It's Halloween today, and I notice that Google has chosen to celebrate the day with a "Google Doodle" of a witch busy at her cauldron. I've written about Halloween witches elsewhere, but one of the links off the Google page (this one) reminded me of something I've come to detest in modern supernatural fiction.
In modern fantasy, the poor persecuted witch has become something of a cliché. Writers draw on the historical tragedy of innocents being accused, convicted, and sometimes executed for the crime of witchcraft, and use it to make their fantasy magic-users the victims of organized oppression so we can feel sorry for them even though they can shoot lightning from their hands.
This, to my mind, is a case of massively missing the point.
The tragedy of historical witch panics -- not to mention the ones that still go on from time to time in parts of Africa and Asia -- is not just that witches are being killed. The tragedy is that there are no such things as witches. That's why every witch trial has been a cruel miscarriage of justice and why we use the term "witch hunt" to describe relentless pursuit of an evil which doesn't actually exist.
If your fictional world has witches, with genuine supernatural power, then the witch-hunters are chasing after something that really exists, and really has the potential to do harm. This changes the whole dynamic of the story.
In real life, Matthew Hopkins, rooting out witches in order to collect his finder's fee, was at best deluded and overzealous, and at worst was knowingly torturing and murdering people for money. That's a villain. But if Matthew Hopkins was finding real witches, then he suddenly turns into a hero. Rides into town armed with nothing but faith and a flintlock to clean up the place. He's Solomon Kane.
In short: if you want villainous witch-hunters, leave the witches out of it. Write about historical people (or even moderns) dealing with witchcraft panics and cynical opportunists trying to profit from those panics.
If you want witches to be real, then it hardly seems fair to make them the heroes instead of the brave souls trying to stop them with nothing but steel and Scripture. Everone likes to root for the underdog.