Five Characters With Fake Spinach

Dresden summoning shield magic.
Candy and spinach are two of our most important concepts here at Mythcreants. Candy is anything that makes a character look cool or otherwise glorifies them. Conversely, spinach is anything that humbles a character or takes them down a peg or two. The best characters have a balance: candy, so they’re fun to watch or read about, and spinach, so they stay relatable.

But spinach presents a real problem for a lot of storytellers. It’s not always fun to give our precious babies actual flaws or problems. And yet, these same storytellers also understand that spinach is necessary, which is how you end up with fake spinach. In these cases, storytellers claim that a character has problems, but these problems don’t hinder them in a meaningful way. Often, fake spinach is just poorly disguised candy, heaping even more glory on a hero while trying to make them relatable. Let’s examine what that looks like in the wild.

1. Xander Harris

Xander posing against a set of lockers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

At the beginning of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Xander is an unpopular nerd. He gets picked on for not being cool, and he doesn’t even have the comfort of being super smart like his friend Willow. This makes him super relatable, right? Well, there’s just one problem.

Okay, there are actually several problems, but we’re not talking about how creepy and sexist Xander can be. Instead, we’re focusing on the main reason his unpopular nerd persona doesn’t work: Xander is incredibly good looking. Actor Nicholas Brendon is not only classically handsome, but he’s also built like an Olympic athlete. The show tries to hide this by putting Xander in really loose clothes, but it’s still obvious.

This is a common problem in Hollywood, an industry infamous for only putting beautiful people in starring roles. It’s easy to find a cornucopia of supposedly plain heroines played by gorgeous actresses, but Xander proves it can happen with men too. Yay for equality?

Xander’s muscular build in particular sabotages his image as the bullied nerd. The first season has several sequences where other guys give him a hard time, but Xander looks like he could rip them in half like a phone book. Then suddenly the show emphasizes how hot Xander is when he joins the swim team for an episode, but afterward it’s back to being the unpopular nerd. This inconsistency makes his spinach even harder to take seriously. The audience is supposed to empathize with Xander’s school problems, but he looks like the perfect popular kid.

2. Nick Campbell

Cover arc from Super Powereds

The novel Super Powereds: Year One is about a group of five misfits training to be superheroes. Three of them have really impressive powers, while the remaining two do not. These two are Alison and Nick, and their supposedly lackluster abilities are used to give them a lot of spinach.

This works fine for Alison, as her power is actually pretty weak. She can fly but not especially fast, and she doesn’t have anything to help her in a fight. Considering how many heroes get flight as a side effect of their main power, this is pretty disheartening. It sometimes even works a little too well, as it’s not entirely clear why Alison is even at this school, since she doesn’t seem to have the ability or desire to be a superhero.*

With Nick, this dynamic completely fails because his power is luck. If that sounds vague, it is. Nick’s power can cause just about anything to happen since nearly anything can be justified under the umbrella of “good luck.” Most immediately, we know he can use his power to rig games of chance and always hit his target with a gun.

That’s already really strong, since most supers in this setting aren’t bulletproof, but it doesn’t even begin to cover all the things he can do. With enough luck, Nick can simulate nearly any skill a human could have. Hacking? He just happens to find the password written on a sticky note. Survival? Good thing someone left a supply cache out here. Strategy? Luckily, he guessed exactly what the enemy would do.

Despite all that, the book tries to portray Nick as an underdog because his power isn’t flashy like laser eyes or teleportation. That might work for a reader who’s never seen a superhero story before, but for the rest of us, it’s obvious that Nick’s power is incredibly useful.

3. Katniss Everdeen

Katniss drawing an arrow with her bow.

Welcome to Panem, home of the Hunger Games, a contest where 24 kids battle for survival. They have to find food and shelter in a massive arena and avoid a slew of deadly obstacles, all while trying to kill each other. Katniss is our protagonist, and she’s quite the underdog. Her only skills are stealth, tracking, foraging, navigation, hunting, and archery. Oh wait.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Katniss possesses the ideal skill set for winning the Hunger Games, but the book can’t acknowledge that. If it did, there’d be no tension. Instead, the narration tries to make Katniss feel like an underdog by emphasizing how big and strong the other tributes are, with special emphasis on their skills in hand-to-hand combat.

