Writing Villains: the Moriarty Problem

When writing fiction of any length, one of the most important characters to focus on is the antagonist. Merriam-Webster defines the antagonist as “one that contends with or opposes another.” In the case of writing, the antagonist is always in conflict with the hero of the story, or the protagonist. All great works seem to have strong protagonists and antagonists: Othello and Iago, Frankenstein and his creation, Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty. These characters enter into a struggle that is captivating from beginning to end. BUT – then the book ends, Holmes and Moriarty go over the falls – Holmes lives, Moriarty dies.

What next?

As a young adult (YA) writer, I work in a genre that loves to have series. Why write one book when there can be at least three? On one level, this is fantastic. It allows one to fully explore ideas that are not possible to accomplish in one book. Yet for every advantage, there is a challenge – what to do about the antagonist? Some writers have kept the villain alive – Sauron and the ring are the main villain in every Lord of the Rings book and Darth Vader and the Emperor are the main villains of the original Star Wars trilogy. There is nothing wrong with this method. Only keep in mind that keeping the antagonist alive requires a different climax be planned (the Death Star is blown up at the end of A New Hope).

With this blog post, however, let’s talk about the other method. What do you do when you’ve killed an antagonist – a great antagonist – but the series continues? This can be a real challenge.

I have dubbed this “the Moriarty Problem” because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work portrays, I think, the most famous example of this happening. While Sherlock Holmes novels were published after the death of Moriarty, the character was never as popular. When films portray Holmes, it is almost always in conflict with Moriarty. Even the BBC series Sherlock (whose Moriarty is pictured above) has struggled with captivating villains since it offed its main antagonist:

A fantastic antagonist can elevate the story, but their absence will be felt after they’re gone. This is especially true if they are not replaced with a compelling new character. Let’s go back to Star Wars.

I mentioned it earlier for a reason. Darth Vader may be the most iconic antagonist produced in the twentieth century. At the very least, he is in the top three. Even before we knew the mind beneath the mask, Vader’s look and breath catapulted him into the spotlight. When he died… well, the Star Wars films have felt his absence.

True, Emperor Palpatine is also a capable antagonist, with his layers upon layers of plotting and deception – but his largely hands off approach works better as a backdrop rather than the front-and-center attraction. Most of his antagonistic action consisted of political maneuvers in the Galactic Senate. His ultimate motivation, power for the sake of power, also lacks depth. If put into full exposure, Palpatine is kinda dull.

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Sorry Emperor, you’re just not a compelling character.

Watching the Star Wars prequel films, many antagonists attempted to fill Vader’s shoes. They captured part of his immediate charm – the look. I can remember as a kid loving every image of Darth Maul that came on screen. Then I saw the movie and… well, he looked cool? Ditto for Jango Fett and General Grievous (who was Count Dooku again?).

While the cool appearance worked for Vader – he was not simply something to be watched. Vader felt like a character in A New Hope, not an effect. By only copying the first part of why Vader worked, George Lucas created villain archetypes rather than actual antagonists. Lesson: a cool appearance does not a great character make.

I also mentioned Star Wars because, for all its villain-related struggles, it has a terrific example of doing a second antagonist right. This is not found in the movies (jury is still out on Kylo Ren) but from a book published in 1991: Heir to the Empire.  Today it is a given that Star Wars dominates the media – books, television, toys, games – the series is everywhere. In 1991, however, the prequels were eight years away, and the expanded universe did not exist. This book, or rather the trilogy that it sparked, changed this – and largely due to its antagonist. Heir to the Empire marked the beginning of what came to be known as “The Thrawn Trilogy.”

Named after its new antagonist:

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If you’re writing a series and you need a new antagonist, look to how author Timothy Zahn created Grand Admiral Thrawn. Zahn did what many authors are afraid to do. He threw out the established villain mold. Thrawn shares little in common with Vader and Palpatine, save their ultimate intent. In doing this, Zahn ensured that his creation would be unique.

The Moriarty Problem cannot be solved with another Moriarty. This is a pitfall that many writers fall into. Replace evil genius with an someone who is even evil genius-ier, or someone who was strong with someone stronger (Dragonball Z in a nutshell) and your work will be in real danger of going through the motions. Simple escalation does not work when it feels to the reader like the top has already been reached.

When creating antagonists, never be concerned with who came before. Look only at the current situation, the current emotional/physical state of the protagonist, and who/what would be best to oppose them.

Despite its stature as “low art,” the Batman mythos is a good place to examine when designing antagonists. While no one would deny The Joker as Batman’s best villain – the dark knight has a rogues gallery that is surprisingly deep. Characters like Two-Face, Catwoman, and Mister Freeze are nothing like the Joker – but they share common ground with Batman, and that’s all that matters.

The Moriarty Problem is solvable. Separate yourself from what you’ve done before – ignore any outside pressure to “top” previous antagonists. After all, the best way to guarantee a great villain is to simply create a great character. More on that soon!

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