Today, I’ll look at another storytelling element: Villain’s echo chamber. A scenario where a seemingly pragmatic choice to be surrounded by like-minded people may turn out into a major blind spot. More so if the villain’s personality further bolsters the blind spot.
The rise to power
For many major villains in movies and books alike, as well as many tyrants in our history, the key to becoming a major force is to gather enough followers. Especially in the early stages, you need to form a following with common and shared goals. Usually, from those first followers come the major lieutenants that form the secondary antagonists.
At this point, the villain and his chosen are typically a close-knit group. Their shared and often very specific view of the world allows them to focus on the initial stages of their rise to power. This, in turn, may gather more followers who share their vision. To prevent disputes about details, a firm hand may be needed to assure that everyone stays on goal. Typically, this may lead to a very strict chain of command. And, at first, it can work quite well to establish their position.
Achieving world dominance
Once enough followers are gained, these types of antagonists typically go out in full force. Often bent on world domination, they’ll depose the rightful ruler(s) and establish rule of oppression and fear. This is where large numbers are often necessary to keep the population under control and prevent them from undermining the usurpers, let alone allowing a counter-force to form.
For a time, this may work well. However, with a vast swath of land to rule over, the villain may need to delegate the rule – something they often aren’t fond of. A strict chain of command established in the previous stages may help with this for a time, especially if frequent reports are required. At this stage, resistance is often limited to paltry underground movements needing to carefully consider every move, more often than not just biding their time. This stage may last months or decades.
Complacency and greed
When things are running smoothly, inside dangers appear – complacency and greed. The minions who are to maintain “order” may become oblivious to minor slips in discipline and slack in their reports. And a tiny crack is all that needs for hope to sprout. Now it’s the resistance who will begin mustering their forces and prepare to strike.
Others may be discouraged by the state of things and defect – and if the whole structure seems stable enough, they may not even care about just one defector, failing to realize what (sometimes crucial) information may such a person let out.
And, finally, some will want to grow their power and ascend the ranks. The calmer times may seem like a perfect time to go out of their way – but in a system with strict hierarchy, this may end up being a larger problem. Splinter factions may form, or the inner struggle can open another gap in the oppressive rule as the inside problems are dealt with.
With all the above, most of it comes down to how much the villain (and his major underlings) know about the potential issues and how willing to accept them they may be. This often comes down to the fact that, even if that wasn’t always the case, these villains are often merciless. If the bringer of bad news would feel at risk of their own life, they may keep the unpleasant truth hidden and thus cause the whole structure to crack further. Powerful underlings with the knowledge may try to use this to their advantage and intentionally keep the leader in the dark in hopes of taking their power and even striking tentative deals with potential enemies or insurgency groups with the ultimate goal of seizing the power for themselves.
The main aspect that allowed the villain and his minions to rise will not become their weakness: if their thinking is way too similar or same, if they all only echo what the leader says, and if there is no constructive opposition, it’ll only make it easier for resistance to form up and disrupt their efforts: often in subtle sabotage at first to give them better chances when it comes to blows. At that point, there may not be anyone left who’d be willing to see things from a different angle and avoid the inevitable collapse. What often comes is a panic reaction with the villain becoming reckless.
At that point, their fall is usually only matter of time (and cost).
In closure, for this scenario, the villain may end up being its worst enemy: lacking constructive opposition that would lead them to thoroughly consider their decisions and lack of attention if minor issues were dealt with fast may lead to a case where everything seems okay because everyone thinks the same and can’t see what’s coming.
And, aside from storytelling, this scenario may be applicable to business as well: a company too sure of one technology may reject new approaches, especially in the early stages where the new approach seems unreliable or lacking perspective, only to emerge much better after it’s developed enough – at which time, it may be too late to catch up in a decent timeframe.
To close things up – I’ll welcome your thoughts: is this a scenario you’ve seen in storytelling or used it yourself? If you have good examples from Sci-Fi or fantasy, you’re welcome to share your recommendations.
Reminds me of the saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Villains are often arrogant and take on too much too soon. This causes blind spots and other issues like you mentioned.
Sadly, this can happen for protagonists too—especially anti-heroes who try to rush their dream goals too fast or too ruthlessly.
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I admit I haven’t delved into the anti-hero character archetype myself, so it’s nice to hear some other application.
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