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Is it possible for a villain to be too smart and too much of mastermind? (1 Viewer)

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ironpony

Senior Member
For my story, which is a crime thriller, the readers said I need to explain more of how the villains are getting away with their crimes, and the police saying they are really good, is just enough.

But the more I try to come up with explanations as to how the villains are experts at getting rid of DNA, or not getting prints anywhere, or how they are able to fool the police at all these turns, the more I feel that they are too elaborate and too smart, unless there is no such thing as being too elaborate and you have to be in today's world to get away with crimes?

Plus, the more I try to explain things, I am wondering if the reader will expect a pay off to explanations.

For example, it was pointed out by a reader that I need to explain how the villains are getting away with their crimes in cars that have phony licence plates, since the police have technology on their cars that can read and detect phony plates at random.

So I came up with the explanation of one cop character telling another that one of the villains must be an expert license plate maker, but it could be anyone who works in the license plate making business. But will the readers expect this to be paid off later in the plot? Because the way the plot unfolds doesn't have anything to do with finding evidence in the license plate business after such explanation.

So I am wondering if by explanation how the villains are able to get away with all these things, if the reader expects those explanations to become necessary plot points that will be paid off later, or feel misled if they don't. What do you think? Thank you everyone for any advice on it! I really appreciate it!
 

Sir-KP

Senior Member
If they weren't crafty, they would be a petty criminal that this story shouldn't even exist.

Smart =/= flawless. There are weakness in strength, there are strength in weakness.

Your criminal could get away with the well-made, fake license plate, for now. They'll start to think they're untouchable, for example. Meanwhile the police are conducting better research and investigations and found, let's say, a loose-mouth that eventually gives an opening for strike, which actually helps and the criminals had a close escape in their next encounter that they begin to bettering themselves again, starting from 'silencing' the loose-mouth guy and so on.
 

Folcro

Creative Area Specialist (Fiction)
WF Veterans
The police will only know it is a fake license plate if they scan it. Why would the cops opt to scan your villain's license plate? Maybe the villain can avoid getting to that point.

The only reason for elaborate explanations to not work is if they are boring. Otherwise, it can be thoroughly engaging to learn how the villain does it. The smarter a villain is, the higher the drama. If the reader can believe through proper explanation that the villain is unstoppable, they will be that much more curious to know how or even if he will be stopped.
 
Your villain might be very well-connected in the criminal underworld. What if he has buddies in other trades who can do stuff like fake his plates for him? And other tasks that can be outsourced. Of course, you'll want to save the most brilliant machinations to the villain himself.

As to being "too smart" of a villain, recall the ancient Greek concepts of hubris and hamartia. Every tragic hero (villain, antagonist, etc.) has a fatal flaw, a weakness, an overarching ambition, too much pride, something like that... and it always leads to their downfall. There's no other way but for it to end badly for them, because they're the bad guy, and they mess up just when it's most important to get things right.
 

Darkkin

WF Veterans
Writing a really smart villain is honestly one of the greatest challenges in fiction. Too smart is not a level that is readily obtainable to the majority of the population, as average IQ tends to be between 80 - 100. Hannibal Lecter is an amazing villain because he is incredibly smart and well written. That is a well established bar to use as a gauge.

Trying to write a supremely intelligent villain and not doing it well...that occurs much more often than happening across a too smart villain because in actuality people are not as smart as we would like to think.

Believable might be a better target to aim for...
 
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Darkkin

WF Veterans
My edit button disappeared, so I am going to add that there is a strong correlation between high IQ and mental illnesses. e.g. depression, bipolar, schizoaffective disorders, ADHD, ADD, ASD, anxiety...and these are just the neurological disorders. Personality disorders are a whole different ball of wax...antisocial disorders, borderline personality disorder, psychopathy etc.

The more active the brain, the greater propensity for misfires. It is almost as if nature builds in its own version of checks and balances. One has the brains, but it come with its own set of weaknesses.
 
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thepancreas11

New Writers' Mentor
WF Veterans
So in a lot of crime dramas on television and in a lot of crime stories like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the details that the plot focuses on are the important ones. Therefore, the "expert" criminal enterprises of your antagonist should help drive both the plot and the character development. If you're going to end up in an abandon fish warehouse, for example, maybe the cops notice that at every crime scene, there is a Red Herring (I will see myself out). They don't need to be an expert in all things, just in certain very specific things that matter to who the villain is. For that matter, I would encourage you to make both the things that are stolen and where they are stolen from important as well.

A great example of this is in the movie "Black Panther". Killmonger steels not only a priceless artifact containing vibranium (a metal central to the plot and theme of the movie), but he also steels an ancestral mask on his way out. Then there's the fact that he steels it from what he perceives to be the pinnacle of colonization: a history museum. What he steels, where he steels it from, and how he steel it all speak to his character and what that character stands for. If you can manage to do something like that, your villain doesn't need to be a mastermind.
 

