few:
    • This is especially the case regarding on Liu Bei. True enough, he had noble goals. However, his traits have often been exaggerated to make him seem as if he was an extremely honorable man; never mind that he made lots and lots of mistakes that make him pale in comparison to Cao Cao's war abilities (such as irrationally leading the disastrous attack on Yi Ling, or slamming his infant son to the ground, effectively dooming his future empire). Yeah, author favoritism is also at fault here.
    • Zhuge Liang may embodies this trope even more than Liu Bei. The author portrays him as completely godlike in every way, except for the minor detail where he has to succumb to overwork in the end because history said so.
    • Zhao Yun gets special treatment as Liu Bei's most badass Bishounen spear-wielding hero apparently and treated like Yukimura as one of the best warriors in China.
  • A good deal of children's fiction about the English Civil War depicts the Royalists as being noble, flawless heroes and the Roundheads as being sly, unscrupulous villains. Adult fiction, on the other hand, often depicts the Royalists as deceitful, Frenchified, crypto-Catholic cads and the Roundheads as solid, honest, decent, beef-hearted true Englishmen. In reality, of course, both sides had legitimate points and obvious wrongs.
  • Mary Boleyn was characterized by in The Other Boleyn Girl as a blushing virgin who loved Henry VIII and only wanted a quiet life in the country (as opposed to her sister, who was evil by virtue of being ambitious). The real Mary was known as "The Great Prostitute" because of her promiscuity. Her family went so far as to recall her from the French court because her behavior there was scandalizing them. Anne, on the other hand, only ever slept with one guy, and look how she's remembered.
  • Done quite deliberately in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which turns a historical figure already considered a hero by some into Blade. What Do You Mean, It's Not Awesome?
  • Not much is known of Saint Nicholas's actual accomplishments outside of receiving a broken nose and being put in prison by Roman authorities, and being a bishop. But almost all the popular legends have amped up his image since then to the point of him being practically a superhero. Badass Santa indeed.
    • And that gets taken Up to Eleven in Stationery Voyagers, where Niklo DiMyral gets the proto-Islamic Arab world to join forces with both the Church and Rome to hunt down a pimp whose recent kidnappings of three young girls has crossed the Moral Event Horizon in the eyes of all three factions. The real Nicholas could never have dreamed of achieving such unity; not even for a single instance and a noble cause.
  • In The Hooded Riders, author J. T. Edson portrays the outlaw and gunfighter John Wesley Hardin as a wrongly accused hero, and his killing of a black man is presented as self-defence.
  • The Pyrates reinvents Captain Henry Avery/Long Ben Bridgeman, mutineer and pirate, as Royal Navy hero Captain Benjamin Avery. But it's not claiming to be remotely historically accurate.

Live-Action TV

  • Doctor Who gives this treatment to Vincent van Gogh in "Vincent and the Doctor". Ol' Vinny goes from a tortured painter to Badass hunter of invisible monsters who eventually kills the Monster of the Week by impaling it on the anchor spikes of his easel. Other historical figures that the Doctor encounters in his travels get this trope in smaller doses as well: Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, Agatha Christie, Churchill...
    • Of course, this is often a pretty good example of Tropes Are Not Bad, as meeting historical characters in a show like Doctor Who would be pretty boring if they weren't involved somehow in timey-wimey shenanigans. (Also, "Vincent and the Doctor" being widely regarded as one of the best and most touching episodes of the entire series.)
  • The Tudors does this with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Anne in fiction is usually portrayed as a scheming whore, while Cromwell is often made pure evil. The show portrays Anne as being honestly in love with Henry and a devoted mother. Cromwell, while still rather ruthless, is seen as very human, and quite sympathetic.
    • To be fair, Anne is also depicted as intending (at least at first) to manipulate Henry using both lust and love, and to maneuver him into serving the schemes of her father, a notable member of Henry's court, long before she begins to legitimately care for him. Both depictions are much more morally gray than normal, and as such, probably a more accurate depiction of real people, at least morally if not historically.
      • She is also portrayed as having slept with Sir Thomas Wyatt before her marriage with Henry VIII. There are indications Wyatt may have had romantic feelings for her, though there is no proof that Anne reciprocated, and certainly not that they had sex, as it would have gravely endangered any future marriage of Anne's if she were found to not be a virgin. Wyatt was arrested for adultery with Anne, writing a poem about witnessing the beheadings of Anne and her co-defendants from his cell window in the Tower of London, but released a year later.
        • If anything, Anne was more fairly depicted in The Tudors—though her sex life is probably exaggerated—while Cromwell is, for once, treated as a human being. He's usually given a Historical Villain Upgrade due to the exultation of Thomas More. (Who, while in actuality being quite judgmental and sometimes extreme, was given his typical Historical Hero Upgrade in The Tudors.
  • Think the real Jackie Robinson was a badass athlete and a civil rights pioneer? In Lovecraft Country, he literally punches out Cthulhu! With a baseball bat, naturally.
    • This may have, in fact, been an analogy, as the episode was loaded with them. leading actor Jonathan Majors claimed that Robinson was supposed to be "the manifestation of Black heroism at the time".
  • In the Netflix loose Pablo Escobar Biopic Narcos the historical Bolivian police leader Hugo Martínez is split into the fictional Horacio Carrillo, who participates in some events Martínez was part of historically, and is willing to authorize torture and summary execution of narcos in the Colombian Drug War (an act Martínez was accused of with strong but non-definitive evidence, and believed to be the case by sources the series otherwise took at their word), and Hugo Martínez, who is shown as a pure By-The-Book Cop preaching inflexible morality even during a conflict that resembles open warfare more than normal criminality. This was presumably done because Martínez was still alive at the time the series aired and to do otherwise would have been asking for a lawsuit.


