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Honey You Should See Me In a Crown I (Or, What BBC Sherlock Teaches Us: Antagonists and Villains and Bad Baddies)

BBC's Sherlock - the reincarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective in 21st century London. In its second series, it only has six episodes, but confounds me in its ability to be perfect. I'm a snob about film and TV, but I'll also be first to say it's the finest piece of storytelling on TV in a while. We writers can learn from it, so welcome to my all-rounder series: Honey, You Should See Me in a Crown.

I will be dissect this king of entertainment, created by Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame, a fan favourite since Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) and Mark  Godtiss Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft Holmes in the series). From plot, to pacing, to characterisation, to relationships and dynamics, from themes to subtext, to stereotypes and archetypes, and all literary bad-arsery. (And thankfully this will tie in with my HSC crime studies, so HA! Board of Studies, ha!) Note: spoilers threaded throughout. No, seriously. Spoilers.

Now, I think it would be fitting to begin with the giver of our title, and by that I mean our villain, Jim Moriarty. My kindred spirit. My joie de vive. We know that I have a big place in my heart for villains, and Andrew Scott's representation of Sherlock's nemesis reigns over them all. So.


I have posted about villains before, so for a more comprehensive look into them, feel free to check out Finding Your Character's Shadow or a post on types of villains and their motives.

Jim Moriarty is insidious, depraved and mentally unstable. It is his brilliance and his flair and his utter boredom with the world and its inability to challenge him that makes his pairing with the great Sherlock Holmes so right.

A compelling antagonist has no limits to what he will do and can do to succeed. The Moriarty Crime Corporation, this empire that they built up over mere episodes which felt like seasons, is entwined with assassinations, with terrorism, with heists and all manner of dastardly deeds. Moriarty, a consulting criminal, has this empire at his fingertips. He can do anything. As we saw in his stunt at the Tower of London in The Reichenbach Fall, he breaks in to the crown jewels with a push of a button his phone, and simply puts them on and waits for the police. Watch the clip below, really. The calmness with which he states his scope really makes you wonder why he wants Sherlock, and plants the question: what will he do to get him?

You can't just have the keeper of the keys in a world of locked doors, no, you have to have a plausible reason for why this man is our antagonist. Not why he's bad, but why he's our antagonist.

In their showdown on the roof of the hospital, Moriarty laments the fact that everything is so boring, that nothing in the world challenges his enormous mind, and that even Sherlock Holmes eventually wasn't even enough. He's in it for the contest, the puzzle if you like, involved in dealing with Sherlock. And when Sherlock is about to jump, just like Moriarty tells him he has to (Snipers will kill his three friends otherwise), and Sherlock begins to laugh, Moriarty panics. "What? WHAT? What have I missed?" he demands. And you can see that he needs to know.

Your reason has to be understandable. I can completely understand where Moriarty is coming from. For further examples? X-Men's Magneto, Vampire Diaries' Klaus, Iron Man's Obadiah or Whiplash, Hellboy II's Prince Nuada. There is an understandable concept that drives them.

I would, however, just like to introduce a little tangent. While this concept is effective and wonderbar, it is not always appropriate. Your villain must shadow your protagonist (see my post on that), and so, if you have a morally ambiguous protagonist whose motives are questionable, like Bruce Wayne (He says he wants to save Gotham, but does he really just want revenge on the environment responsible for the death of his parents?), it is almost necessary that you have an antagonist such as the Joker, whose motive can be broadly assumed but which is never understood, whose insanity and malice could be echoed by the protagonist.


You need your antagonist to challenge your protagonist. Not in the glove-smacking duel challenge, or even the Cloud/Sephiroth sword-wielding challenge, but in that fact that if you want to prove your protagonist's strength, to show that they deserve to be the hero of the story, you need strong opposition. If you've played organised sports, like soccer, before, then you know that if you beat the team at the bottom of the table, no one makes a big deal about it, but if you beat the team at the top of the table, well, it's the talk of the next whole round!

When you're plotting, flip over to your antagonist's side. Get in their head. If you're Moriarty, what can you do to outsmart Sherlock, to embarrass him, to make this boastful genius look like a fraud? First, you'll need to outsmart him - that calls for intelligence and unexpected turns, then you need to embarrass him - so, prop him up and then bring him down, and then, to make him look like a fraud? You need to turn everyone against him, especially those with the most faith. It sounds like a complex and twisty plan. It sounds like you're going to have a serious power-player who can manipulate a whole lot of people and situations.

