Let’s Talk Tropes: Minions

No, we’re not talking today about the little corndog shaped creatures from Despicable Me. Or, more accurately perhaps, it’s not all that we’re talking about today.

When it comes to combat, there are two options for making the protagonist struggle: conflict of wit or conflict of number. That is to say, outsmarted versus outmatched. Is their opponent singular, intelligent, talented? Or is their opponent a multitude, mindless, fodder? In the fantasy genre, the latter are used to generate conflict and give the protagonist a chance to grow in skill. They tend to work directly under the main antagonist, and once the protagonist has outgrown the antagonist’s little minions, they are ready to face the antagonist themselves.

Some preliminary research suggests there are several different names for this type of character. “Nameless henchmen” seems particularly apt, although henchmen suggests human, and I wanted to spend this post focused more on the monstrous and magical side of this trope. So. Minions it is.

I will be keeping the discussion of the books mentioned in our examples headline vague so as to keep this post spoiler-free in regards to plot. But this particular trope requires the discussion of their protagonist’s evolution, so there may be a few minor spoilers in regards to world-building.

Trope Defined

At the beginning of their journey, most protagonists do not wield the necessary power to fell the antagonist. Generally speaking, that is the function of the journey: to learn the necessary skills required to defeat the villain. Yet how would the protagonist know the state of their own progression without some sort of conflict to test it against. Whether it’s trial by fire, where new skills are learned in the moment, or the test that punctuates a lesson, where the protagonist must display their understanding of a newly acquired skill to survive, the presence of minions offer authors a route to provide that conflict and those tests without any real cost to the story.

Minions are generally rather horrific creatures, either animalistic or just… not quite human. There many be some element of magic to their essence, their creation, what have you, but it’s rare that minions can use magic themselves. After all, mixed with their sheer numbers, the addition of magic could very easily overwhelm the protagonist. That said, there are often various levels of minion within any given work. As the protagonist grows strong enough to easily defeat one level, they generally find themselves facing another, a group that, while smaller in number, is harder to defeat.

A Few Examples

Like any other trope, minions manifest in slightly different ways. The most notable example, perhaps even the original, would come from none other than Lord of the Rings itself. Sauron has several evil species that follow his command. Orcs and goblins make up the bulk of his army, although the Fellowship must also face creatures like the Nazgûl. Interestingly enough, it is the Nazgûl that Frodo and his companions are first confronted with, and it isn’t until the Fellowship bands together and begins their journey that they are pursued by orcs. Both orcs and goblins are humanoid, like elves’ dark cousins, with yellowish eyes, pointed ears, and sharp teeth.

The Chronicles of Narnia, written by Tolkien’s contemporary, C. S. Lewis, skirts the minion trope as well. The creatures that fall behind the White Witch are creatures generally associated with evil. Whether they were “normal” beasts like wolves–who were not numerous enough to be a direct equivalent to orcs, but who nonetheless served the same function as the White Witches’s pack chased down the Pevensies–or whether they were more “dark” mythological creatures like minotaurs and cyclops and the like, there was no shortage of beast-like entities for the protagonists to face. The difference with Lewis’s “minions” is that they didn’t appear bred specifically for this war, but were recruited instead.

Fast forward thirty-six years to the publication of Eye of the World, the first of fifteen novels that created the lengthy Wheel of Time series. There are no elves in Wheel of Time, so perhaps it’s only right that there are no orcs. Instead, Jordan pits his characters against creatures called trollocs. These creatures are vaguely humanoid, but are more in line with chimera or sphinxes…the hastily pasted-together pieces of various creatures. Some look more human than others. They are just as expendable as orcs, though, and their sole function is to serve the lord of chaos. Driving them are creatures called Myrdraal, just as dedicated to their dark service, but more cunning, harder to kill.

In the YA department, we have two more examples. Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle sets up Urgals to be the orc equivalent. They are similar in appearance to minotaurs, with horned heads and a rather monstrous appearance. In the first book, especially, it was the Urgals that Eragon was fleeing from. The second YA example is Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, where she provides the Valg as primary enemies. The Valg come in many forms, cropping up unexpectedly throughout the series. Although the Valg do not serve the “beginner’s level threat” that most minions act as, they do still serve as a starter’s link between the protagonists and the main antagonist.

Creating Surface-Level Tension

Minions are most likely found in stories involving Chosen Ones and Dark Lords. It should come as no surprise, then, that they are frequently underdeveloped. They are part of a formless, nameless evil. Oftentimes, they don’t need to be developed in any major capacity because they are linked intrinsically to the Dark Lord, sometimes even directly. The Dark Lord dies–or, on a smaller scale, the mid-tier minions like your Myrdraal–and those underneath it suddenly crumple.

This connection allows for two benefits from a writing standpoint. FIRST: The reason the minions are tied directly to their Dark Lord figure is often because their Dark Lord created them through some sort of magical means. Their sole purpose, their only drive, is to serve their master. What need is there of any concrete cultural elements for these minion characters? If they have one, it’s generally relegated to some form of antithesis of good itself. Obviously, when there’s a whole mass of villains that you, as a writer, do not have to generate an in-depth culture or reasoning for, that makes it easier to channel your world-building into other important aspects.

What a lack of culture does for that group of villains leads us to our SECOND point: the easy vilification of those characters. Chosen One narratives make for easy morality. There are the Dark Lords, intent on destroying everything good and pure in the world, and the Chosen One, the only person in the world who can stop them. Literally, good versus evil. It is much easier to rationalize our good, heroic Chosen One figure ending a massive number of lives when the lives lost are single-minded brutes bent on evil.

