Smarter, Faster, Meaner: Richard Lee Byers on Writing Mastermind Villains
Crossing paths with a mastermind villain is like being caught in a deadly chess game in which you can only see your own pieces. If you survive, it will feel like it’s just the mastermind toying with you. And despite working as hard as you can, what limited successes you achieve will feel like they are due only to the amusement of your opponent. Even in losing, a mastermind often achieves their esoteric goal.
They are the best and the brightest, the geniuses among geniuses—and yet somehow, they always turn out so evil. We have to wonder: Is it because they see too much to identify with others, leading them to detach from the world and its petty problems? Or are they simply subject to greater temptations, having greater resources?
Because of their mind-numbing intelligence, writing masterminds is incredibly challenging. Luckily, Richard Lee Byers, best-known as the author of Dissolution, the first book in The New York Times best-selling series R.A. Salvatore Presents the War of the Spider Queen, was able to lend me a hand. Richard Lee Byers’s work with villains is always extraordinary, giving them a depth and a raw emotional realism usually reserved for heroes. But it was his vision of the manipulative genius Szass Tam in The Haunted Lands put him at the top of my list for experts on mastermind villains.
1. How would you describe mastermind villains?
The archetypal mastermind villain is a brilliant, patient schemer pursuing an intricate strategy intended to achieve some nefarious end. He has underlings to carry out his plans, and his goals appear grandiose if not impossible. For example, he’s not content simply to steal a valuable painting from a private collector. He’d rather steal the Mona Lisa, or better still, every piece of artwork in the Louvre.
But a character doesn’t have to conform to the archetype in every detail to qualify as a mastermind. Much of the time, the Joker doesn’t look like he has a long-range plan or any patience. He looks crazy and impulsive, and the audience has to infer the genius working beneath the facade. Hannibal Lecter’s ambitions are really no grander than those of a real-life serial killer. He just wants to murder and eat his victims while evading the law. Yet both these characters are clearly mastermind villains.
Mastermind villains pose a big, complex challenge for the protagonist to overcome, and when you’re writing a long, complicated adventure story, that’s the kind of challenge you need.
Above and beyond that, though, mastermind villains tend to have rich inner lives, detailed back-stories, and a grandeur to their ambitions that makes them charismatic. Every charismatic character makes a story that much more entertaining whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.
3. What do you think about when creating masterminds?
Naturally, there are things I think about when creating any major character. What motivates him? What traits and talents must he have to perform his role in the story? What additional traits, talents, or back story should I give him to create the sense that he’s a real person and not just a cog in the plot machinery? What would make him interesting?
Above and beyond all that stuff, I try not to go over the top. When you’re trying to make a mastermind villain unique and memorable, there’s a natural tendency to throw in every exotic element that occurs to you, but you have to know when to quit. In the first (I think) Austin Powers film, there’s a scene where Dr. Evil attends group therapy and describes a jaw-droppingly bizarre childhood that’s a parody of the back story of every Bond villain. If you’ve read Ian Fleming, it’s hilarious, and unless hilarity is the effect you’re going for, you want to make sure your mastermind’s background and attributes don’t come across as similarly goofy.
Of course, what’s over the top is partly a function of genre. Dr. Doom is a splendid mastermind villain in the context of a superhero universe. He’d look a little odd clanking around in his armor and cape pursuing his plans for world domination in a police procedural novel.
4. What are your favorite masterminds in literature or film?
In prose fiction, Professor Moriarty provides one of the models for all the arch-villains who came after him, and he somehow manages the fiendish trick of looming large in our imaginations even though he’s only a shadow in the original Conan Doyle stories.
When I was a kid, I read the Fu Manchu novels and was much taken with him and his marmoset; immortality elixir; slutty, treacherous daughter; hordes of lascar, Malay, and Thuggee assassins; and all that stuff. I haven’t reread the books in the decades since, so I don’t know if the older and possibly wiser me would agree with the popular modern judgment that they’re pretty damn racist and actually not all that well written. But there’s no doubt the Devil Doctor himself is a memorable figure.
5. What separates mastermind from other kinds of villains?
Mastermind villains are chess players. They dispatch agents or manipulate elements in the environment to neutralize the forces that keep them from their goals. As in chess, the threat implicit in a particular move is often initially unclear. It only becomes clear when considered in combination with later moves, and by that time, it’s too late for the opponent to disrupt the emerging pattern.
