Spoiler Notice: Episode eight of The Mandalorian.
1. Use Reasonable Numbers
The most common complaint about minions is that they’re always terrible at their jobs. And this isn’t just a Star Wars problem! Nearly every enemy in Star Trek has terrible aim, Sauron’s orcs can’t beat the Fellowship even with overwhelming numbers, and twelve-year-old Aang can easily defeat entire companies of Fire Nation soldiers. The list goes on.
One reason this trope is so common is that storytellers always want to send their heroes against vast hordes of enemy minions, but they still want the heroes to win, or at least not die. When the minions have a ten-to-one advantage, the only way they’ll lose is if they’re extremely incompetent. This is how you get whole squads of soldiers firing at point-blank range without hitting anything.
Worse, this problem compounds every time it comes up. If your heroes beat a hundred minions last time, then this time they need to face at least twice that many to maintain tension. Pretty soon your heroes are taking on the entire enemy army single-handedly.
The best solution to this problem is keeping your minion numbers low. If there are only one or two of them for every hero, then your minions can go all out in battles scenes without breaking the story. Don’t think you need to pile on the minions to make them threatening. You do that by showing them doing threatening things.
This means you need to craft plots that don’t require fighting an absurd number of minions at once. Sometimes this is easy. If your heroes are out in the wilderness, they might only run into a handful of baddies at a time. But if your story is about infiltrating the villain’s lair, you’ll need to get more creative. Perhaps the hero waits for most of the minions to be out on patrol, or uses a very convincing disguise. That’s what a clever hero would do!
2. Make Your Heroes Smarter
Sometimes minions have to act incompetent whether they have overwhelming numbers or not, usually because the heroes are being even more incompetent. A few scenes in the early episodes of Rebels really exemplify this problem. The heroes walk right up to a squad of stormtroopers, do something illegal, and then flee down an empty hallway or through an open field with nothing to hide behind.
At that point, the only way to keep the story going is by having the stormtroopers shoot everywhere except where the heroes are. It strains all suspension of disbelief and feels like someone should get hit just by random chance. Naturally, the good guys are all crack shots who aced marksmanship class.
Storytellers can avoid this problem by having their heroes act a little more intelligently. If your protagonist is a badass bounty hunter or veteran mercenary, they’d never depend on the other side having terrible aim. They’d plan out any attack so they had plenty of cover. If they were ambushed, they’d either find somewhere to duck down or even surrender so they could live to fight another day.
Competent heroes will also take steps to avoid fighting too many enemies at once. Instead of charging in like someone who knows they have plot immunity, a seasoned warrior will split their foes up or fight them in a narrow choke point so they can only approach one at a time. In fact, finding favorable terrain can be a conflict all its own, as the hero races through crowded streets or primal forests, looking for somewhere to make their stand.
If the heroes act like defeating your minions takes actual work, it will both reduce the strain on believability and increase the minions’ threat level. That’s something most stories could benefit from.
3. Keep Their Power Level Consistent
Storytellers often have difficulty with impulse control. They’ll have the heroes defeat a whole swarm of enemies in one scene because it looks cool, but then later on, the story needs a much smaller number of minions to look threatening. At which point, the audience just wonders why the heroes don’t completely dominate this fight like they did the last one.
If you’re not familiar with this problem in action, check out episode eight of The Mandalorian. Early in the episode, Mando and company battle a huge army of stormtroopers. I can’t give you an exact count, but it’s enough to fill up most of the screen. Not every stormtrooper dies, but the heroes blast their way out and escape after inflicting major casualties.
A little later, these same characters are cut off by less than a dozen troopers, but we’re told that this time it’s an unbeatable ambush, and that the only option is for one of the characters to heroically sacrifice themselves. This is supposed to be a tragic moment, but it falls more than a little flat since it seems like the good guys could just blast their way out again with no problem.
The bottom line is that if your heroes can easily carve their way through an army of minions in one scene, your audience will expect that the heroes can do it again. If you want something else to happen, you need to show why the power levels have changed, and it needs to be a big deal. You can’t handwave it as the hero being tired or distracted and hope that does the trick. They need to lose their powered armor, or be debilitated by multiple wounds. Whatever the specifics, it should be something that doesn’t require a lot of explaining.
Of course, a good way to avoid this problem entirely is by not having your heroes fight an overwhelming number of minions in the first place, but sometimes that’s not an option. For a particularly powerful hero, fighting an entire army might even make sense. Just remember you can’t scale it back down just because your villain is out of recruits.
4. Make Them Act Rationally
Unless they’re a protagonist in disguise, minions don’t typically have names, backstories, or personalities. Sometimes they don’t even have faces, depending on your helmet design. So it’s easy to forget that in most stories, minions are still thinking beings capable of rational thought. Storytellers send wave after wave of minions to the slaughter without any consideration, because that’s just what minions do, right?
But to the audience, this quickly breaks down. Most minions are still trained soldiers, agents, bankers, or what have you. They don’t have names, but they should still have expertise. When they act with no sense of self-preservation or pass up obvious advantages, they come off as cheap cannon fodder instead of real opponents. In a best-case scenario, these fights are meaningless. In a worst-case scenario, this can actually turn audience opinion against the heroes, as it seems like team good is slaughtering helpless minions who don’t know any better.
The solution to this, as you might imagine, is to make your minions better at thinking things through. In most cases, a little rationality goes a long way. In fight scenes, minions should spread out to take advantage of their superior numbers. If their primary tactic isn’t working, they should try something else. Maybe they get out a different weapon or try attacking from a different angle. If the battle is clearly unwinnable, the minions should retreat unless you have a very good reason for them not to do so.
