One-Scene Villains

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.

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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.

TheArchitectMatrixThe 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.

Society and Monsters and Introverts

Simcha Fisher wrote a great article titled “Who’s Your Monster?”

Want to learn something about a society? Then take a look at what sort of fictional monsters are currently in vogue. What we fear tells us what kind of people we are.

Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) expressed, among other things, the early 19th-century concern over how far man should go in trying to tame and manipulate the natural world. …

The first Godzilla film, featuring a grotesque monster accidentally resurrected by nuclear experimentation, is a walking, smashing embodiment of the anxiety of a nation who had just been flattened by nuclear war. No secret decoder ring needed there. …

Vampires? I’m tired of talking about vampires, so I’ll just say: Inverted Eucharist. AIDS epidemic. Glamour of evil. And so on.

ZombieWhat’s the current monster in vogue? At this point, I’d like to hand this article over to Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries to sing, “Zombie! Zombie!”

Fisher goes on to describe a conversation with one of my favorite writers, Mark Shea, on why zombies represent modern society’s fears:

The guy who beats the zombies, says Mark, is very often the rugged individualist type — the kind of guy who ignores government directives and relies on his own wits and strength. Most tellingly, the enemy to be feared is not so much the individual zombies themselves, as the contagiousness of the virus or disease or whatever it is that’s causing zombification. There is no one you can run to for help, because the bigger the crowd, the greater the chance there is of contamination. When there are ghosts or vampires or werewolves or sea monsters after you, you seek out allies, and make yourself stronger by banding together with anyone who can fight. But when it’s zombies? You can’t trust anyone; you may be required to turn against your own friends and family in order to save yourself. The only hope, really, is to wall yourself up safe inside some fortress. The worst possible thing that can happen is for people to spend time together, travel, encounter people they haven’t encountered before.

The monster is, in short, community itself — and the solution is to hide, survive, and wait for everyone else to eat each other.

I thought this was spot-on and very true. I definitely think there is a portion of today’s society that fears zombies for just this reason. But I don’t believe it’s universal. In fact, I think there is one part of society to whom this most definitely does not apply. And ironically, it is a segment of society that many probably think it applies to the most.

Introverts.

Susan Cain’s book Quiet launched the Quiet Revolution, an ongoing discussion about introversion and what it means to be an introvert and/or a highly sensitive person (HSP). The fruits of that discussion have been life changing for many people. And I don’t mean that as hyperbole because I’m one of them. I have a better quality of life armed with better knowledge of who I am and how I best function. But the discussion has also led to less desirable fruits.

This article from the Onion — “Report: Only 20 Minutes Until Introverted Man Gets To Leave Party” — is hilarious. But it also reinforces the stereotype that introverts don’t like people.

introvertsUnitePictures like the one on the left have a lot of truth to them and make me smile, but they also make introverts look like misanthropes.

And then there was the time that a newspaper featured a blog about highly sensitive people (Hi, Kelly, keep up the great work!) under the headline “In Other Words, Leave Me Alone.”

Community does look like the ultimate monster for introverts, but only for the stereotypical introverts that don’t exist anywhere except in funny meme pictures.

Real life introverts crave human interaction.

Yes, when we’ve had too much of it, we need alone time, though for many of us “alone time” doesn’t mean solitary confinement. It means either solitary confinement or quiet time with our spouse or partner. (I often tell my beloved Rose that I do need to be alone often, but time spent with just her counts as time alone.)

Yes, we don’t like large groups because they can be loud and overwhelming. But a cup of coffee or a meal with a small group of friends at a quiet cafe is the stuff of our daydreams.

Yes, we don’t like “fluff” conversation like small talk or showboating, but a good genuine conversation is immensely satisfying. (I often think Holden Caulfield was an introvert based merely on the way he used the word “phony.” Well, that and the fact that he was created by the most reclusive author ever.)

So have some good-natured fun with introverts’ need to separate from the community from time-to-time often. But don’t mistake it for hatred for that community.

Fantasy video game storytelling for the win!

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Brandon Sanderson has a new book out. Shadows of Self is the latest in his Mistborn series. I’m a fan of his Stormlight Archive series (though I think its books are too long) and I’m a huge fan of his Reckoners series (which I think is just about perfect), but I haven’t read any Mistborn yet. I will, though!

Sanderson recently posted an article about his long-term strategy for the series and how it differs from other epic fantasy series:

I pitched Mistborn as a series of trilogies, which many of you probably already know. Each series was to cover a different era in the world (Scadrial), and each was to be about different characters—starting with an epic fantasy trilogy, expanding eventually into a space opera science fiction series. The magic would be the common thread here, rather than specific characters. …

There will be some continuing threads. (A few characters from Mistborn will be weaved through the entire thing.) However, to make this all work, I decided I needed to do something daring—I needed to reboot the Mistborn world periodically with new characters and new settings.

Cool, right? But what fascinated me is that some folks consider this storytelling technique one that will hurt sales:

As a warning to writers out there, this is usually considered a publishing faux pas. Readers like continuing characters, and creating breaks as I have done (and will continue to do) often undermines sales. Readers naturally feel a momentum in finishing a series, and if you give them a break point—with everything wrapped up—the push to get out the door and read the next book isn’t there.

Sanderson adds that while initial reviews and sales for the first reboot have been positive, “I know my publisher is very concerned about this strategy.”

This concern struck me as very odd. I didn’t see what was so crazy or ground-breaking about Sanderson’s Mistborn strategy. And that’s not meant to knock Sanderson and say he’s not imaginative!

But then I realized something. I love fantasy books, but novels are not where my personal love of fantasy was born. My love of fantasy was born in video games. And fantasy video games employ Sanderson’s long-term strategy for Mistborn all the time.

Phantasy_Star_boxI adored the original Phantasy Star when I first played it in the summer of 1989. I was elated when I heard there would be a sequel. When I heard it would take place 1000 years after the original, I said, “Huh?” I wanted to see the continuing adventures of Alis Landale and her friends, and since none of them were immortal, I knew Phantasy Star II wouldn’t feature any of them. Maybe this is the publisher fear that Sanderson mentions.

But I still loved Phantasy Star II, and the rest of the games in the series. They didn’t continue the story of Alis Landale, but they continued the story of the Algo star system. The common thread among them was the place, the magic, the items, and the legends. And despite what I initially thought, some of my beloved characters from the original game did continue to return throughout the series.

Sounds pretty similar to what Sanderson is trying to do with Mistborn, doesn’t it?

Other video game series do the same thing. Each new Wild Arms game focuses on a new era in the history of the planet Filgaia, with all new characters. Heck, each new Final Fantasy game doesn’t even take place on the same world, and that series is undoubtedly the most popular video RPG series of them all. I suspect this technique is necessary for video RPGs to facilitate challenging gameplay. I spent a lot of time in Phantasy Star equipping Alis and her friends with the best weapons and raising them to their maximum experience level. It would be wildly inconsistent and feel like a cheat if the sequel had featured the same characters back at Level 1 wielding knives and wearing leather armor.

Sanderson’s publisher has nothing to fear. So long as the name “Brandon Sanderson” remains on the cover and the same top-notch storytelling is found inside, they’re going to sell books. But I’m grateful Sanderson’s post got me in a reflective mood and made me realize what a debt I owe to video RPGs. Many folks may hear “fantasy” and think Middle-Earth or Pern. Nothing wrong with that! As for me, the first place I think of is the Algo star system.