Monster of the Week: Legion of Minions

Stormtroopers in rank and file
We know they’re not marching to target practice.

It’s one of the most iconic action-adventure setups of all time: the heroes must overcome incredible odds to defeat the Big Bad. Everyone loves an underdog story, so what gives the villain their big advantage over the good guys? Why, an enormous army of identical shock troops, of course.

Darth Vader had the Stormtroopers. Sauron had his army of orcs. Even that guy from Despicable Me had a horde of walking Twinkies very literally called “Minions.”

So how did these guys earn their place as Monsters of the Week? Why are they scary?

Here’s the thing… they’re not.

Okay, sure. Maybe the very first time you watched Star Wars, the Stormtroopers were scary for the first twenty minutes or so. Maaaaybe. But after that? You know they’re not going to do any serious damage to our heroes. The rare protagonist death or injury is almost exclusively reserved for named villains. The legion of minions becomes set dressing, just an accessory to remind the audience that the villain is powerful or cruel. The individual minions aren’t really characters any more than that giant boulder from Indiana Jones is. They become obstacles rather than people.

What’s more, they’re not very dangerous obstacles. Henchmen of this type are so notorious for their bad aim that they’ve become a running joke. They exist solely to lose fights with our heroes. Most genre-savvy audiences know this: it’s how they can happily munch away at their popcorn through the action sequences without choking on a kernel when the main character suddenly drops dead in Act I. That just doesn’t happen. And for good reason—it would be pretty difficult to pull a stunt like that and stick the landing.

So, the legion of minions isn’t scary after all. Then what’s the point?

Well, that’s a matter of tone. In a feel-good action flick where we all know that Indiana Jones or James Bond is going to make it to the end of the movie, the henchmen don’t necessarily have to scare the audience. Bear in mind that there’s a difference between scaring the audience and scaring the characters—we might know Indy’s going to be okay in the end, but if he never once fears for his life then the story’s not going to be very suspenseful. Outnumbering the hero is a good way to make the characters afraid and force them to be resourceful: the henchman as obstacle. Go ahead, own it—as long as you know what you’re doing.

In a story with a more realistic tone, though, you want to sell them as a serious threat. These are your gritty war stories, the kind where the audience is on the edge of their seats because no character is truly safe. How do you turn a ridiculed set decoration into something that’s really frightening?

The genuinely menacing legion of minions is scary for two reasons: numbers and sameness. Even the strongest hero can be outnumbered. An audience will rarely blame the protagonist for backing down when they’re surrounded. But in a situation where surrender is not an option, being outnumbered carries the implicit threat of being killed. That’s how the minion army can change from obstacle to threat.

Sameness is an interesting one from a psychological perspective. Anti-communist sentiment has colored the last seventy or so years of Western media, and uniformity was a common metaphor for communism in film and literature. That taps into nationalist fears cultivated by years of Cold War propaganda. Seventy years is a long time—it could certainly explain the popularity and longevity of this trope in modern American media.

But turn back the clock just a little bit more and you’ll find an awful lot of archival footage that features Nazi troops marching in unison, a sea of Aryan faces and identical uniforms moving with robotic precision. The Stormtroopers of Star Wars fame even take their linguistic roots from a Nazi military rank. You’d be hard pressed to find a more universally feared and hated group in the last century than the Nazis. On an even broader scope, the uniformed legion feeds into our fear of war or invasion in general.

But whether your tone is gritty or goofy, it never hurts to keep the stakes high, and it’s hard to do that if the audience doesn’t take your bad guys seriously. The single biggest way to keep your henchmen from turning into joke is to actually let them hit something every once in a while. Make them effective. So they injure the hero, making their escape tougher, or maybe they manage to kill off one of the secondary characters.

Another, more meta, way to make them stand out is to give a few of them names and dialogue wherever possible. As every genre-savvy audience knows, a named enemy has 65% higher accuracy than Masked Soldier #5. Don’t let this trick become a gimmick, though—if you don’t follow through by actually letting them do some real damage or affect the plot, it’s going to feel like a cheat. No one likes wasting their time learning names for characters that don’t matter. This technique also comes at the expense of the mob’s off-putting homogeneity, and done poorly, can even create unintentional sympathy for the antagonists. Too much character development and you could argue that they don’t even fit the “Legion of Minions” role anymore.

Prompt: Put yourself into the role of a commander overseeing a regiment of minions. They’ve become a laughingstock, ridiculed by their enemies for their terrible aim and general ineffectiveness. How will you get them to shape up? Write a story about how this commander turns them into a force to be reckoned with, or insert the triumphant squadron into a tabletop adventure. Then head down to the comments and tell us about what you wrote, or better yet, post a link!

So, what do you think? Any examples of a genuinely scary legion of minions, or examples when you think letting henchmen become obstacles either worked or didn’t? Leave a comment!

5 Comments

  • EM Reply

    You ‘re totally right about the Identified Bad Guy. and what I’d do in response to your prompt is … Let them kill Boromir

    • Becca Reply

      Ooh, too soon. But that is one of the best ways to elevate the minions to a real threat–since Boromir’s not just a secondary character, he’s one of the Fellowship! Letting these guys kill off a main character or hero gives them a real edge. And I’d say that they hold up pretty well later on when the Uruk-hai successfully kidnap Merry and Pippin, and again when the orc patrol captures Frodo outside Shelob’s lair. (Making them more successful had the added bonus of giving Sam a really heroic moment!)

  • James Reply

    Through something together in the bkgd while I worked:

    They “marched” in ragged clumps
    Bare feet dragging through the sand
    To call them soldiers was to mock
    The very arms they clutched in their hands

    This is what they gave him to work with?
    He almost walked out.
    Almost turned on his heel
    But something pierced his doubt.

    He had to win.
    Body tensing with anticipation
    He marched up to the assembled masses
    Shouting them into formation

    He drilled them, schooled them
    Shaped them over burning coals
    Through mock battles and real travels
    Pushing towards his goal

    One year slowly passed, then two
    Soft hands became calloused
    Ragged footfalls true
    Blades gleam sharp and red

    Soldiers march on into battle
    Shoulder to shoulder, spear to spear
    The general looked out and was pleased
    The ragged band inspired fear.

    • Becca Reply

      Ooh, nice! It’s really cool that you wrote this as a poem. I wouldn’t have thought to put something like that to verse, but now that I see it I think it fits in with the style of the old war epics (Iliad) or even the songs Tolkien added to LotR. I like the violent imagery you use when the general is training his soldiers… it implies that becoming an effective army can hurt them as individuals. Of course, maybe I’m projecting.

  • Jeremiah Reply

    I love that frequently when they decided to make Minions individual it is in a manner that is as dehumanizing as making them homogeneous quasi-robots (or actual robots). The Uruk-hai (or pretty much any of the orcs) get to be a very mixed group but typically with near deforming builds or adornments. That being said LOTR’s orcs are legitimately horrify with their depraved hunger, gigantic build, fanatical conviction, and sheer disregard for mortal injuries. I do enjoy that comedies are making fun of the named henchman trope like the Venture Bros series.

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