Again, this falls apart once we think about how the games are structured. In a contest lasting days, survival is at least as important as combat. At the same time, in such a large arena, melee combat is a secondary skill at best. This just makes the reader wonder why the other tributes aren’t better trained in the most valuable skills.

Katniss’s only real spinach is that her main combat skill requires a bow, and she doesn’t start out with one. That’s good, but it’s still clear to any reader that Katniss is an easy favorite to win. And once you see that there’s a bow in the starting equipment, it’s obviously only a matter of time until she gets her hands on it, even if you didn’t get one of the covers that show her nocking an arrow.

4. Harry Potter

Harry talking to a snake in the first movie.

In this series of witchcraft and wizardry, the Boy Who Lived is a classic blank protagonist. That makes it extra important that he get enough candy for wish fulfillment and enough spinach so the reader can identify with him. This makes fake spinach doubly attractive, since it seems to be able to do both at the same time.

Enter parseltongue, Harry’s ability to talk to snakes. On the one hand, that’s really cool, and it helps Harry out on several occasions. Obvious candy. On the other hand, it’s also supposed to be spinach because it shows how Harry is more like Voldemort than he thought. Except it doesn’t, actually. There’s nothing inherently bad about parseltongue, and Old Voldy having it is completely coincidental to his being a Dark Lord.

Harry’s trend of fake spinach continues with his school work. On the one hand, he’s constantly struggling, both in class and with homework. This is super relatable, as most of us have struggled academically at some point. But at the same time, the books also make a point that Harry is really smart and always does well on his final tests. He even does better than Hermione on Defense Against the Dark Arts, the most glorified class in the series.

Even the brightest kids have trouble in school sometimes, so this could have worked once or twice, but the books employ it constantly. Pretty soon, it becomes unbelievable that Harry can be having that much trouble in school while also acing all of his tests. Rather than making Harry more relatable, the fake spinach just makes him frustrating.

5. Harry Dresden

Harry Dresden summoning magic.

As the protagonist of a noir detective series, Harry Dresden* has a lot of candy by default. He’s cool and confident, he knows all the seediest back allies, and he’s always got a sarcastic quip for the villains. On top of that, he’s a wizard, for even more candy. How is the story supposed to give this guy any spinach?

One way would be to make Dresden bad at evocation, the most combat-oriented magic, and that’s exactly what the early books do. This is a brilliant move, as it means that Dresden is great at getting into trouble, but not so great at getting out of it. He’s in over his head, face to face with powerful monsters that he can’t defeat through brute force.

Except we quickly learn that when the books say he’s “bad” at evocation, what they really mean is that he’s “too good” at it. His evocation spells are always really powerful, which means he can’t do fine detail work very well. This might be a problem if the Dresden Files featured a lot of delicate carving competitions, but it doesn’t. It’s a book series about blasting monsters directly in their ugly faces, something Dresden is actually great at.

Despite this obvious contradiction, Dresden insists for several books that evocation isn’t his strong suit. Sometimes, we even meet other wizards who supposedly have more fine control, but it doesn’t seem to give them any advantage in a fight. Eventually, the books give up this charade and just admit that Dresden is a fantastically powerful battle mage, but it takes a surprisingly long time.

As I was compiling this list, I noticed that the vast majority of my examples came from books rather than TV shows or movies. I suspect this is because in a book, the author can use narration to convince readers of something that isn’t true. We might believe Dresden is bad at evocation because that’s what we were told. In a visual medium, it would be immediately obvious how powerful he is. While it might be tempting to try this in your own story, I don’t recommend it. Readers will always see through your trick eventually, and it won’t make you look good.

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  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Great article!

    I finished the last of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books fairly recently. One thing I really like about that series is that Castor has such a good balance.

