Home » Archives » July 2006 » Henchpersons
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On Monday morning, gentle readers, I am headed off to a new job. I'm going to be on the staff of the new Andy Richter comedy "Andy Barker, PI." I'm so excited – the pilot is great and I think it's going to be a really strong show. The new staff had our first get-to-know-you dinner last night, and I can report that it's a fun and accomplished group. The new schedule will mean I'm going to be a lot busier all of a sudden, and the blogging frequency may drop a bit – from once a day to once or twice a week, but I'm going to be here as much as I possibly can, my friends.
I'm way behind on addressing all the fine questions that arrive in the mail – I love these! And I wanted to talk about what may be the most delightful one yet. Jenn in L.A. asks "How do you deal with henchmen?" Oh my. Well, I punish them harshly if they fail to protect my mountain lair.
She explains what she means: "Lots of times in Buffy, she'll come across a cluster of vampires, only one of whom has a speaking role. Still, the rest of these vamps might appear throughout the episode / die in interesting ways. How do you keep them alive on the page without taking up too much space?"
Thanks Jenn! That's an interesting question. And, I should note, it's not just relevant to Buffy and similar shows with an action element. Doctors, for example, might have to break some hard news to a gathering of a patient's family members, and those might also be characters that reappear throughout the episode. This is a very similar situation since, again, it's likely that only one of the group will have a speaking role. (You have to pay people a lot more to speak – even if it's only one line – and writers will go to great lengths to keep extra characters from piping up.) For the sake of making me laugh, let's continue to refer to these silent supporting characters as "henchmen."
Usually, these kinds of characters don't really get names, just the barest of labels. Here's a chunk of stage direction (I believe this was written by the impressive David Fury) from a Buffy episode in which she fights some silent henchmen-types. Note that in this case there was no central speaking villain, just a band of silent equals:
BACK ON BUFFY as she is about to engage the Monster. When she hears a SNARL and turns to see ANOTHER ONE on her right.
NEW ANGLE as she takes a step back, sizing up the beasts, when a THIRD MONSTER leaps in behind her. She's surrounded.
She spins around, catching the third monster in the head with a roundhouse kick. MONSTER #3 is knocked back as MONSTERS #1 and #2 charge her.
If you want to give them each visual defining characteristics, these could well have been called "bumpy-headed monster," "extra-strong monster" and, I dunno, "mangy-furred monster" or something.
In our analogous doctor show, you could imagine something very similar:
BACK ON HOUSE as he straightens up from questioning the patient's DEVASTATED MOTHER. He hears a CLEARED THROAT and turns to see the patient's ANGRY-LOOKING SISTER on his right.
NEW ANGLE as he takes a step back, sizing up the sister, when a RED-EYED BROTHER steps in behind him. He's surrounded.
At this point, he might dodge through the group to the safety of his office. Buffy's roundhouse kick is cool, but House has got that bum leg…
Now, as the writer, you can just refer to ANGRY-LOOKING SISTER and RED-EYED BROTHER as being present in any scene in which you need them to be standing around silently. That's all you need to do to keep them alive on the page. If they had importance to the story, you'd give them names and lines. But since henchmen really are just there to fill up the room, you should spend as little ink as possible on them. Similarly, if the Monsters in the Buffy story stuck around, you'd simply mention in stage directions something like "the three MONSTERS from earlier glare at Buffy from across the crypt." Nothing more is needed.
Note that you can also fill up scenes with extras just by mentioning: "The deli is moderately busy" or "The halls are full of students." Silent people are pretty cheap when producing an episode, and even cheaper in a spec.
Lunch: chicken and salsa in scrambled eggs