Analysis

The Three Traits of Annoying Characters

Once in a while, storytellers slip up when crafting a protagonist. A character that was supposed to be an audience favorite becomes the focus of malice and frustration instead. While each person’s taste in characters is unique, some traits are likely to inspire intense dislike. If you need your audience to like a character, make sure they aren’t too…

1. One Dimensional

dawn

When Dawn Summers was added to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character was only a few years younger than Buffy and friends were when the series started. However, while Buffy, Willow, and Xander had some typical adolescent traits, they were individuals first. Especially after season five, Dawn is nothing more than a demographic. She is a blend of little sister and teenage girl stereotypes, without a personality of her own.

Similarly, many annoying characters are written for novelty. Complex personalities are sacrificed just to repeat the same joke over and over again. Jar Jar Binks just ran into things and knocked himself silly; Dobby from the Harry Potter series created havoc in an unrealistic attempt at “helping.” If the audience doesn’t like the joke, they won’t like the character either because they don’t have anything else.

In contrast, Cordelia from Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a running joke about how self-centered and shallow she is, but that doesn’t encompass her entire personality. As she appears more frequently in the series, viewers learn she is more intelligent and insightful than she seems. Then they watch her struggle between her desire to be popular and her longing for the excitement the Scoobies offer. By the time she becomes Angel’s sidekick, she is a well-loved character.

Balancing traits give the audience relief from the character aspects they dislike. Without any complexity, a personality that was never endearing quickly becomes tiresome.

2. Flawed

neelix

Neelix from Star Trek: Voyager has so many character flaws it’s hard to know where to start. He’s selfish, irrational, and a liar to boot. He pressures the young Kes into being his lover, dismisses her when she needs anything from him, and becomes jealous whenever she spends time with other men. Who wouldn’t hate such a despicable person?

A particular flaw is surprisingly common among annoying characters: incompetence. Humorous or not, a character that flunks every mission will frustrate the audience. Dawn is notorious for giving sensitive information to the wrong person, creating unpleasant social drama. Neelix becomes the ship’s cook, but ongoing commentary suggests his food is terrible. While occasional incompetence can also gain sympathy, this only works for an otherwise worthy character. Most viewers would be pressed to think of a unique and positive trait that Neelix, Jar Jar, or Dawn possess.

By contrast, Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender is also deeply flawed, but he has tangible strengths to balance his problems. He’s ill-tempered and prideful, but it’s hard not to admire his determination. While he repeatedly fails to take Aang prisoner, he is anything but incompetent. In one episode, Zuko breaks into a fortress where Aang is held prisoner and frees him – alone, without using his Firebending talents. Similarly, Dobby is less annoying after the second book, when he actually helps Harry Potter instead of harming him.

Good characters have both negative and positive traits. While many storytellers can improve their characters by adding flaws, a protagonist should be more than their weaknesses.

3. Glorified

wesley-3

Wesley Crusher isn’t even old enough to attend Star Fleet Academy at the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation, let alone become a member of the crew. But somehow he’s always on the bridge working the controls and chatting with the commanding officers. When the professionals are flummoxed by a problem, he magically has the answer. He takes over engineering and creates a new, intelligent life form. As if that weren’t enough, everyone constantly talks about what a genius he is. Any viewer has to ask: how come a kid is doing all that? And can he please just go away?

Unearned glory also contributes to Jar Jar’s terrible showing. Jar Jar is clearly a menace, yet the other protagonists tolerate him with good grace, rarely showing any dislike as a result of his antics. Then he is promoted to General, despite being obviously unqualified. He makes a fool of himself in battle until – by dumb luck – he becomes tangled with a droid carrying a laser gun. With only the barest effort from Jar Jar, the droid eliminates all the surrounding enemies.

By contrast, Harmony from Buffy the Vampire slayer is incredibly annoying to the other characters, and therefore not at all annoying to viewers. She’s an antagonist, and the heroes struggle with her shallow stupidity whenever she appears in an episode. When she finally becomes a protagonist for a single episode of Angel, she is still disliked by the people around her. She has to prove herself to the heroes.

Humiliation makes characters more sympathetic. Audiences love deserving characters that are undervalued, and they hate undeserving people in glorified positions. The latter is a great tactic for villains, but do it on a protagonist, and you’re in trouble.


Creating a likable character is a balancing act. They should have a feature that makes them stand out, but it should be counter-balanced by more subtle traits. They should have strengths but not ones so large they hijack the story. They should have flaws but not so many they become despicable. Throw all their eggs in one basket, and you risk those eggs going rotten.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. TrishM

    You’re being sarcastic about Neelix, right?
    Either that, or you have NO idea who that character really is. He’s generous, kind, a bit goofy and tries too hard, but his relationship with Kes is absolutely misaligned here. I could go on and on, but instead I recommend you watch the Voyager series yourself.

  2. JohnFerguson

    I wouldn’t consider myself a Neelix fan, but I think I’m with Trish on his relationship with Kes. I never got the impression that their relationship was forced in any way. As far as the rest, his jealousy did irritate me to no end, and his bumbling was very wearisome, but at the same time I thought that made his (very few) shining moments all the more impressive.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      But consider the following.

      1. Kes is less then 2 years old. Even by Ocampa standards, that’s maybe early teenager.

      2. She and Neelix can’t have met before she’s broken out of the Kazon camp. The Kazon were very clear that they captured her when she came to the surface, and Neelix had never gone down to the Ocampa city.