    You might start the first book expecting Castor to be this over-candied cool urban fantasy wizard in a trench coat, but first of all, magic in this universe is really limited. It can only be used to control ghosts and demons; it cannot directly affect other humans or things native to our world. So Castor can already be, say, threatened with a gun or simply kicked and beaten by someone strong, and unable to immediately do anything about it. Even when it comes to ghosts and demons, Castor is a good mage, but not the best. The books say so AND consistently show it. There are entities simply above his power level.
    Finally, he’s actually shot down by other characters now and again when he quips something sarcastic. He doesn’t walk away from every single little verbal dual with a win. (And it also happens on occasion that he verbally shoots down someone else, and then immediately thinks to himself that “that was a bit mean and unnecessary”.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep, that sounds like the right balance to go for. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll add it to my list, which admittedly is already way too long.

  2. Cay Reet

    Very informative article, thanks Oren!

    I recently finally got around to finish the Johannes Cabal series (five novels and a couple of short stories, but I’d become distracted during “The Fall of the House Cabal”, the last novel).

    I like how Johannes is a very unsympathetic hero (if a necromancer of some little infamy can be called a ‘hero’ at all). Johannes is pretty much antisocial and more than just a bit homocidal at the beginning of the first novel (to his excuse, he’s been without a soul for about ten years) and a person who has no qualms about killing (and years earlier had no qualms about locking his only brother into a crypt with a vampire). He’s changing over the course of the stories and gets more human once he gets his soul back and with it his conscience. Still, he stay a pretty cold-blooded and antisocial person on the whole. The nice thing is that Cabal’s strength are played against a world in which a lot of people want to see him dead for a variety of reasons (authorities mostly for his necromancy, hence he starts out the second novel in a cell, awaiting execution).

    Cabal isn’t a strong fighter, albeit good enough with both a gun and a foil (he has the good old blade stick at his disposal), so once the enemy is prepared to fight and he can’t use a gun for quick killing, he’s usually in a weaker position.
    He can do magic, but not much of it, so it’s not as if he can call down destruction on his enemies (unless, in rare cases, when he’s teamed up with Madame Zarenyia, a freelancing succubine devil). He’s a good planner, but not all that good at improvising (unless the situation is so desperate that his instinct takes over). On the other hand, he’s not in the habit of panicking and usually keeps a cool head (see ‘cold-blooded’) and he’s not averse to ending lives, which often gives him more options

    With the stories often throwing him into situations where he has to improvise, which mostly means ‘running, hiding, planning, returning,’ he never comes off as overpowered, yet it’s clear that as soon as he can take a breather and think things through, he can overcome obstacles with a minimum of endangering himself (although ‘minimum’ is a very relative expression here). It’ ‘taking a breather’ which often proves a challenge while he’s being chased by ghouls, has half the secret police after him, or is in an unreal mirror reality where London has been reduced to a nightmare-scape. Or while he’s looking for a long-dead Chinese sorcerer in the abandoned parliament of hell with a succubine, spider-esque demon who enjoys flirting and the word ‘poik’ for some reason.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That does sound really interesting. I’d be concerned about the likability of a character like Cabal, but some stories can make that work, so I’ll keep an eye out for this the next time I have a gap in my reading list.

      • Cay Reet

        The author keeps the reader close to Cabal’s mind, so that you know what he’s thinking and why he’s doing that. His reason for becoming a necromancer in the first place (which is unveiled at the end of the first novel) also makes him a little more human. And, as said, he becomes more human over time. The guy from “The Fall of the House Cabal” isn’t the same as “Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer”. He’ll never be the most soft-hearted of people, but he’s certainly different from the guy who walks into hell to speak to Satan at the beginning of the first book.

        My personal favourite is the short story “A Long Spoon,” so if you have a little spare time at some point, you could check that one out – it doesn’t need any information from the novels to work.

