Henchmen Don’t Have To Suck is actually a presentation I gave at LTUE (LTUE.net!) in 2014 and it’s a little long to put in one post. You didn’t think that the pay raise was my only advice, did you? Well, it’s not, and you can expect one more post after this.
In my outline, this part was called “Give your henchmen something to DO”. What I meant by that was that you tie a henchman’s hands when you keep the plot nice and simple – or, when storyline is filled with one event after another that are all plot-critical and if, at any time, the villains were to gain ground at these events, they’d actually win. For example, event one is “escape the starting village”. If the heroine doesn’t get past all the mooks sent to kill her, then obviously she dies and the story has ended. The book cannot end at the beginning so clearly, the brave lass has to escape on her loyal steed in the dark of the night (or whatever). There is not an alternative. Then event two is that the lady needs to recover the Ancient Tome of Cool Magicks. This MacGuffin is essential to her ability to become a mage which is significant to the entire plot. Miss Hero is not allowed to be the main character of the story anymore if she doesn’t learn magic because then she can’t do all the things the protagonist has to do to complete the story. So obviously, in the race to get to the resting place of the Ancient Tome, the heroine has to win. Or the story ends. Once Miss Hero becomes a mage, she needs to go save the last dragon. If she doesn’t save the last dragon, she’ll never have the necessary companion to defeat the evil overlord and it would be really, really sad. So again, she has to win or else the story will come to a stout halt when she faces off the overlord without the dragon and is decimated by his…I don’t know, his immune-to-everything-but-dragons manticore. Clearly the minions can’t win here, either. And now, the heroine is charging the the castle and the minions again have the ultimatum of win by killing the lady, thus ending the book in a way that will not get the book sold, or die a horrible death of dragon and rider. Even if they had the skill to do the first option, the henchmen are not allowed to do so.
But wait! There’s other options here! She didn’t have to escape the mooks at the start, she could be captured and then escape later! The mooks didn’t have to fail! Well, yes…but that’s a rather paltry victory when all their success is undone, isn’t it? (Yes, it is.) Besides that, really the “solution” is just putting off failure. They don’t have to say “Sorry master, we couldn’t kill just one girl”, but they will have to say “Sorry master, we couldn’t keep one measly girl from escaping” which is just as bad. Besides that, you are hurting your villain big time by having him just imprison a girl he ought to kill. Don’t do that. Just don’t. I don’t care what excuses you give your villain for thinking he doesn’t need to kill her – just don’t do it.
Okay, but what about the book? The minions could get it, and she could steal it back! Yes, we’re making this story far more exciting – except that when it comes to giving the minions something to do, you run into the same problem. The competence of a henchman is not at all fixed in getting a plot-essential MacGuffin if it’s then stolen by the protagonist. Actually it may be hurt even worse, if the theft is pulled off badly, since it makes the first success look like a fluke, or else it makes the heroes look like they are also incompetent. That’s exactly the kind of victory you find in my first example of the animated Zelda series – the only reason the mooks ever successfully stole the other triforce was because the Zelda and Link sucked. Luckily for the protagonists, the mooks and Gannon were even worse so the two could steal it back – but not Gannon’s triforce as well because the animators forgot that human bodies can bend so that Zelda’s hand could totally have reached the other triforce. I mean because every character was incompetent. Anyway, if you steal something, and someone steals it back, did you really succeed at stealing it in the first place?
Okay but the dragon. We could kill the dragon and force Miss Hero to figure out something else. We’ll start by not writing something as ludicrous as an immune-to-everything-but-dragons manticore. Good choice, I approve. I hope I never see an immune-to-everything-except-X anything ever unless in satire. And now you’re thinking – that would be the perfect way to give the mooks something to do! Except that they’re already set up as so pathetic that they couldn’t even kill a little girl, so it doesn’t make sense they could kill the last dragon, unless the last dragon was already really weak or something. But then killing a very weak dragon is not a very inspiring act and it won’t help the image of your henchmen. You needed to start this earlier.
And the last battle – if only we had some redshirts instead of just Dragon and Lass! But we didn’t establish them earlier, either, so no one cares if a faceless soldier and a faceless minion battle or who wins.
See, what you’ve done here is doom your henchmen to failure.
Imagine if in Lord of the Rings, every villain in the entire book had one and only one objective: get the ring from Frodo. There weren’t any battles with the strongholds of men, there wasn’t any political intrigue, just go kill a hobbit. I have a hard time imagining this because I have no idea how Tolkien could have saved Frodo. I doubt a trilogy would be necessary.
So what can a henchman do? There’s three simple ways you can allow the henchmen to get busy without getting slaughtered or beaten.
One, grant main points and side plots where it is acceptable for the villains to gain ground. If their goal is to kill Miss Hero’s sister instead of Miss Hero – well, that could be terribly tragic but the story does not end if they succeed. Why can’t they capture and successfully maintain Miss Hero as a prisoner? It’s boring. But what if they just have to detain Miss Hero? It does not undo their work when she escapes.
Two, change the black-and-white plot points – either they kill her sister or they don’t, either they get the MacGuffin or they don’t – to gray plot points. A siege or battle. Getting the Mystic Whatevers to unlock the Secret Locked Thing. Running an MLM.
Three, secret plots – namely, the henchmen can know more about the Plot Twist than the heroes, or else they can be working on an unrevealed side plot. Henchmen can get an awful lot done when the hero doesn’t know to be looking their direction.
We’ll be talking more about number two in the final post.
To end this post, consider some examples of these three points:
Fablehaven: When you hear that X terrible thing is sealed, you know that before the end of the story, X terrible thing will not be sealed. And that’s a victory for the villains, when they unseal X thing – along with their victories every step of the way to get to the point where they can break the seal.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Sometimes the vampires nom humans. That’s a win for them. And sometimes they Mayor completes his necessary steps to become a demon, and then becomes a demon. Sometimes the evil cultist dudes kill off most of the potential slayers. Sometimes the ones they didn’t catch before they reach Buffy’s house still get killed by The First.
Dr. McNinja: Sometimes not punching an astronaut is really hard. (Honestly, since I don’t even think I can classify the doctor as a hero because of how much crap he pulls, it’s hard to say ‘villains winning’ or ‘henchmen winning’. But clearly McNinja’s path isn’t a series of yes or no victories.)
Let’s brainstorm: what are some good activities for your henchmen to do?