6. What’s the hardest part about writing mastermind villains?
The hardest part is giving them all the attributes that make arch-villains fun while still making them believable.
7. How do you believably defeat a mastermind?
To a degree, Robert E. Howard solved this problem by having brawn trump brains. Conan is actually no dummy, but it’s his amazing prowess that allows him to foil the schemes of wily sorcerers like Xaltotun.
But a contemporary writer trying to sell this type of resolution is likely to have problems (at least unless he can write with as much power as Howard, and few of us can). Combat skills can certainly play a pivotal role in the heroes’ victory, but modern readers understand that if the heavy’s scheme is in fact A Diabolically Ingenious Plan, then it ought to take more than the straightforward application of brute force to foil it.
So you need heroes who have a decent chance of outthinking the villain. One way to do this is to make them geniuses, too. Sherlock Holmes is as smart as Moriarty, Batman is as smart as the Joker, and Nero Wolfe is a match for Arnold Zeck.
Another approach is to pit the mastermind villain against a team of heroes or a hero and his sidekicks. No one of the good guys has all the smarts and skills required to outthink the antagonist, but when they put their heads together, it’s a different story.
8. What are a mastermind’s true weaknesses?
It depends on the particular character. It can be any of the elements you mentioned [friendship, love, pride] or something else. Pride, though, is one that’s overused and often used badly. Alleged geniuses who miss out on the opportunity to kill their archenemies because they can’t resist the urge to boast and gloat are difficult to take seriously.
9. Why do the geniuses among geniuses, the masterminds, go evil instead of good?
It depends on the particular character. I do think writers should remember that in the real world, people rarely think of themselves as evil. Most of us imagine ourselves to be good people, or at least people whose circumstances in some way excuse their less savory actions.
When you look at real-world figures who have done the things to which a mastermind villain might aspire--Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Hitler, etc.--I don’t see any evidence that any of them doubted the rightness of his actions. His behavior made sense to him within the context of his worldview.
So mastermind villains should generally have their reasons and justifications, too. Admittedly, it is sometimes possible to get away with characters who self-identify as evil in a fantasy story where evil is an objective force incarnate in actual malevolent gods and demons, but this still isn’t necessarily the most insightful or effective way to write.
10. How did you develop Szass Tam?
As most Forgotten Realms fans know, I didn’t create Szass from the ground up. He was a preexisting character in the setting, and pretty much everything about him screamed evil mastermind. He was a skull-faced undead wizard who’d been around for centuries, commanded awesome magical powers and military resources, and pursued subtle, intricate, long-range schemes. On top of all that, I gave him the most grandiose and diabolical goal a villain could have because that suited the purposes of the trilogy, which were to tell a good story, of course, but also to evolve the Forgotten Realms universe in a particular way.
With now much about Szass that conformed to the usual evil-genius stereotype, I figured my best hope of making him believable and interesting was to have him act contrary to the stereotype whenever the plot would allow it. So in the story, he frequently shows he’s capable of friendship, loyalty, compassion, and forgiveness. Then he moves on to the next ruthless, despicable thing he needs to do to further his agenda.
11. How does having a background in psychology aid you in creating characters, particularly masterminds?
Occasionally, the mastermind villain is brilliant but insane. My background in psychology helps me portray phenomena like delusions and hallucinations effectively.
More often, the mastermind villain isn’t crazy but is obsessive or sociopathic. Here again, if a writer has studied some psychology, it may help him portray the inner lives of such characters convincingly.
In my opinion, though, my psych background hasn’t played all that big a role in my approach. For a fiction writer seeking to create strong characters, empathy, imagination, and observation count for a lot more than anything you can get from a class or textbook.
12. Any advice for writers looking to write mastermind villains?
Make sure your mastermind villain is properly motivated. Show or at least hint at aspects of his character above and beyond what he needs to perform his function in the plot. Strange tics and florid gestures can work, but don’t go overboard, and don’t assume that mannerisms alone equate to adequate characterization. Don’t have an allegedly brilliant character create a plan with an obvious flaw just so your heroes can exploit it and win. You have to plot more cleverly than that.
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Richard Lee Byers is the author of over thirty fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. A resident of the Tampa Bay area, the setting for many of his horror stories, he spends much of his free time fencing and playing poker.
His new eBook superhero series The Impostor, his eBook collection The Q Word and Other Stories, and all his other books are available at Amazon. He invites any and all interested parties to friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), add him to your circles on Google+, read his monthly column at Airlock Alpha, check out his blog, and email him.