  • Henry V ignores several inconvenient aspects of the historical king, probably because he was a Badass warrior King of England at a time when English nationalism was on the rise after hundreds of years of domination by French overlords. Still, he could easily have been seen as a villain, even by the Elizabethans. He executed captured enemy knights, presided over some horrible bloodbaths, doomed both sides to keep fighting a pointless war, burned "Protestant" heretics[1] alive—including Sir John Oldcastle, the original of Shakespeare's Falstaff -- and had a nasty scar across his face.
  • Henry VIII ends with Henry and Anne eagerly expecting his heir, the future Queen Elizabeth - ignoring the fact that the entire point of the exercise had been for Henry to get a male heir, and indeed that Catherine had already borne a female heir (who would grow up to be Bloody Mary)... not to mention the infamous mess that would come a few years later, with Catherine dead and Anne convicted of capital crimes, both under very suspicious circumstances.
  • Thomas More's portrayal in A Man for All Seasons tends to focus on his bravery in maintaining his principles even when he knew this would result in his gruesome death, presenting him as a champion of the freedom of the individual conscience. Even apart, however, from the Values Dissonance that led him (like nearly everyone in his own time) to approve the burning of heretics, More was fully convinced that the state had a perfect right to suppress any open dissent; his entire defense was based upon the plea that he had not made his personal opinions known. He was definitely no advocate of free speech, as the play seems to suggest he was.
  • Oda Nobunaga is typically portrayed as villainous, but from Samurai Warriors 2 onwards he gets treated as a pragmatic Anti-Hero. Historically, he was much closer to the game's portrayal of Hashiba Hideyoshi as an eccentric yet highly general and administrator. He was not only a ruthless commander, but embraced Western culture and technology before most other Daimyos and implemented several important policies that are still used or directly influence current policy today. Embracing the use of guns allowed him to rout his opponents in battle.

