Remember the good old days of cartoons and children’s stories where there was the terrifying but basically incompetent evil overlord, and the brave hero(es) who were in a constant battle with the evil overlord who Deus Ex Machina’d his way into just the right difficulty for the heroes to have to keep fighting him for another season or two? You know what I absolutely adored about those stories? Sure wasn’t the henchmen that showed up and had the snot beaten out of them by first the heroes and then the evil overlord for failing their job. Those guys were awful. Now that I think of it, I’m not even really sure what their purpose was other than to be annoying or remind us that the evil overlord commanded armies that were totally useless but maybe dangerous in large numbers. Except since he never seemed to use them in large numbers, that fact didn’t particularly matter.
A good example of what I’m talking about, even if it was (thankfully) before my time, is a show that should make any who have ever watched it cringe once I name it:
The animated Zelda TV show was undoubtedly a terrible show. If you’re a fan of Zelda but have no idea what this thing is, GOOD. No. Seriously. This thing right here is the reason why Link doesn’t get to talk in any of the games.
And as bad as the show was, Gannon and his minions were…well, equally as bad. You can’t actually get worse than “the worst”, which the show itself already was. Basically all that the moglins and skelewhatevers (look I grew up on Final Fantasy, not Zelda) ever did was show up and then Link blasted them with his sword laser – no, I’m serious – or Zelda shot them with her laser-shooting bow – still serious – or else they were otherwise immediately destroyed. Technically, they often served as a distraction, but only because Link and Zelda were too incompetent to pay attention to important things. Like the half of the Triforce they had. (Yes, you heard me. There are only two triforces in that show. I know, right?)
Thing is, the animated Zelda series is easy to pick on, but terrible minions are very common. Cannon fodder storm troopers, anyone? Yes, yes, I’ve heard the theory that the storm troopers’ incompetence was all a part of the evil, evil plan to make sure the important target Luke was not destroyed because greater things were destined blah blah, and if that’s your headcannon, great. Me, I’m not buying it. Wasn’t pulled off very nearly well enough, were it actually the case, for me to believe that. Think back to some of your favorite childhood stories and shows, think about how often the minions slunk back to their master with a quiet, “Sorry, I failed”.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Actually it really shouldn’t. Let me tell you how to write competent minions.
First, consider the minion. Why is he a minion of the dark lord? Consider waking up, leaving your family, going to work patrolling the halls of the Dark Lord’s castle. You make jokes with your coworkers, you talk sports at lunch with Bill, you pick up your patrol an hour later with Liam, he invites you over to dinner on Friday. You hear fighting down the hall and find some trespassing jerks trying to murder Mike and Stan. While you give Mike and Stan back-up support, Liam runs off to sound the alarm and get more help. Now fighting for your life, friends, and liege, you stab one of the trespassers, much to the horror of the other two. But then, they’ve severely injured Stan. On the bright side, your work’s insurance is so great, his family won’t starve while he’s in the hospital because he’ll be on paid leave. You and Mike finally subdue the other two intruders as Liam returns with three more soldiers, and you march them off to prison.
Just a minion doing his (or her) job? Why pick that job? Certainly, great insurance is a good lure – my company’s insurance is one huge reason why I haven’t quit quite yet. But let me tell you from what may or may not be experience, unless you might be having a baby soon, great insurance is not enough to keep a person at a job they hate. There must be more. Promises of power and money are a good lure, but not always, especially if it’s not clear that those promises will absolutely be kept. So maybe these minions…believe in their cause. Maybe they like or even love their job. Why?
N0w that we’re starting to think about minions as people and not disposables, let’s talk backstory. If your evil overlord has a lot of minions and none of them are particularly important – say, an army – you have neither the time nor space to give a backstory on every member of that army. Not a single member deserves the precious space on his backstory unless he’s uniquely important. But it is possible to give the backstory of the entire army. Consider again the stormtroopers. Why do they work for the Sith? ‘Cause they’re a bunch of clones all made to be a Sith army. And what about the Uruk-Hai? Sauroman created them with but no purpose other than to kill and ravage the civilizations of man and whonot. We don’t necessarily have to be told the backstories of the clones or orcs. We can just be told that those are the minions of X evil master guy. But knowing from where they come gives us a better reason to fear (or not fear) those minions, a better idea of their motives. If you can’t sit and say why every person is a minion, say why the whole group would choose that course. And it’s all the better if they did choose it.
