My kids started me watching the new Sherlock series from BBC America. It’s a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. I like it a lot, not just for the cleverness of the adaptation or for the mental puzzles of figuring out who did it and how, more for the characterization and relationship between the brilliant and rather autistic Sherlock (played by Benedict
Cumberbatch) and his more easily relatable friend, John Watson (played by Martin Freeman).

Going backwards in a way I don’t usually do, I am now reading all the original stories. What still interests me most are the relationships between the characters and also the motives of the criminals. Somehow, reading these stories is helping me think about villains, which tends to be hard for me.

A while back there was a test that was purportedly designed to identify psychopaths (this has since been debunked on Snopes). I failed it miserably and although that might be reassuring to my friends and family, maybe it just proves that I have trouble thinking in the same way as the perpetrator of this particular Internet hoax. I know I can’t think about villains as easily  as writers of detective stories and thrillers do. Not all villains are psychopaths either, but even so, they may need to be capable of premeditated harm. I think it takes a certain skill for basically decent people to envision that.

Back to Sherlock Holmes. Have you seen the new series and what did you think?  I haven’t seen any other film adaptations. Are there any you’d recommend? Did you know that Sherlock Holmes never actually said the words “Elementary, dear Watson”?

What are your favorite sorts of villains either to write or read about? And if you haven’t taken it before, here is a link to the psychopath test. Let us know whether you figured it out!


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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10 years ago

For years, the only Sherlock Holmes I could accept was Basil Rathbone. No one else matched his performance, at least not for me. I was leery about the new one, especially with it being updated. I love it! Part of the struggle I’ve seen with villains is that too many people are unwilling to believe someone would choose to do evil. They have to assign it mental illness. There are plenty of mentally capable of people, who prefer the rewards of bad behavior. Why is this so hard to believe? But then, you have to believe in good and evil. I’m amazed at how many people don’t. They believe everyone would choose good if they just tried harder.

Elena Greene
10 years ago

OK, Basil Rathbone is going on the list then.

As a serious note on psychopaths/sociopaths, there is research that suggests a biological basis for their behaviors. Their brains show less activity in the orbital cortex area. However that’s not a totally reliable predictor of whether someone will become a criminal. There are other factors, including early childhood abuse.

I believe there is good and evil, but as to whether individual people can be considered good or evil is much more complicated.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

I’ve seen that sociopathy test before, but I took it again and could not figure out the answer–even though I’d seen it before!!! I think that proves: a) I’m not a sociopath; b) I’m memory impaired!

I like it best when I can create a villain who is complicated enough to have some redeeming qualities. It is hard to do and I don’t always succeed.

The term “mental illness” is so often misused and misunderstood. Villains certainly don’t have to be psychotic to do evil–although the recent shooter at the Batman movie seems to fit this description. But his mental disorder is very different from a psychopath or sociopath, who are most likely to do what we consider evil.

A psychopath or sociopath more technically falls under the diagnostic category of “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” The mental health profession doesn’t assume persons who have Antisocial Personality Disorder can be “cured.”

A psychiatric diagnosis is merely a name given to a cluster of observable symptoms and behavior. Some psychiatric diagnoses can be cured or treated; some can’t.

I do agree, Elena, that most mental health disorders are brain-based in some way. We just still know so little about the brain and how the environment might change it. Or why some people become antisocial and some don’t, even with the same risk factors.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

I love the new “Sherlock”!! The characters are great, and I love seeing the parallels to the original stories…

Jane George
10 years ago

The production values of the new Sherlock are so high that the episodes are more like film than television. It’s fun to watch.

I’ve heard people say they’d like Benedict Cumberbatch to be the new Dr. Who. I would prefer to have the Doctor regenerate as a female and have B.C. play her new companion.

Janet Mullany
10 years ago

I love Martin Freeman as Watson and in everything I’ve seen him do. For me he’s the star of the show. I love the complexity and overall smartness of the series.

Villain! Oh I love writing villains. Unlike Diane’s mine don’t often have redeeming features; I like to think there’s some moral ambiguity which to me is far more interesting (and in the good guys too).

Louisa Cornell
10 years ago

I haven’t seen the new Sherlock Holmes series yet, but I hope to see it at some point because I’ve heard so much about it. I love the old Basil Rathbone films! And I have enjoyed the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films as well.

My favorite sort of villain is the completely irredeemable sort with a long forgotten touch of humanity. You can see where it all came from but it is still no excuse for the behavior.

Elena Greene
10 years ago

Diane, thanks for adding a professional’s viewpoint to this. I think it really can become ambiguous as to whether a person can be held fully responsible for their behavior. I wish there were better prevention, training for people to recognize danger signs and do something about it.

Jane, your Dr Who idea is *brilliant*.

Moral ambiguity is interesting in that I think it implies there are *potentially* redeeming features, even if they won’t outweigh the rest. That touch of humanity makes it real. I will try to remember that!

10 years ago

I love the new series. I think the actors portray their characters perfectly, although it might be a bit more accurate to say Sherlock has Asperger’s rather than autism (I don’t buy his claim that he’s a sociopath). I’m interested to see what they do next season, especially with regard to villains. Moriarty was a bit insane, so it’d be nice to see someone who, like Judy says, just finds being bad more rewarding.

10 years ago

I had seen the test before, but didn’t remember the answer.I guess it “proves” I am not a psychopath and have a bad memory. Just noticed Diane Gaston came to the same conclusion.

I have watched this series and enjoyed it. The first episode took me by surprise because I wasn’t expecting a contemporary version. I liked the previous BBC version staring Jeremy Brett. It was a more classic approach to it and he fit the character perfectly.

I didn’t care much for the Robert Downey Sherlock movies. They relied too much on gimmicks rather than Sherlock’s brilliant mind.

I am very curious about the upcoming TV series, ELEMENTARY, staring Lucy Liu as Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock. It is an interesting twist on the stories. She declares him certifiable early on.

10 years ago

I love Sherlock. I love the acting and the writing. I haven’t read the books, so I’m not getting all of the references, but the way in which they find modern equivalents for elements in the stories are so clever.