Smarter, Faster, Meaner: Richard Lee Byers on Writing Mastermind Villains

Writersdontcry 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 willMastermind_big 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?

Richard_Byers_author 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.

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Comments (5)

Hi Steve,

Great villains are often found in the minds of the nicest, kindest people, so I don't think they come from unconscious author villainy. They can, for instance, come from great empathy, or from research.

As for your second question, I think that sociopaths are certainly one route to masterminds, but I think that villains can also arise from well-intentioned people for who believe strongly in their cause, and for whom the ends justify the means.

Thanks for your interest!

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Tuesday October 25, 2011 at 11:43 AM

Hi Susan,
I have carried one mastermind/villain through four of my books. Some readers have said that he must be my Mr. Hyde, although my only potions are the libations of my Irish and German ancestors.
So, two questions: (1) Do you think such a villain represents some unconscious villainy in the author? (2) Is the genius just twisted due to a sociopathic personality (many people are sociopaths without doing harm) or is some other psychological disorder necessary?
All the best,

Posted by: Steven M. Moore | Monday October 10, 2011 at 11:32 AM

Thanks, Elaine! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I loved The Haunted Lands. Szass Tam is one of those villains I will always remember fondly.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday October 10, 2011 at 9:26 AM

If you love comics and/or pulp fiction, do read The Impostor. There is a nice variety of the kinds of fiction Richard writes in The Q Word.

Posted by: Ann Morris | Monday October 10, 2011 at 7:06 AM

Great interview! I haven't had a chance to read THE HAUNTED LANDS yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Posted by: Elaine Cunningham | Monday October 10, 2011 at 6:15 AM

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