Before we dive into today’s obscure trope, it might be best to preface with morality. In fiction, there are two general morality scales: Black-and-White or Grey-and-Grey.
In Black and White morality stories, the heroes and the bad guys are easy to tell apart. There’s likely some virtuously good force against some clearly evil one. In Star Wars, the Empire is clearly bad and the Rebellion is clearly good. In Lord of the Rings, Sauron and his forces are clearly evil and the hobbit and the fellowship are clearly good.
In Grey and Grey morality stories, things are not so clear cut. Often the heroes are not completely good and may even be so grey that they’re anti-heroes. The villains of such stories often have redeeming qualities.
The prequel trilogy of Star Wars and the TV show the Clone Wars push the story toward a Grey and Grey morality by claiming that there were “heroes on both sides”. Most of Marvel’s Civil War story arc has both sides of heroes making questionable decisions. The original Blade Runner falls here as well with replicants that just want to survive and Deckard’s hunting of them coming into question.
This brings us to today’s Trope: The Punch-Clock Villain.
While the Big Bad of the story might be evil or malicious–maybe even down to the last fiber of his being–his bodyguards and henchmen might not be. They might be just following orders. They might just be getting a paycheck. Outside of work they might even be wholesome folk.
Let’s look at three examples: Wreck-It Ralph, Serenity, and The Princess Bride.
In Wreck-It Ralph, the titular character is the villain of the video game Fix-It Felix Junior. The movie focuses on Ralph’s life outside of the game and how he laments his role. He is stuck being a bad guy when all he wants to be is a hero. He even goes so far as to join a support group for villains where Zangief tells him, “Just because you are bad guy does not mean you are a bad guy.” Ralph is only a villain because that is his role within the video game. Outside of that he’s just your normal everyday video game character.
MINOR SPOILER: In Serenity (the follow-up to the TV show Firefly), the agent that hunts Malcolm Reynold’s crew is also one of these. He is capable of some truly ruthless things, but only because he is under orders from the Alliance (the government). At one point, he calls off the attack on Reynold’s crew because his job no longer requires them.
MINOR SPOILER: My favorite example has to be The Princess Bride. The three bad guys, Vizzini (the mastermind), Inigo (the swordsman) and Fezzik (the giant), kidnap the princess of Florin. None of the men are despicable, except for maybe Vizzini for threatening the princess, but we find out that Inigo and Fezzik in particular are only Punch-Clock Villains. During a particularly poignant part of the movie, Inigo reveals that his real mission in life is to find the six-fingered man who slaughtered his father. He explains, “You see, I cannot find him… it’s been twenty years now and I’m starting to lose confidence. I just work for Vizzini to pay the bills. There’s not a lot of money in revenge.”
So, how can you use a Punch-Clock Villain in your own work? Like most writing advice and tricks, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Are you trying to move your work from a Black and White morality to a Greyer one? Then this can do the trick. Show that the villains aren’t all bad. Maybe your Main Character now is conflicted with how to deal with these bodyguards who have families to go home to. Or maybe the villain is just doing their job, just like Deputy Gerard in The Fugitive as he relentlessly pursues the innocent Dr. Kimble for a murder he didn’t commit.
Are you trying to add some humor to your story? This can do the trick too. Take Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark is fighting a dozen henchmen. The last one sees how easily he dispatched the others and throws his hands up. “Honestly I hate working here. They are so weird.”
Are you trying to find a way for your Main Character to succeed against impossible odds or find new allies for them? Then maybe your MC spares the lives of some of the henchmen and in the process the henchmen realize the error of their ways.
Like all tropes, the Punch-Clock Villain trope is a tool that can be used a dozen different ways. Try using one in your next story and see what new inspiration you get.