Darkkin

WF Veterans
Take time to read widely across the genre, there is a recipe just like the mother sauces of French cuisine. Genres are notorious for it because they are comfort food, escapist reading.

Keep an observation journal about the character archetypes, what worked, what didn't, what you liked, and most critical why. To write good characters one first needs to understand what makes a good character, and intelligence is only a small part of that content.

Need license plates for a dark SUV? Find a like make and model, a screwdriver, and less than a minute. New plates, conveniently stolen, and the driver untraceable. Also consider the fact that many states only require a back plate. As a reader, I would say, it is a waste of detail and effort, when there is a simple solution available.

Petty theft, how many law enforcement agencies are going to be searching for stolen plates, moreover how many citizens actually report stolen plates? Perfect, easy access, low tech camouflage. There are battles worth fighting in fiction. But are license plates really a good hill to mount a defense on?
 
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Cephus

Senior Member
This is absurdly common in mystery and crime dramas, especially on TV. They will introduce a super-villain who is unrealistically brilliant and always a dozen steps ahead of the good guys. This will go on and on and on for a long time where they always outsmart the heroes, right up to the point that they make a ridiculously stupid mistake, something so far beneath them that it makes you roll your eyes when it happens, and they get captured. Lather, rinse, repeat because they invariably escape custody in some flashy fashion, only to start the cycle over again.

It's like the writers can't figure out how to make the heroes figure it all out so they just make the villain dumb, completely out of character.
 

bazz cargo

Retired Supervisor
Moriarty...
Lex Luther...
The list is long young Padawan.
The trick is to fit the character to your purpose. For a 'classic' take on baddies I recommend The Stainless Steel Rat.
 

ironpony

Senior Member
Oh okay. I don't think my problem is character consistency at all, it's just if the plans would actually work, especially in today's world of police investigation technology. In modern times, when crime investigation technology is so great, is it even possible to be a Moriarty and keep getting away with believably? Could Moriarty exist in modern times and still keep getting away with things?
 

Darkkin

WF Veterans
You do realise that the above post negated almost all possibility of a villian being too smart, right?

Read widely. Target books that specislise in forensics. e.g. Bones, Rizzoli and Isles... Take notes. Find the archetypal patterns. Subscribe to a streaming service that offers true crime shows. e.g. Forensic Files. Discovery ID.

(Not that it is relevant, but there was an episode of Law and Order: SVU a number of years ago that had one of the detectives being set up because of manufactured blood evidence, a brand new process their forensic lab knew nothing about.)

Actually talk to local agencies. Look up interviews given by published trope authors. Many of them visited places like Quantico to talk with professionals. See if it is at all possible to visit a forensics lab or find out what is required to complete a criminology/forensics program. By knowing what is required to qualify for the job, it can help establish a basis for a character's functioning knowledge.


These are the most direct/factually sound answers to the questions that keep getting repeated. Basic homework and research. No one can lend you their notes on your creative work.

It is your story. It is fiction, so keep it realistic to the trope and it will be just fine. At some point you need to trust your own work, not relying on John P. Armchair, internet expert of everything.

Make it a catch phrase: What would Moriarty do? Think like your villain because he is your villain, not Johnny Armchair's.

Own your project and ask yourself why it works. Do you have plausible explanations for issues raised by critiques? If yes, outline it for yourself so you have a visual reminder of Issue A discussion. If no, then take a second look, consider the critique and ask: What would Moriarty do? These are basic critical thinking skills and they are as crucial to writing as grammar and punctuation.

Consider the license plate situation, given the fact there are half a dozen easier alternatives to license plate forgery (especially if the villain has limited resources, speciality materials, which can potentially be traced to a buyer, in poisoning and bombing cases this is where many of the biggest breaks are caught by law enforcement agencies)...it does not argue well for the villain's practicality. A visit to long term parking at the airport, using the printer at the public library to make a forged temporary plate to tape in the back window, or something similar done using a computer at a big university (these temp plates are a common sight is my city, easy to fake and so common no one notices.)

As writers we are responsible for our work and whether it stands or falls on its own merits, thusly we are accountable for the plausibility of our work, if something seems off, trust the feeling.
 
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JJBuchholz

Senior Member
If they weren't crafty, they would be a petty criminal that this story shouldn't even exist.

That exactly. I have written some pretty damn tough villains, but like most heroes, they also have strengths and weaknesses
that can be used or exploited. It's up to the hero to figure out what those weaknesses are, and how to use them to his or her
advantage in order to defeat said villain.

That being said, it's up to the writer to make it all mesh and create the necessary friction to set everything in motion.

-JJB
 
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