      So unless the Kazon were giving their slaves coffee breaks, which seems unlikely, what we have is Neelix lusting after this very young girl who barely knows him.

      Then he takes all the credit for her rescue (even though it was clearly Starfleet who did all the work), and suddenly their in a romantic relationship in which he completely ignores her when it’s not about him?

      Certainly there’s no physical force involved, but the most logical explanation is that Kes feels obligated to be his girlfriend because he (sort of) saved her from the Kazon.

  3. Leticia

    Neelix spoiled Star Trek Voyager for me.

  4. GeniusLemur

    I’d add #4, superfluous. This is one of the many reasons that R2-D2 doesn’t work in Episode 1, and does in Episode 4. In Episode 4, R2 is intimately tied to the plot, and if it’s not there, the plot has to change completely. In Episode 1, it’s quite obviously “let’s have R2 show up for the nerdgasm factor.” Likewise, Jar-Jar in episode 1 is all the more annoying because he has no real part in the story: trait #1 becomes all the more annoying when falling on his face and walking into walls is all he exists to do

    • Chris Winkle

      Good point! Similarly, I’ve noticed people can get annoyed with characters that are supposedly central, but are very reactive to story events instead of proactive. Both superfluous and reactive characters lack agency.

    • Hunter_Wolf

      I do agree about R2-D2, but Jar-Jar actually does play a role in the story near the end of ep 1, he is the one that takes our heroes to his people’s hiding place deep in the forest so Padame could ask them for help luring the drone army of the trade federation out of the city.

      That by the way doesn’t make him any less terrible, proof that even if you give terrible characters a big role in the story it dosen’t make things magically better.

      • GeniusLemur

        But in the same way that the plot would have played out exactly the same if they hadn’t lost their deflector shield while escaping and sent the R2 units out to fix it (giving them an excuse to introduce R2-D2), the plot would have played out exactly the same if Padme had known where the Gungans’ hiding place was or at least suspected (not many places you can hide the population of an entire city, you know), or if the Gungans were still inside their city.
        Since it’s a complication that comes out of nowhere and is instantly resolved, my suspicion is it’s something they threw in (probably at the last minute) to justify Jar-Jar’s presence.

  5. Rand al'Thor

    Number 3 makes me think of Ender’s Game, actually. It kind of annoyed me, but it wasn’t that bad, was it?

    • Chris Winkle

      Ender is the main character, so whether the audience is annoyed by how much candy he has largely depends on how well they identify with him. I vaguely remember that he’s pretty blank as a character, so identification for many people would be high. Maybe not for you, though.

      Side characters like Wesley don’t have as much identification, so candy tolerance is lower.

      The other reason people are annoyed with Wesley and not Ender is that Ender’s Game sets up a whole world where having Ender in the spotlight make sense (a little sense, anyway) and Wesley’s antics in Star Trek don’t fit the setting at all.

  6. Bret B

    Neelix was annoying but no one here seems to be nailing the simple awkwardness of his personality. To tell it like it is, Neelix was visually ugly and acted like an excited, elderly woman. I felt he was set up with Kes to counterbalance his utter lack of testosterone. He was flustered, breathless, and fickle. I wouldn’t want to be around him in real life. As stated above, not enough redeeming qualities.
    You’re right about Wesley. “Isn’t he wonderful?” Well. no. Star Trek, for all its positive points, had a bad habit of blatantly telling you what they wanted you to think about a character. When they put Spock and Data together, they actually had Data voice the nature of their differences- in case very slow viewers weren’t keeping up? Star Trek writers didn’t seem to want to waste time with “show, don’t tell.”
    Jar Jar was similar to Neelix in that he just wasn’t cool. A friend like that had better have a redeeming quality to balance all the uncoolness. Jar Jar failed for lack of saving graces. He was all exterior reaction and antics with no depth, no soul, so I agree with the above.

  7. Aly

    While Dawn was definitely annoying, it also makes sense that she began as such a stereotypical character because she was literally poofed into existence by monks in a time crunch so while they imbued her with Buffy’s essence and made pretend memories, she didn’t actually grow up or experience things that shaped her character. Rather, she was molded into being by the monks. And what would a bunch of monks really know about teenage girls other than stereotypes, anyway?

    All her character growth had to take place only in the time between her creation and the series’ end…which is something I never actually considered until now.

    Honestly, for as angst y and annoying as she was, she was still ultimately more well adjusted than she had any business being.

  8. Aly

    I should add that the bigger issue was repetitiveness, and that plagued all characters and story lines off and on during the last few seasons. She was suitably annoying her first season, the show’s fifth (more so when we thought the writers jumped the shark and committed the mother of all revisionist histories before her origin was revealed, and, in my case, failed to realize they foreshadowed her the prior season) and had a lot of growth the 7th season. It was that 6th season that she was unbearable, but, again, that was a problem with the 6th season overall.

  9. Tumblingxelian

    Extremely well laid out, this will prove to be a useful reference, and I especially liked the focus on other characters reactions. That aspect reminded me of a writer/director of a comedy series talking about how there was a popular character on their show who they know anyone would hate if they had to interact, but because they annoyed the cast & thus made the viewers laugh, they were beloved over reviled.

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