Being a Better Writer: Crafting an Army of Foes

Welcome back, readers! It was a long and busy weekend, and as much fun as it was I’m glad to be back to work, fingers to keyboard once more.

Still, it was a fun weekend. Crystal Mountain Pony Con was a fun way to spend a day, and the panel on writing and fanfiction I moderated for was an absolute blast. You get a couple of writers and authors together in a single group and let them start discussing writing, and fun debate and deliberation are going to happen (though we did, for once and all, clear up the question of music links in stories—a unified “Yes, that’s fine”). We had a great turnout, great questions from the audience, and a good time was had by all. I was told there will be a youtube video of the panel going up at some point in the future, so it may be possible for those of you who were unable to attend to see some of the action, but that one is out of my hands. As of this morning, at least, nothing is up yet, but I’ll check occasionally through the week.

Outside of the panel, the rest of the con was good fun. There was a pretty impressive turnout, too (local papers reported a turnout of about 800 on the first day; for a smaller con of this nature it was a pretty good turnout), and it showed. The con venue was packed with vendors (some of whom I couldn’t resist spending money at), and there were a number of other fun panels to go to.

All in all, it was good fun. Seriously, cons are a great way to spend some time with other fans.

In any case, most of you didn’t come here to hear about another fun con. You came here today for one thing, and one thing only: a writing guide post! And luckily for you, I’m delivering.

So, this week’s topic? It actually comes from a reader, who wrote into me this weekend with a question about worldbuilding. XxEpsilomxX wanted to know if I had any advice on “… the correct way to make your own list of enemies that your main protagonist, and even maybe main antagonist or characters will end up fighting?”

As it turns out, I do. So this week, we’re going to look into my process once again, but this time at what goes into the creation of the myriad of foes that my characters face. How do I set about creation of—not a villain, which we’ve discussed before—but the army of foes that can sometimes come along with the villain?

In other words, how to create an army of mooks?

Mooks might be a bit of an unfamiliar term for most of you, so let me jump back a bit. First of all, what is a mook?

Mook is a slang term for the common enemy soldiers/followers/evil redshirts that the antagonist of your story is going to chew their way through over the course of the story (see a more in-depth write-up here). Basically, if your characters are facing off against a group of any size of mostly-faceless (character-wise) foes, than those foes are mooks. They might be tougher than average and pose a real challenge … or they may go down as readily as Starfleet cadets against an alien with a Nerf gun, but if they comprise the faceless horde or hordes of one faction or another that get in the way of the primary character’s objective, then you can legitimately call them mooks.

Now, some of you might be asking what then, Epsilom was asking by a “correct way” to make an army of mooks. After all, isn’t a foe a foe? Shouldn’t all you need to do is sit down and throw together a quick batch of ruffians or baddies to get in the way of your protagonist and call it good?

Well, no. Because like anything else, mooks are a part of the world you’re building, which means that like everything else, they need to make sense. They need to have a place in things, a part to play, a reason for existing. And this, actually, is where a lot of stories, even popular ones, fall flat on their faces. The author comes to creating the foes that stand in front of their protagonists … and simply makes stuff up. Bam! The bad guy suddenly has a small horde of followers from … somewhere. No mention is made of when or where the villain acquired them, or even why they seem so devoted to the villain’s cause.

And sometimes, you can get away with this. Sometimes it’s just enough to know that the foes exist, and we as authors can handwave away where they came from or why with nothing more than a single line of dialogue (or maybe not even that).

But … in the context of our question, this isn’t enough. And to be fair it often isn’t anyway. The problem with just “inventing” foes to challenge our antagonists out of nowhere is that there’s often a lot of loose ends we open our narrative up to as a result. If you want to design good mooks, a good class of foes for your characters to go up against, you’re going to need to do a bit more than just say “I want pirates.”

You’re going to need to worldbuild. Which, at long last, brings us to the meat of today’s topic. How?

Step 1 – The Need

All right, so you’ve sat down and begun your story. Or at least, the worldbuilding and brainstorming portion of it. You’re coming up with characters, coming up with the protagonist, the antagonist … and now? Now you need an army of mooks.

Or do you? This should be the first question you ask when you’re setting out to build things: Does my work need this? Because you might find that it in fact doesn’t.

Consider the pros and cons of a mook army as a need. Whatever faction or foe is going to oppose your characters … do they have the resources to control a group of mooks? Even a small one? Do they have the desire? Does their desire matter? For example, if you’re writing a museum heist, and your antagonist (or one of them) is the director of the museum, that character may not want to be in charge of a group of museum security guards, but you can bet that they will make full use of them as needed, even if they don’t want them. The existence of the guards is going to be a clear requirement of having a museum in the first place (unless it’s a really, really, crappy museum).

On the other hand, what about a character who is an egocentric criminals that doesn’t work well with others and prides themselves on being able to thwart others as a completely lone villain? What reason would they have to be traveling with a group of mooks if their character traits stand strongly against doing so?