Video Games

  • Pretty much everyone in the Sengoku Basara series that wasn't instead made into an outright villain gets some degree or another of this, but Tokugawa Ieyasu is the biggest—by Sengoku Basara 3 he's basically The Messiah, compassionate and honest, and his Power Fist combat style is symbolic of his desire to keep war from ever again severing the Bonds between people, rather than power-hungry and manipulative. Not to mention, he's a young Bishonen rather his usual portrayal of being a fat old man.
  • Taking a leaf from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dynasty Warriors promotes Liu Bei to a man concerned primarily with virtue and honourable behaviour.
    • To a lesser degree, his son Liu Shan is also portrayed as, while far from the warrior his father was, a man of virtue.
  • Assassin's Creed has this and its counterpart as its entire plot. The series's main draw is how the developers use the Rule of Cool to combine exquisite research with Historical Upgrades. Everybody of note in the past belonged to one of two Ancient Conspiracies; the Templars and the Assassins. The Templars work to eradicate free will in the name of peace. The Assassins hunt and kill Evil Aristocrats wherever and whenever possible "to safeguard Mankind's evolution"(and peace). If somebody in the past was awesome, he's in the series somewhere with his life examined in detail - with Hidden Depths because history was Written By The Templars.
    • For starters, the Hashshashin themselves. IRL(as far as we know), they were Hassan-I-Sabah's private army, and brainwashed with drugs to boot. They built a reputation at the time as his enemies were Asshole Victims who they eliminated with a minimum of collateral damage.
      • There is no Real Life proof of their supposed drug-use, only hearsay from their foes. But they definately were ruthless religious fanatic, not entirely unlike the modern Islamic terrorists.
    • King Richard I of England, however, got a fairly realistic representation: he went by the title "Lionhearted" even in his own day, and it did not refer to heroism but a love of combat. So, though he's driven to conquer Jerusalem, he keeps his promise to listen to Altaïr finally after he beats Robert De Sable in single combat, and lets Altair go free afterwards. He's undeniably a jerkass, but he's still portrayed in a relatively positive manner - basically a Noble Demon.
    • Lorenzo de'Medici is portrayed as being a devout republican and a benevolent ruler. In reality, like all the noble families in the Italian city-states, the Medicis were Machiavellian schemers who committed all sorts of immoral acts to maintain their power. At least it's shown in Lineage short how Lorenzo brutally tortures an agent of his enemies for information, and in Brotherhood Lucrezia Borgia claims, probably truthfully that he quashes the families of his rivals utterly, even those who had nothing to do with the plots against him.
    • And who can forget how Leonardo da Vinci got an upgrade in heroism, despite only being the sort-of deuteragonist? Notable changes include that his inventions work, are completely functional and can be used at nearly any time. Plus he's the main character's BFF.
    • According to some fan-theories, the events of the games are filtered through Altair and Ezio's impressions of them. Such as the way beggars in AC 1 would bother Altair and only Altair.
    • Not to mention that with their advantage in information control, the Templars would obviously try to slander any historical figure who allied themselves with the Assassins.

Western Animation

  • Played with hilariously in Time Squad. When the team is given a mission, Otto always would get really excited and start rattling off the wonderful achievements of whoever it was they were going to meet, pretty much ignoring any of the flaws (arguably justified through childish idealism). Of course, the mission often revolves around confronting whatever serious character flaws are preventing the figure in question from doing what they were "meant" to.
  • Averted with Christopher Columbus in an episode of The Flintstones dealing with Time Travel. While the mythical story of him trying to prove the world is round is kept, here he's portrayed as a Jerkass and a Mean Boss towards his crew (including the Flintstones and Rubbles). He's forced to fend off an attempt at a mutiny while threatening the four cast members to help him; the mutiny is stopped when Wilma sees land... which he quickly takes credit for.
  • Columbus's presumed heroism is also defied in a 2020 Animaniacs skit where the Warner siblings describe his true history in song as best they can. They go so far as to tell the viewers to check out his entry on The Other Wiki if they want the full story - Wakko calls him "a big phony" while Yakko calls him "history's luckiest fake".


  • Lei Feng was an ordinary but not particularly notable soldier in the People's Liberation Army. Then he died, and, amazingly, it turned out he just happened to have written a big diary in which he had recorded his dutiful life devoted to Chairman Mao. Most historians are pretty sure that the entire thing was a result of the Communist Party's Propaganda Machine.
  • Similar upgrades were done for the USSR's Pavlik Morozov and Nazi Germany's Horst Wessel.
  • Similarly, Nicolas Chauvin, if he really existed, got this treatment from French Bonapartists. Ironically, today he would generally get a Historical Villain Upgrade due to being the origin of the word "chauvinism".
  • As at least one entry above notes, Abraham Lincoln is already considered to be one of America's greatest heroes, usually portrayed as a staunch abolitionist and believer in complete and utter equality, as well as a competent and upstanding example of everything a President should be. Statements and actions that would be condemned in others (such as his suspension of freedom of the press, his statements that he believed black people to be innately inferior to white people, and other such examples) are either outright ignored or given halfhearted excuses by those who cherish the idea of an utterly heroic Lincoln.
  • Prince Charles Edward Stuart(Bonnie Prince Charlie)is considered a Scottish hero. In fact his personality was rather that of a typical court-noble with little extraordinary about it, and his flight after the '45 campaign reflects rather better on his followers who sheltered him then upon himself.

In-Universe examples

Anime and Manga

  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has an instance wherein during a lecture on the importance of holding one's tongue, Nozomu speaks positively about Kira, the man traditionally viewed as the villain in The 47 Ronin incident. Nozomu refers to him as a cultured man taken advantage of by a bunch of bumpkins.
  • At the end of Fullmetal Alchemist, the heroes have to whitewash Führer Bradley's life and not tell anyone that he was a Homunculus and willing to sacrifice his people to give Father godhood.



  • Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM! Pretty much the poster boy for this trope: a cowardly, manipulative political officer who gets thrown into death and destruction at every turn, and comes out as a hero for the Imperium, even revered as an aspect of the god-emperor of mankind in some circles. He doesn't believe all the hype, though.
    • A recurring theme in the books is Cain using his memoirs (compiled into the books we read) to give himself a Historical Villain Upgrade instead. By his actions, Cain is a hero. By his own claims he's a self-serving coward. Those tropes get played with a lot, and Sandy Mitchell says he's not sure.
  • Within the Dragaera series, the Dumas-recycling novels Brust attributes to Paarfi are an example of this (and probably Historical Villain Upgrade as well) in universe. Paari presents a rose-colored, Good Old Ways view of Dragaeran history and tends to present historical figures in a flattering light, although in some cases, you can read between the lines and sense the real person was much less pleasant.

Live-Action TV

  • An episode of The Brady Bunch showed Bobby idolizing Old West gunman Jesse James. His worried parents take him to meet one of James's victims, after which he has a nightmare in which James murders his entire family. That cures him.
    • Earlier in the same episode, they watch a movie based on Jessie James, but it had been Bowlderized due to TV censorship, leading Bobby to believe that James was not violent.
  • Jayne Cobb in Firefly. On a backwater planet of mud-cultivating peasants, Jayne apparently stole a fortune from the local tyrant, but was forced to jettison the cargo from his damaged ship. It landed near the homes of the 'Mudders', who assumed he had done it on purpose. Stories were told and songs were sung about the legendary Jayne Cobb, folk hero. Even when the Mudders are told the truth, some of them are so loyal to the * idea* of their hero that they prefer to stick to the old story.
    • Of course one of the themes of the episode is also about why this trope sometimes happens: the Mudders simply don't have anyone else to look to for hope and inspiration. They've never had an actual hero, so they need their created one.
  • The original Star Trek invokes this trope by establishing that some people in the 23rd century consider Khan Noonien Singh to be one of history's heroes.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Living Witness", the ancestors of an alien civilization are treated this way after they tried to raid Voyager and took hostages while doing so. Voyager was trading with one of their enemies while not knowing there was even a conflict between the two sides, and both are given a corresponding Historical Villain Upgrade to the point that they launched a horrific war against their "peace-loving" culture and staged full-on genocide against them. They themselves, on the other hand, are depicted as martyrs and freedom-fighters.

Video Games

  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, the official history records Delita as a hero, even though he left quite a body count on the way to the throne.
  • The protagonist of Medievil, Sir Daniel Fortesque, became a friend of the king through various exaggerated tales of his exploits. When an actual battle occurred, Daniel ended up getting killed by arrows minutes into it. However, due to being the King's friend, he went down in history as a hero. When the evil sorceror he fought against tries to take over the world again, Sir Dan gets a chance to finally prove himself as the hero history remembers him as.
  • Pilineal Whitestrake in The Elder Scrolls series is known as the Divine Crusader, and held in high regard by Imperials for freeing Tamriel from the Ayleids. Nevermind he was a racist berserker who would often go into psychopathic episodes, which were said to have damaged the lands themself. He nearly single-handedly wiped an entire race from the face of the planet, and even attacked another race called the Khajiit, simply because they didn't look human.

Western Animation


"1776! It ain't accurate, but it'll blow your fucking mind!"

  • Jebediah Springfield on The Simpsons. Touted as an archetypal pioneer who killed bears with his bare hands, he was in fact a German pirate who once tried to off George Washington but got his ass kicked.
  • One episode of the Fairly Oddparents has Timmy wanting to make a parade float based on legendary Dimsdale founder Dale Dimm and AJ scoffing at him, declaring Dale Dimm to be just a legand, and wanting to make their float based around Alden Bitterroot, whom is given actual historical credit for founding Dimmsdale. It turns out they both sucked. When Timmy time travels back in time it turns out Dale IS real, but a moron whom is an accidental Idiot Hero AT BEST, and Alden Bitterroot is an obbessive and delusional witch hunter, identical desendant of Crocker (that is actually a real witch himself and even more of an evil pain than his Identical Grandson!).
  1. strictly speaking, Lollards, but these were seen as Protestant forerunners by many Elizabethans