Suspension of Disbelief

Minion-figures help create tension because they are monstrous figures with no moral codes of their own and questionable origins that allow for massive numbers to be thrown at the protagonist as needed. The problem with this is that, as the protagonist develops their skills (generally, but not necessarily, through magical means), it takes more and more minions to challenge their capabilities. In Lord of the Rings, it’s less a question of skill and more a question of the number of allies the Fellowship has at any given moment–and even then, like in Moria, they were vastly outnumbered; they didn’t have a victory, they just survived by retreating.

But, if we look at Throne of Glass, we find another, less ideal solution. The Chosen One figure has more magic than she could possibly fathom. There’s a limit to what everyone else can do, but no matter how bad the odds are, she never finds hers. It should function as a steady build-up to that massive explosion of power she will invariably need to defeat the Big Bad, but what it does instead is shatter any tension or conflict there might be. How is the reader supposed to worry over a character when they have an unknowable amount of power? Especially power that the protagonist does not have to actively work for.

A much better example in this regard is the Maw and the Nightmares in Paolini’s science fiction novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. The protagonist, Kira, has this weapon of unknowable capabilities (when I say “weapon,” I don’t mean like a gun; I mean “weapon” like magic can be a weapon). She faces insurmountable odds throughout the entire novel, but not only does the weapon not serve as a deus ex machina (it’s not always the weapon that saves her, and the weapon sometimes makes it worse rather than better for her), but Kira also spends a lot of time in the book actively trying to learn everything she can about it. Unlike Throne of Glass, beginning-of-the-book Kira could not have just oopsied her way to doing the things that end-of-the-book Kira did. She had to actively learn it, which means that when she unlocks new capabilities, it doesn’t feel cheap. It feels earned.

Construction of Monsters

Interestingly, the monstrous aspect of the minion trope creates an unexpected problem for its readers: it makes the battles difficult to visualize. Some authors go for variety in their minion army: trollocs in Wheel of Time, jellies and nightmares in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. The intention is to focus on the monstrosity of such creatures, a physical reminder for the reader that these are the very opposite of human. Done properly, these physical differences can set the groundwork for some horrific undertones, like an invisible monster under your bed. Done poorly, however, and it’ll just undermine the sole purpose of the minion figures.

It seems like an overstatement to say that the variability of evil monsters can ruin the tension in a book, but it’s actually quite true. It’s really no different than setting a character to face a massive group of foes and leaving the reader wondering how many of them have armor and proper weapons. I mean, a mob can still defeat a protagonist who is wearing armor and weapons (and even magic to boot), but it’ll be easier for me to accept a protagonist cutting down foe after foe after foe with few injuries to themselves if I know walking into the fight scene that the protagonist is fighting unarmed peasants.

The problem is that if a character walks into a hostile town, the reader doesn’t need the author to state outright that the character’s foes are unarmed. We have context: if the town is described as poor, ramshackle, hungry, etc., then it goes to reason that the weapons available are not going to be enough to really threaten the character. If there are any armed and armored foes in that hypothetical town, well, they’re against the norm and a quick mention of that gear will be enough to tell the reader, even in the heat of a battle scene, that this particular foe is going to be harder to kill.

Because minion figures do not generally have a culture of their own, authors generally don’t spend time explaining what the “norms” are. Even Jordan’s Trollocs–which did have a minimalistic culture–were just as likely to have a boar’s features as they were to have an eagle’s or a bear’s or a wolf’s. Were the protagonists going to get their faces torn off by an eagle’s beak or their throats torn out by a wolf’s claws? Did they have armor? Could they speak? It was a case by case basis, so the reader never knew until the Trolloc was right in front of them what it was going to take to kill that creature.

Conclusion

In essence, a minion’s role is to die at the hands of the protagonist. Their sole function is what they can do on a battlefield. Battle scenes are always difficult, of course, because details are the death of tension but there still has to be some base level of understanding of the opponents or else we won’t be able to worry over the protagonist’s odds of survival. It’s a fine line. It’s not that monstrous minions don’t have their uses. They do, whether they share some level of uniformity like Tolkien’s orcs or whether they have the variability in appearance like Jordan’s trollocs. Establishing some level of normality in the variable minions early on, before the chaos of the big battle scenes, will help ground the reader in what to expect later on.

But not all minion-figures are the lumpy masses of trolloc or orc or urgal armies. They are also the Myrdraal, the Ra’zac, the Valg princes, or the Nazgûl. They all serve the same purpose: threaten to overwhelm the protagonist. Sometimes, the characters are going to have to flee, like the Fellowship in Moria or Eragon from Carvahall. Sometimes, like in Paolini’s To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, it’s more about the horror of the creatures themselves, and detail is the death of horror just as much as it is the death of tension.

When writing monstrous minions, intent is everything.

  • If the monster being faced is the type you run from, the less detail the better. Write in the abstract, focusing on the unknowable nature of the monster. Details make it concrete, make it known, and the more you know, the less you fear. (Just think about Bird Box: no actual monster could have ever lived up to the hype.) If the monster is going to be something that will need to be fought later, details can always be added later, as long as it’s not thrown out all at once at the start of a battle.
  • If the monster being faced is the type you’re going to have to fight, it’s more beneficial to be hyper-specific. Some abstract language can be tied in with the concrete details to help cultivate that horror and dread that so often serves as companions to Forces of Evil. (Maggie Stiefvater did this really well in The Raven King. While there was no monstrous minion, there was a Thing that oozed evil, and the way she presented it made it feel like horror.) Variability in the minions will not destroy the tension inherently, but the more variety in the physical appearances, the more detail is going to have to be cultivated early on to ground the reader for later battles.

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