The role of henchmen in your story is to provide support for your main villain or Antagonist. They are the soldiers that attack the Protagonist and provide obstacles for the Protagonist to overcome on their quest.
The problem with henchmen is that if you’re writing a hero who is intended to be morally pure, you can’t have them just slaughter the henchmen. I’ll be talking about the different ways of writing henchmen for different styles of story.
In Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, after the death of a henchman, there’s a scene at his home. His wife receives a call that her husband has been killed in the line of duty and she has to break it to her son.
She says the line “Nobody ever thinks about the Henchman’s family.”
Whilst this is played for laughs, and despite the grim content manages to be truly funny, it highlights the very real problem. When henchmen are killed without real thought, the fact they’re real humans is overlooked. Humans have lives outside their work, and a right to life at work, and that is often ignored by the writers. It’s an inconvenience that’s swept under the rug to avoid being looked at too closely.
When the henchmen are humans, no matter how evil their leader, you have to make a decision. Do you have your Protagonist kill them, or are they allowed to live. If the Protagonist kills them, then the character your audience is supposed to root for and support is willing to take multiple human lives without much consideration. If the henchmen are allowed to live, you can’t logistically have too many of them, and your Protagonist is weakened.
A Morally Complex Protagonist
If you’re writing a James Bond style Protagonist, the henchmen’s deaths aren’t as big a problem. James Bond is morally complex, he’s not just pure, so murder is part of the package.
However, even a character like Batman, who is similar in many ways, has issues with the henchmen. When Batman is busy killing everybody audiences object. He’s not supposed to do that, he’s morally complex but he’s not a murderer.
Having human henchmen raises questions and moral issues that can derail an audience if they’re ignored, or swamp a story if they’re dealt with.
Is murder ever justified? Is fighting for the “wrong” side enough justification to be killed? Were the henchmen there by choice or by force? Were their families held hostage to force them to do the villain’s bidding? Is it just a job, like any other, and they’re not invested in the cause they just need to work? If they’re guarding a building, do they even know what’s inside or do they think they’re doing something good and honest?
Is murdering humans because they’re in your way, even if you believe they’re morally bad, ever justifiable?
The non-human henchman is the ideal way to overcome this problem. If you’re writing a Protagonist that needs to be able to fight and kill henchman for the sake of drama in your story, and strength in the character, give them monsters.
In Avengers: Infinity War, you can see the perfect example of this. Even Captain America who is written to be the most morally pure character you can imagine is willing to slaughter the alien monsters attacking them in Wakanda. Those monsters aren’t humanoid in the least, they’re not shown to be anything but mindless monsters determined to kill and nothing more.
The slaughter of those aliens is dealt with easily. There’s no moral question, no family waiting at home, and the heroes still maintain their purity.
Of course, this can only work if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi story. Aliens from space, monsters, robots. Anything that we don’t attribute humanoid qualities too, so even robots can be difficult if they’re the I-Robot style creations. In Black Mirror episode Metalhead, the robots are more dog-like in design so the killing of them doesn’t raise questions. In I-Robot they’re humanoid so the same moral dilemma is raised.
Does Moral Purity Matter?
If you’re writing for children, moral purity in a Protagonist definitely matters. Super-heroes can be cocky, like Iron-Man, but they can’t be brutal murderers. Children depend on a simple right and wrong in their stories, which is why super-heroes are so very popular. They provide moral lessons on right and wrong and guide children to understand how to function well in society.
The good guys don’t hurt people. Be a good guy. The bad guys do hurt people. Don’t be a bad guy.
However, the older your audience gets, the less dependent on moral purtity your story will become. However, many will still struggle to root for a character who is willing to slay other humans without a second thought. No matter the end result, we are programmed to want to see human life respected.
You villain can murder and torture as much as your story requires, but the taking of human life of a Protagonist should have consequences and thought. I have written Protagonists that kill fellow humans, both on purpose and by accident, but it is always with a cost to their well being. It weighs on them, it’s not done easily or without thought.
A Character Arc
Ultimately it’s up to you how freely your Protagonist is willing to kill. But the moral purity of that character will be chipped away at with every life taken, and that should be addressed in their character arc.
If the taking of a life doesn’t bother them, or they see it as a necessary evil they’ll do to succeed to their story goal, they will end your story as different poeple. They’ve been sent on an arc towards being a darker character, and that should be shown in their behaviour. A dark arc for a Protagonist can be very entertaining, and doesn’t need to be shied away from, but it does need to be done for a character who kills easily.
If taking a life does bother them and, as with my characters, takes a true toll, then their arc will be different. Their arc will include guilt and pain and a desire not to kill again. This carrying of guilt with them will also be an interesting arc and makes excellent conflict.
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