  3. Innocent Bystander

    1) You know, for all the crap given about Andrew Garfield playing Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man movies, I did like that he at least seemed socially awkward (I even head canon that his version is on the autism spectrum). Which would make his unpopular kid status a little more plausible. Xander doesn’t seem to have that.
    2) Domino in Deadpool 2 is proof that luck is an OP power. At least that movie was a comedy.
    3) To be fair, it’s mentioned that the Careers hoard the supplies they find so they don’t have to hunt or gather food and can focus on what they do best; killing other tributes. So Katniss’s hunting only puts her at a slight advantage over other non-career tributes.
    4) The only time I can think of when Harry’s lack of academic success came up to hinder him was when he didn’t score high enough in Potions to take the advanced class, which is required to become an Auror. But that is quickly negated with a new professor.
    5) The lack of finesse was supposed to be that Dresden has a tendency to set the building on fire (hence why Butcher named him after the town in Germany), thus getting himself into more trouble. It doesn’t happen enough to hinder him, though. Same with his money problems.

    • LeeEsq

      The entertainment industry isn’t going to start casting average or even below average looking actors anytime soon for a variety of reasons. This means that the only way to portray an unpopular nerd is to give them social and personality traits that alienate people like ranting to long about their particular hobbies. I suppose it could happen in real life but physically attractive people tend to get tutorials in social skills because people like being around them. So even if they don’t have a latent social sense, chances of them being completely clueless socially is not going to happen.

  4. Adam

    My wife was reading over my shoulder, so I explained candy and spinach to her just now. She loves it!

  5. Rose Embolism

    For a good example of a character that has an interesting take on spinach, I recommend Aaronovitch’s River of London series. Peter grant, the main character, has some major problems: One, is he’s just learning magic, being taught by a person who hasn’t had an apprentice in over fifty years, and has started late in life. Add to the fact that overuse of magic literally causes brain damage. This isn’t just a “mention it and it goes away” thing, it actually kills someone later in the series.

    The unique problem Peter faces though is that he’s a cop. Specifically, part of the Metropolitan Police Service; as a result, he has to deal with the bureaucracy that’s designed for dealing with conventional crime. As a result, he can’t just go haring off firing fireballs at a suspect- he has to clear things with his superiors for things like interrogations or entering a crime scene, has his inquiries on the crime database tracked, and has to do a lot of paperwork.

    It’s good because not only does this force Peter to deal with superiors, it makes him part of an organization, and there’s a lot one can do dramatically when one may be highly special, but still a low-ranking cog in the machine.

  6. Jana

    I like your idea of spinach vs candy so I’ll carry it one step further. Sometimes the spinach makes you better. The spinach you chose for Katniss for instance is that she has not had the training of the more popularized contestants, because she has been too busy struggling to survive. I argue and I believe the theme of the book concurs that, real life struggle is better training than gym time. What I’m saying is I’m not sure that was supposed to be a big “flaw,” but more of characteristic. I see Katniss’s flaws as being emotionally closed off and unwilling to form bonds. I love how that flaw makes her vulnerable, but also allows her to “win.” I find a book much more enjoyable if a character embraces or addresses their flaws, depending on whether the flaw is changeable or not, and grows from it. Flaws should not always be static, imo.
    One of the most rewarding parts of Harry Potter is seeing Harry grow through addressing his flaws. Parlsetongue is more a clue to how the books will end than candy coated spinach. Harry’s academic struggle is endearing. Who hasn’t struggled and worried only to do fine on a test because we struggled and worried. And sometimes he just flat out bombed them. Even the time he did well in potions just not well enough for Snape. Yes he was lucky that Slughorn came a long, but we (those of us who had to wait for the book to come out) spent a whole year thinking Harry wouldn’t be able to pursue his dream.
    You’re right about serving of spinach you identified for Xander and Dresden. I always thought maybe Xander wasn’t popular because he wasn’t willing to be mean to Willow the way the Cordelia seemed to require Buffy to be in order to be popular. I bought Xander as a nerd, but I was 16 when I watched the show the first time and my critical thinking was not vast or deep. And I think Jim Butcher just decided it would be more fun if Harry was a badass. I think he’s right. And I applaud Jim for continuing to up the stakes with the real spinach he keeps serving Harry, like physical trauma and soul endangering job opportunities.
    Spinach is meant to make you stronger, not just get caught in your teeth.

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