When your minions get a little meat on their cardboard by getting a backstory, they’re better able to be more dynamic characters. It begins to make sense that they might have some skill, that maybe they could overpower the hero at some point. Just make sure that if they could and even should overpower the hero, they do – and make sure your main villain is at least as dynamic as your mooks!
How else can we make the mooks less like cardboard cut-outs and more like actually terrifying legions of the Dark Lord? Let’s take a look at the relationship between minion and master. Usually, the relationship is master-slave and terrible. Failure means death, or at least excruciating punishment. But when the overlord does this, not only does he come off as an impatient jerk who is probably shallow, but the minions also come off as equally shallow and moronic. After all, why stay with a guy like that? And couldn’t you have found a better way to break the news to the guy that wouldn’t result in terrible punishment?
But what other relationship could the overlord have? If he’s not going to punish failure and rule with an iron fist, won’t that make him look like a wimpy twinkie? Let’s look at some examples of other minion-master relationships that are fantastic and do not make the overlord resemble anything like a disgusting pastry:
Gru and his highly popular minions certainly do not have a master-slave relationship. Not even close. Their relationship much more resembles that of employer-employee, and this is the model I actually most recommend. Gru is closer to his minions than employer-employee, but only as such to say, make it business casual. He knows all of his minions’ names and, despite the the fact that they all look very similar, he can tell them apart. And there’s hundreds of them. How’s that for a great leader?
Gru’s minions have the advantage that Gru is the protagonist and therefore they are allowed to, and actually need to, succeed at plot-vital missions. However, the minions are still the perfect example of how even a bumbling mook can win. Was there some slamming into walls when stealing the shrink ray? Yes. Did they get the shrink ray? Yes. Did they botch a perfectly simple mission of stealing the shrink ray back from Vector? Yup, could have been in and out and instead they had to do some James Bond ninja moves in the bit of time they had to steal the ray. Did they succeed in helping Gru get the ray anyway? Yup. I think there’s a lot to learn about good minions from the minions of Gru. There’s a reason why everybody loves them. (I’m sorry if you hate them now. I understand.)
What if it feels too comedic to you, what if you need a more king-subject relationship? Well, let’s take a look at the other villain I had in mind:
If you don’t read Order of the Stick, I highly recommend it. Redcloak here is technically not the evil overlord, but the lich Xykon’s right-hand cleric. For a good portion of the story, the typical “mooks are disposable” attitude is a running joke. [spoiler alert] At first, Redcloak is irate about Xykon’s careless use of their goblin minions, but then when they annex a hobgoblin army, Redcloak joins in the behavior, not caring much for hobgoblins. That is, until in battle one hobgoblin sacrifices himself to save Redcloak’s life. Redcloak is shocked that the hobgoblin would save him when he’s not been hesitant to throw away the lives of the hobgoblin’s people, but the soldier just splutters that Redcloak is their leader, so of course he would sacrifice himself. This causes a major change in Redcloak’s heart and he becomes a champion of all goblin kin. [/spoiler alert] With renewed vigor to lead all goblin kind, Redcloak becomes a good king to his people. He sees himself as a champion, a general, and king – fighting to make a better world for goblins. Therefore he cares about each and every one of his people, and becomes angered at goblin deaths. The rousing speeches and the tears of normally only a good warlord become Redcloak’s as well. For your typical high fantasy, I believe this to be the most appropriate relationship between warring overlord and mooks. Redcloak might not know each goblin by name, but he’s going to take his armies to fight for them all the same.
So here’s what I mean when I say pay raise: Upgrade your countless hordes to be real people. Even a tiny bit. Give them motive, even if you have to make a bulk order for the army. Give them a better relationship with the overlord. And you’ll see it’s not so unreasonable for them to beat the hero from time to time, or at least truly challenge her. Increase their “pay” – the attention you give to them – from practically nothing to enough to support their family by making the reader realize they might have one.