I’ve always wondered what kind of person would serve under a super villain. The common thug plays an integral part in any world domination scheme, but rarely do we explore the reasoning and motivation of these downtrodden masses.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had an appreciation for Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe. I was the kid on the block with the Cobra figures, happy to be the bad guy. Sure I got my butt beat by the Joes over and over, but their persistence was pretty inspiring. Guess that makes me a weird kid.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize Cobra Commander is an idiot. He always used convoluted ways to take over the world when Cobra had a legitimate fortune amassed from Enterprise Enterprises.
However as I grew older I realized why I liked Cobra Commander— he’s charismatic.
I know this is a bit strange, but all tyrants tend to be. Look at the history of mankind and you’ll see masses rallying behind a charismatic lunatic. These people following them aren’t really bad per say, they’ve just been convinced this is the guy/gal they see bringing them success. G.I. Joe demonstrated to a young audience how dictators roll. He turned some run-in-the-mill underappreciated soldiers into dedicated fanatics.
As a cynical adult, I realize they used bait and switch middle management tactics, but hey, life lesson learned.
Ever stop and wonder what kind of person works for the Joker? The Dark Knight did a great job demonstrating how Joker brings thugs into his stable. I think it is important to take a moment to consider the fodder batman trounces, what life choices led them to serve an insane clown prince of crime? Why would a nine to five wage slave turn in his 401k for a Cobra Helmet? As a novelist, you may never explain this to the reader, but it’s nice to know the reason.
You can sneak in nods to this in your storytelling, it lends some humanity to the ‘lowest life forms’ of the evil organization. When the hero is sneaking around the enemy’s warehouse, it’s fun to have a guard chatting to his coworker about his daughter’s dance recital. It serves as a reminder why the hero opts to sneak around armed with tranq darts rather than charging in with guns blazing.
Overall an effective henchman serves as a moral compass for the hero. Frequently, an author will take a moment to show how horrible the henchmen are, moments before killing them off. It plants a seed, justifying their demise. I’m not damning the process, but I like to reserve those justifications for bigger fish.
Building the tension against an antagonist is a way of life, but his mistreatment or his handling of his minions speaks volumes about the character. The movie Despicable Me strikes me as a stand out for this reason. The early moments of the movie does not hide that Gru is a bad person, but he doesn’t use it as an excuse to mistreat his minions. Ultimately, he’s just a guy misunderstood by society.
In general, henchmen (henchpeople?) are exactly that. This is why I always take a moment to appreciate their contribution to fiction.