In some stories the hero and the villain are former friends, like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Other times they’re enemies from the start, like Batman and the Joker. But regardless of their history, in most stories the hero and the villain meet multiple times, and the hero’s repeated efforts to beat the bad guy can make for an irresistible tale.
But what about those stories in which the chief antagonist appears in just a single scene? There aren’t many of them, but when pulled off successfully, that villain and his or her single scene can be amazing.
This article is a tribute to one-scene villains.
I started thinking about this subject when I recently read The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. In that Newberry Medal winning book, Aerin reaches the wizard Agsded’s fortress, defeats her uncle in a battle of magic, and causes his fortress to crumble all in a single scene. It’s a great sequence in a great book and (spoilers) it’s not even the story’s climax. Aerin has to get home to Damar for that.
My favorite one-scene villain is Galbatorix, the chief antagonist of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle. What’s that you ask? Doesn’t the Inheritance cycle consist of four books and almost 3000 pages? Yes, it does, and the main villain appears in just a single scene.
But it’s awesome.
When they were perhaps thirty feet from the dais, they halted. Behind the throne hung thick black curtains made of velvety material, which stretched up toward the ceiling. A shadow lay over Galbatorix, concealing his features. Then he leaned forward, into the light, and Eragon saw his face. …
As Galbatorix spoke, the curtains behind his throne shifted and rose toward the ceiling. With a sense of shock, Eragon realized that they were actually Shruikan’s wings.
That moment when Eragon realizes Galbatorix’s throne room curtains are the wings of Galbatorix’s enormous black dragon is my favorite moment in the entire cycle. So, so cool.
As I have documented here often, my favorite video RPG and one of my favorite fantasy stories from any medium is Phantasy Star. The game’s main antagonist is King Lassic, whose troops murdered Alis’s brother Nero. Alis and her friends fight his monsters, his Shadow, and his gold dragon before they finally confront him. The battle is his one and only scene in the entire game. Phantasy Star II’s main antagonist, Mother Brain, is also a one-scene villain.
The one-scene villain trick doesn’t always work. In the Matrix films, the Architect is sort of a villain, and he and Neo meet in just a single scene of The Matrix Reloaded. But that scene is infamously confusing. The story never even alludes to the Architect before that time, it just says Neo must reach the Source to save Zion, the last human city. And when the Architect does show up and starts saying “ergo” and “vis-a-vis” and “apropos,” the entire moviegoing audience says, “Huh?”
(Yes, the Architect appears in another scene at the end of the trilogy, but it’s an epilogue occurring after the trilogy’s main narrative has been resolved, so it doesn’t count. Actually, some would argue that The Matrix Revolutions as a whole doesn’t count.)
The key to a successful one-scene villain is in the journey to him. The story has to be more about the quest to get there than about the villain. That’s why the technique is so fraught with peril: the payoff of that journey must be a great villain! Otherwise, the reader or player or viewer is left saying, “I invested all my time for that?”
But when it works like in Inheritance or Phantasy Star or The Hero and the Crown, it makes for one fantastic story.
Tell me in the comments about any other one-scene villains you like.