Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Importance and Efficient Use of Mooks

This week's post is about the "mook" which is the Literary Term for the generic, low level henchmen employed by villains and killed by heroes. Naturally, this post will be most useful in action/adventure stories and otherwise genre that involves a good deal of fighting but it is useful in other genre too. I'll get to that latter.

A mook goes by many names ( "baddies", "goons," "scrubs," "drones," "small fry," "flunkies," "pawns," "toadies," "grunts," "minions," "lackeys," "underlings," "henchpersons," and "Cannon Fodder") but they all perform the same function: to be slaughtered by the heroes to show how tough they are or otherwise provide a sense of danger.  While some stories like to focus on the mook to give them personalization or backstories or the importance of this otherwise unimportant character, the classic mook is canon fodder. They'll likely wear helmets for depersonalization (and in live action so the same handful of extras can take the role of dozens.)

One prominent example are the Storm Troopers from Star Wars; those movies would not be so exciting if these guys weren't constantly firing at Luke and the Empire as a whole would not seem so threatening if it were nothing but Darth Vader and his non-action officials.

Another example are the Puddies from Power Rangers. Sometimes they fulfilled some goal or other for the villain, but most of the time they show up simply so the rangers can show off their martial arts before the Monster of The Week shows Up.

I'm going to use an example from a book that I recently reviewed to illustrate both proper and improper use of mooks. The book is  "Ambrose Beacon" by Alena Gouveia. (You can read that review here).

In that book, the initial enemies for the Ambrose family and their allies are these wolf shape-shifter demon things.  They are classic mooks in that they are a faceless mob of bottom-tier villains. One character explicitly states that their human forms are so non-descript that you couldn't pick them out of a crowd if you were looking for them. They are also classic mooks in that they serve a narrative purpose; establish the powers and skills of the heroes.

Before this there were demonstrations: Dinah snapped a metal bar in two and Cole spoke with wolves but there's nothing like beating on bad guys to really establish what the heroes are capable of. This is because the heroes don't have to hold back. Mooks are treated as Always Chaotic Evil nobodies and so the audience does not mourn them no matter how many are killed. Again, this helps when they are genuine monsters. What happens in these fights is really cool: Dinah grapples with one of them, Cole shapeshifts into a bear and one of their teachers blasts another with a beam of magic power. This is one of my favorite parts of the story. However, there is a problem.

Miss.Gouveia repeats this basic scene structure several times over and it becomes tedious. In Star Wars, there was a mix up of dangers: Storm Troopers, the sewer monster, Obi-Wan's fight with Darth Vader etc. This prevents the mooks from becoming tedious. In Power Rangers there is a sense of escalation; first the swarm of mooks, then the Monster of the Week, and then the villain would say "Make My Monster Grow!" and the final battle of the episode would be a giant monster vs a giant robot. Ambrose Beacon does not do either of these. Instead it's always an endless horde of the same sort of bland monsters so the scenes run together. In a later scene there are monsters that are stated to be 'more powerful' than the first monster but if there was anything that distinguished these two breeds of monster then I missed it.

Mooks can be used for more than just action scenes. Their purpose of establishing heroic skill or providing danger can be used in other genres. What they all have in common is that they have little to no effect on the main plot; they're like spice or a side dish. They support the main course.  For example,

A medical drama could use a series of minor cases of diagnosis to establish the skill of its protagonist doctor.  House M.D used clinic duty to demonstrate Dr.House's rapid diagonistic ability and his bitter personality.

A romance novel could feature a series of bad suitors to illustrate the difficulty its protagonist has in finding a special someone one. Ballads were fond of bit characters failing an Engagement Challenge to set it up as difficult for The Hero.

Mooks are useful at the start of the plot. They establish the strength of the heroes to demonstrate for the audience that they are ready to move on to bigger and better things. I suppose one could use a Zerg Rush to show power in numbers but then you run into the Conversation of Ninjitsu, or heroic Character Death.  At that point it's better to use single named villains but that's a post for another day.


  1. Ohhh, I wish I had read this before I reviewed Isaac Hooke's "The Forever Gate" compendium for Perihelion Science Fiction (Jan. 2014 issue) ezine. That is *exactly* what I wanted to say but could only think of Power Rangers fight scenes and didn't know there's an actual literary term (mook? for real?) to cite. Thanks for this! Maybe you should be the one reviewing sci-fi novels. I'm twice your age (judging by your photo), with a degree in English teaching; mom of three, novelist, fiction workshop member, editor... and never heard of "mook" until now.

  2. Go to TvTropes. It has all kinds of stuff like this and it's where I learned about the 'proper name' for these guys.

    I'm glad you enjoyed my post and that I could increase your understanding.

  3. I love TvTropes! Really should use it more.. in all three of our next books, we should name our evil servants mooks from now on.. err, maybe not -)