Moriarty is Sherlock's intellectual equal in some ways, but each of them brings something that the other doesn't have. Moriarty has his empire, his skills, his ingenuity, and Sherlock has his ability to unravel the most intricate of plots. That's what your hero-villain dynamic (and I will dedicate a whole post to this later in the series) should do. Put them on the same level, whether if be intellectual, physical, in regard to supporting comrades, or something unexpected but necessary! You have to be able to say that your character would not be who they were without this. Sherlock? Intelligence. Dom Toretto from Fast and Furious? Skill. Luke Skywalker? Beginner's luck. Then, once they're both on that level, let them bring something unique to the table.

If possible, subvert expectations as much as you can. Take Moriarty's appearance, for example. Back in series one, we first met him while he was playing Jim, the boyfriend of Molly Hooper, who Sherlock told her was gay. Very gay. And then, at the pool, we're anticipating a suave, bad-Bond type, tall, dark and possibly handsome.

And we get Jim. Young, on the shorter side, an accent and higher-pitched voice, the look of an insipid law intern - Not arch-nemesis material. But then we saw more of Jim. Confident and extravagant, his ringtone was the Bee Gee's Stayin' Alive, he strutted, he seemed to take nothing seriously, he had no regard for human life. He spoke in allusions, but treated it all as a game, as though he and Sherlock were the devils and angels playing cops and robbers in Daddy's playground.

So, that's about all the space I can use for this post. I may do another villain post later on, but for now, I'll leave you with some links. Janice Hardy's Writing from the Antagonist's POV, Plotting From an Antagonist's Perspective, and Creating a Great Antagonist. Vanessa di Gregorio's Writing Good...Er...Bad Villains, which overviews every aspect. And Aimee Lee Salter's Might Heroes Require Mighty Villains.

So, tell me guys in the comments below: What do you think makes a memorable villain? Have you got any favourites? Have you seen Sherlock? What did you think of Moriarty? What did you learn from or appreciate in the series? 


  1. Ooh, thanks for the great links!

    I'm a big Sherlock (and Sherlock Holmes in general) fan - BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH OMG NOMNOM ... ahem - and I LOVED Moriarty. So deliciously maniacal!

    I adore villains that have no rules, ala Joker, Moriarty, etc. Does that make me weird? I think it does.

    Awesome post! x

  2. Interesting and well thought out points. Plus you get 1 Bazillion Internet points for the FF7 reference.

  3. I love the reinvent of Sherlock by the BBC. Each episode is fascinating. Their programming is far superior to much of what we have to watch here in the states.

  4. Enjoyed your essay. I agree that Sherlock is excellently crafted, as are many of the Doctor Who stories.

  5. Oh gosh, I absolutely adore SHERLOCK. The only western TV series I genuinely love. It's just perfect. I'm most fascinated by Sherlock himself -- and he's the main inspiration for the villain/love interest in my current WiP.

    However, oh, Moriarty. He's such a great villain precisely because of everything you've listed there. I especially loved how he subverted the viewers' expectations. It worked particularly well here because most of those who watch SHERLOCK are likely to be familiar with canon Moriarty -- and many were expecting somebody entirely different.

    But what's I love the most about Moriarty is that he's insanely scary. It made me feel afraid for Sherlock.

  6. Sigh. I would have loved to read your post, but have to skip, because I've waited for over a year to see the new season. I'm not spoiling it. ;-)

  7. It's the Maddest Criminal Mind in the story of Tv Dramas

  8. I've just finished watching all of the released episodes of Sherlock so finally got to read this post without fear of spoilers! XD

    I agree that there was a sort of shock factor when you first saw Moriarty as Moriarty (rather than Molly's gay boyfriend) and at first I wasn't particularly fond of his childish and obviously unstable appearance/manner. However, after watching more of the episodes I've started to appreciate the deviation from the well-spoken, suave villain - especially when you see Moriarty's plan revealing itself in The Reichenbach Fall and that he is just as good/better than the suave guy you might have expected.

    Now time to read your part II of this post :D


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