Consider the need of your story to have a group of mooks. What will having these foes accomplish for the reader? The protagonists? Are they a means to an end? Does the antagonist actually have a purpose in mind for this group or army? Or are they quite literallyjust in the story to serve as a stepping stone for your heroes?

All of these questions serve a purpose: Identifying the need behind your foes. Why they’re there. What they’re supposed to accomplish. What they’re going to be like. Any good collection of mooks should serve a purpose, have a need in the story to fulfill.

Knowing the need, we can get a better idea as well as to what kind of mooks our characters will employ/face. Bandits? Soldiers? Cultists? What’s the need going to dictate that our mooks are?

Once we’ve got that figured, out, we move to step two.

Step 2 – The How

Right, so you have a need for mooks. They’re going to be there to serve some purpose or another in your story. Now the question becomes: What does my story require for these mooks to make sense?

Here’s where a lot of stories again get things wrong. The bad guy in a classic fantasy will have his big dark castle, with its legions of angry, dirty soldiers ready to fight and die for his cause … but what happens if the readers stops and starts to ask “How?”

Where are these mooks sleeping? Where are they getting food? Who is paying for them? Why are they so devoted to the cause?

You see, building a world is a lot like building a fantastic machine. We have all these bits and pieces that go together and work together, all these cogs and gears coming together to form a complete whole. And when we put mooks into that picture, we’re adding another bit of machinery to the whole, and as an effect of that, we need to make sure that most, if not all (preferably all), of the pieces behind the scene line up properly.

Once we’ve determined the need for mooks, the next thing we need to be asking ourselves is what the requirements for having that group of mooks would be. Bearing in mind that at this point (at least in my process), we haven’t decided the specifics of each mook yet, just a general idea of what we need, how will out antagonist supply and feed them? Where is finding them? How is he keeping control? Will our protagonist be facing mercenaries only interested in coin? Psychopaths who thrive on destruction? Religious or societal devotees? Will they need gear and equipment? Food? Money? Living space? Training?

What will they need, and how are they going to get it? You don’t need to answer all of these questions, and it may seem like unnecessary work, but the more you can answer and establish as to the requirements (or, to use another term, the logistics) of having this group of mooks, the more fleshed out your world becomes.

Additionally, you might find that it opens up some interesting venues for both plot and character development as you work at it. For instance, a villain that relies on coin to pay his mercenary army might be aggressively overreaching himself in order to keep making his payments to his mooks, something that could be used to the advantage of the primary characters. Or detriment, if the primary characters are a good source of revenue. Or maybe they’re only an antagonist because they need the revenue that the primary character’s macguffin could provide.

Point is, once you’ve decided that there is a need for the mooks to exist, then consider the how. How they eat. How the antagonist keeps control. How they’re a part of the story. How they train, etc.

Your character needs them? How do they keep them, train them, etc? Your readers will likely never need to know, but if you know, you open yourself to new avenues of storytelling, as well as making sure that all the background elements of your story line up in the proper manner.

Now, one last note here: This does not need to be an involved endeavor. When I sit down to do this part of my worldbuilding, I’m not writing pages explaining how the mooks’ commander pays for his troops/why he leads them. It’s just enough to devote a few thoughts to it so that if my reader does the same, there is a line of thought to follow that makes logical sense.

Step 3 – The Design

Right, now and at long last we move to what I expect many of you were thinking when I spoke of creating mooks at the very top of this post. We know we have a need for mooks, and we know how their commander/controller/whatever is going to support them. So now we need to figure out the mooks themselves.

But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Not if we want to build something that holds up under intense scrutiny. And for this, we’re going to look at a few places that got their mooks right, and a few that got their mooks wrong. Because there is a right and wrong way, believe it or not. And we’ll start with wrong.

Ever seen Marvel’s Agents of Shield? It’s actually a pretty fun show. But one thing that it brings to the table that’s sort of disappointing for an otherwise fairly well-done show is some of the most generic mooks of all time. Hydra mooks, shield mooks, it doesn’t matter. They’re both the same, and both as easily disposed.

They also make very little sense.

Basically, if you stop and think about it, Hydra has one kind of mook: The soldier in the black mask. Same gear, same equipment, same armor, same Hydra logo, same tactics, same tools. And they always have the same gun, the same equipment, the same strategy, and the same team size. Every time they show up, whether they’re trying to track down and catch a runaway super or to steal a database, they are completely identical to one another.

And as I said, this doesn’t make sense. You cannot name an organization in the world that only has “one kind” of employee in its command, from construction companies to mercenary crews. Especially if this group is going to be facing peril and action (which in most stories, mooks will, usually the kind they won’t succeed against), there’s going to be some division of skills and forces.

Now, let’s look at a place that got it right. A film that didn’t do very well, and was by most universally reviled: Battle L.A.. For many, the film was a mess for reasons we won’t go into here (mostly because it’s a highly debatable “mess”), but there were a lot of strengths buried in there, and one of the biggest ones was the amount of detail and thought put into the alien mooks the main characters faced.