If the story permits, you can also make your minions more proactive. They might deliberately set traps for the hero or pretend to be fewer in number than they really are. Nearly any type of clever tactics will do, and your minions will stand out for it. This is all easier to manage with a smaller number of minions, which is one reason the advice from section one is so important.
Beware though, it is possible to go too far here. If your minions go beyond effective tactics and into personal drama, the audience will expect them to become real characters. In the Angel episode Guise Will Be Guise, an unnamed minion kills the hero’s new mentor, then takes the mentor’s place. The minion is so good at his job that he actually imparts wisdom on the hero. At that point, it felt bizarre that we didn’t know anything about him.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, it probably means that the minion should be replaced with one of your named characters. If that’s not possible, then it may be time to upgrade the minion’s pay grade.
5. Give Them Clear Origins and Motivations
In this entry we zoom out from plotting to worldbuilding. If your villain is going to have a bunch of minions, you need a setting that can support those minions. Otherwise, it will feel like your villains are conjuring soldiers from thin air. That’s a major problem for the First Order in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.
We’re told that the First Order “has risen from the ashes of the Empire,” and yet somehow it has the same endless pool of stormtroopers as its much larger predecessor. Nor is it clear why anyone would serve such an obviously evil organization when there’s an alternative in the New Republic. The films try to answer this by saying that the First Order’s stormtroopers are abducted as children and indoctrinated, but that raises still more questions. Why didn’t the Republic put a stop to this child harvesting? And how does the First Order replenish its losses quickly if it can only recruit babies?
Stories where the villain is an established ruler don’t usually have too much trouble with this. A king or president is expected to have an army at their command, and those soldiers will generally stay loyal out of patriotism or nationalism. But villains who get their minions from other sources have more difficulty.
If your big bad is fond of hiring mercenaries, then the audience will expect those mercenaries to be loyal only to a point. Someone fighting only for money isn’t likely to face certain death for a paycheck, unless you go out of your way to establish that these mercenaries have a strong code that keeps them loyal.
The stickiest version of this problem comes when you want ostensibly moral minions to serve an evil organization. In this case, you need to show how good people can be tricked into fighting for a bad cause. This happens all the time in real life of course, but the complexities of propaganda and societal pressures are often hard to portray in fiction. It’s important to put in the work though, or else you’ll end up a situation like the new She-Ra, where a host of otherwise kind and moral characters don’t see anything wrong with their home base being called the “Fright Zone.”
6. Deploy Opposing Minions
It’s all well and good to keep your minion numbers within manageable levels, but some stories just need the villain to have a big army of mooks. If you’re telling an epic tale where the fate of the galaxy is at stake, audiences will expect the bad guy to have more than a handful of soldiers at their disposal. That’s where giving the good guys minions can really come in handy.
Most immediately, if the heroes have minions at their disposal, this gives your evil minions someone to fight. It’s often much easier to choreograph fights between two groups of soldiers than between one group of soldiers and a lone protagonist, especially if you need the good guys to lose without a main character dying. Although even here, you need to be careful. If the good minions constantly lose to the evil minions, but then the hero can eat through evil minions like candy, it can make the good minions look incompetent.
And don’t think that these fights need to be limited to just minion-on-minion action. Once the good guys have goons of their own, you’re ready for mass battle! In these titanic clashes, you’ll probably use a mix of named characters and faceless minions. The heroes might be officers leading the fight, or they might be rank-and-file soldiers just trying to survive, depending on the type of story. Either way, it’s important to keep your best minion practices in mind, since there will be a lot of them. They should be competent, and the audience should understand their motivations.
Beyond fight choreography, adding minions to team good can help you flesh out the setting as well. If the hero’s cause is just and the stakes are high, it makes sense that regular people would join up alongside the special individuals who have names and backstories. Minions can also give a wider view of your world than a handful of main characters, as different groups will have distinct languages, fashions, foods, and the like.
You can even use heroic minions to reinforce your story’s message in the right circumstances. Near the end of Rogue One,* there’s a scene where Darth Vader cuts his way through a hallway of Rebel soldiers. These soldiers don’t have special powers or impressive weapons. They’re no match for Vader, but they give their lives to delay him because their mission is that important. This ties in beautifully to Rogue One’s theme of heroes that no one in the wider galaxy has ever heard of.
7. Give Them Meaningful Victories
Every entry on this list is aimed at making your minions more effective, and they give you a lot of options. But just like with named villains, the most important technique for effective minions is to show them being effective. Your minions might have the coolest armor and the best tactics available, but if they never actually win anything, the audience will see them as little more than punching bags.
These victories can be the work of minions alone or in tandem with named villains. So long as the minions actively contribute to winning the day, their threat level will rise. This raises your story’s tension, and it will seem like a real accomplishment when your heroes finally best the evil minions later.
Of course, giving your minions meaningful victories requires a robust plot. If every conflict is about whether the main character will survive, this tactic won’t work. Your heroes need more to lose than just their lives, and your villains need to desire more than the protagonist’s death. Minions are particularly suited for securing locations and capturing important objects. They can overrun a castle or dig up the Sword of Badassery before the hero gets to it, for example. They’re less good at inflicting emotional harm, as any minion with that much dramatic potential should probably have a name.
You might have noticed that in this last section, we’ve drifted away from minions and into general storytelling advice. That’s because it’s all connected, maaaaan! For your minions to be effective, they need to win victories. And for your minions to win victories, your villain needs to be after something other than the heroes’ deaths. Heck, for there to even be minions, you need a setting that can support them in the first place.
In a story, every element supports the rest. Minions are no exception, but their faceless nature means they’re often neglected. We’re so used to seeing heroes cut through whole crowds of enemies that it’s to assume those enemies aren’t a big deal. Thankfully, by making our minions count we can turn that around and impress our audience, too.