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.