In a normal film, the alien army would have been faceless, identical warriors. But the creators of Battle L.A., not wanting to go that route and wanting to creating an opposing force that felt real, put a lot of effort into designing an alien army that made sense. There were soldiers. There were squad leaders. There were commanders. There were snipers. There were scouts. There were differing loadouts. Crud, there were even heavy weapons crews with gunnery aliens acting as reloaders.

The point? The alien army actually made sense. Rather than facing a horde of identical aliens that somehow just did stuff, each alien was different based on their purpose. They had a clear hierarchy of command, complete with purposes and goals that were reasonable and expected. In essence, the alien force mirrored real military deployments: loadouts, equipment, and specific objectives.

Right, so how do we apply this to our own mook design in crafting the foes that our protagonists could face? We sit and think about what goes into the mooks our characters will be up against. What are they like? What purpose do they serve? Are we crafting an opponent that sounds cool and is of great danger to our hero … but worthless against anyone else? Are our mooks scared enough of the hero to need to class of mook devoted just to killing them?

This might seem like common sense … but you’d be surprised once you look how often most works completely ignore this step and create an army of foes that is only practical against the primary characters. And while sometimes this makes sense (for example, if youknow that Batman is coming for you from the get-go, you’re going to tailor your response to deal with Batman), most of the time it doesn’t (for example, any number of stories where the relatively unknown protagonist’s one weakness, which they and only they are weak to, is employed by the entire mook horde despite there being no reason for such).

The Execution

All right, I’ve prattled on about this for a while, and though some of you might be nodding, the critic in me says that you’re confused. So let’s instead look at the mental process that went into designing some of the foes from my own works. In this case, let’s look at some of the forces that make up The Order of the Red Horn from Beyond the Borderlands.

The first thing I did was ask myself if there was a need for this group to have what basically amounted to an army, or a need for them to have mooks at all. This was an easy question: Yes. They’re cultists trying to take over. They need numbers (good) and they need a way to cement their power (good). So there’s a need for them to have a mook army.

Right, now then, how? Well, they’re all going to be devoted because of a belief in the “founder” of their cult, an ancient evil king. They’re unified in a speciest bent as a collective of magic users. They’ve used their magic to aggressively take control of a good portion of the Ocean, so they have the supplies, logistics, and numbers. The how makes sense.

But then came the part where I actually opened a document. Once I’d had the above thought process, the time came to figure outwhat the structure of the cult would look like, and how that would play into how the primary characters would interact with them. Like a real-world force, I gave the Order a number of divisions among themselves, rankings, really, starting with the lowest members of the group (initiates) and working my way up to their highest ranking officials (mages). Along the way I asked myself questions. What sort of weakness was there in the groups I was proposing? What could each of them contribute to the goal of the group? What methods would the cult want to use that would require a role that otherwise wasn’t filled? What would they be likely discover or create on their own that would serve the goals of the cult?

From this, my list expanded with the shadows (the teleporting assassins who could spread fear of the cult, an in-universe magical currency) and the bruins (fighters magically augmented for physical strength and durability, based off of something similar in the setting). As well as a few others (such as sycophants, cult-sympathizers in the various towns the cult controls that aren’t actually members of the cult, but acting in the cults favor in return for favors of their own).

This kind of design philosophy is what should drive your mooks: The role. The goal. If you want your heroes to face off against a group of thieves in a tavern brawl, what reason does one of those thieves have to be wearing plate armor? Would they all be carrying knives and identical gear and jump into the fray? Or would one or two of them be armed with truncheons and distract while a third snuck around to the side with a small throwing knife, hoping to catch someone off-guard? Or would they just run and lay traps as they went while one other distracted?

Wrap It

So, in answer to the question that kicked off this whole thing, how does one “… make your own list of enemies that your main protagonist, and even maybe main antagonist or characters will end up fighting?”

Answer: You make them real. You think about the need, the purpose to why these mooks would exist. Then you think about the how, the who and what of how they’re going to be fed, supplied, and exist. Then, you move to the design, creating these foes based on their purposes, roles, and objectives. Not just based on “oh, this sounds cool,” but based around the realities of what sort of need these forces are fulfilling. Are they peacekeepers? Soldiers? Medics? Is there a subset of them with the goal of nothing but taking down your protagonist?

The goal, of course, is to create an army of mooks that fits into your world, on that meshes with the other cogs and gears in a way that it feels like part of the world rather than just a tacked-on obstacle for your characters to face. An army of foes that serve a purpose. Real foes. Real obstacles.

It might take a bit of research. And it certainly might take a bit of thought. But in the end, what you’ll end up with is a world that feelswhole, a world where your readers can not just enjoy what you’ve directly presented, but a can think about it, ponder on it, and enjoy the nuances of design you’ve presented them. A world where the heroes or protagonists just don’t face a faceless army, but a foe thatmakes sense and comes with it’s own strengths, weaknesses, and background of design.

Something real. Something your reader can dig into. Something that leaves an impression on their mind, one that they’ll think about for days or weeks afterwards.

Because that? That’s the mark of a good element in a story. And when you make a mook that memorable … you’re doing your jobright.


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