This blog was written by the talented Marcos. As a long time contributor to the podcast you’ve definitely heard his voice or at least felt his presence via his mad editing skills. This blog represents some more scattered thoughts he’s had about violence, murder and mooks (cannon fodder) in fictional worlds. It’s a great reflection on the weight of death and well worth your time. If you want to hear the episode he’s riffing off go ahead and check out our Patreon Page where that and a ton of other WorldCraft Club content are waiting for you for $5 a month.
Like many, I enjoyed Pixar’s The Incredibles. The movie was colorful, fun, and also tackled some deep concepts dealing with a more realistic global reaction to superheroes, a topic that would later be the center of future stories like Captain America: Civil War and the show The Boys. Though one moment in watching the movie stuck out to me: as Dash and Violet are evading Syndrome’s trio of identical henchmen, the baddies end up crashing their bladed flying saucers in a fiery doom. I react to the first explosion and say, “Whoa, there’s henchmen death in this movie?”
The rest of my friends that I was watching with simply replied, “Yup.” and we continued enjoying the film without another thought.
While I look back and chuckle at my reaction to unexpected deaths in a PG cartoon, this moment illustrated the success of a common practice when it comes to cannon fodder for the heroes to defeat in most stories. Dehumanization. When this is applied to a force of henchmen, it helps the audience not empathize or feel sympathy towards them as they fall before the hero; directing their attention away from thoughts of “murder” and towards thrills of “action.”
This is usually done by covering their faces, giving them all identical uniforms, not having any of them talk, and portraying them to be much less competent, or merciful, than the protagonist. Stripping them of humanity. In addition, this is done by simply not making the henchmen human at all. There are many tales of evil hordes of orcs or goblins fighting against gallant knights, emotionless robots trying to destroy plucky time-travelers, and horrific aliens trying to devour brave space marines. Though, just by saying those few examples show that even cannon fodder present opportunities to reveal unique elements about your world, rather than simply being faceless targets for your main characters.
When we see a wave of henchmen, good or bad, we are seeing a very generalized, and often extreme, side of a society. They don’t embody an entire culture, but a more focused set of ideas belonging to that culture as well as some of their leader’s values in how they appear and act. A kill squad of mooks may all wear the same outfit, but that outfit is a nicely ironed suit to show that they are well off in the criminal underworld they belong to. An army of orcs may all wield jagged melee weapons, but their focus on fighting up close hints that their culture values battle as an intimate test of strength. The slow marching line of killer robots across a wasteland signifies the AI overlord’s patience as its victories have brought a creeping apocalypse to the once fertile land. A swarm of insectoid aliens crawling from numerous tunnels in a mountainside may communicate the idea of an ant-like hierarchy to the planet’s apex predators.
Sure, the audience isn’t supposed to care if they live or die, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put thought into your cannon fodder design. Not only can your mooks help portray your world, they can even be iconic to it. The Star Wars stormtroopers are one of the most iconic cannon fodder out there. The stormtroopers are almost always in a formation, and countless. They wear clean white armor with a cold, grim visage. When they speak, their emotion is distorted through the robotic tone of their mass produced radio speakers. They occupy many colonized planets and citizens give them a wide berth. They reflect the cold, calculating order and influence of the Empire across the vast galaxy.
Henchmen aren’t normally seen as people, they are seen as symbols in their world.
So, when you start creating your next horde of zombies or army of Nazi-esuqe paramilitary goons, take some time to figure out how to use them to more vividly present the world you are creating. What unique traits help paint the backdrop for your story? Even though the heroes are just going to slaughter them, even your cannon fodder can be memorable and be just as important and ingrained to the world as your main characters.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.