No, this is not an article about Popeye the Sailor Man.* Rather, spinach is anything that humiliates a character or tarnishes their image as a cool badass in the audience’s eyes. It can take the form of a character failing to save their loved one, getting upstaged by their rival, or finding out that all their magic powers were actually coming from someone else. The opposite of spinach is candy, which is anything that glorifies a character to the audience.
Despite spinach’s bitter taste, it’s good for characters most of the time. Spinach grounds a character. It makes them easier to identify with, gives them something to work towards, and keeps them from becoming so powerful that the story can’t contain them. But sometimes a writer will give their characters too much spinach, and the results aren’t pretty. There’s only so much degradation a character can take before they stop being fun to read about or watch. Take a look at these overly bitter characters, and you’ll see what I mean.
1. Dawn Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Dawn appears out of the blue in season five of Buffy* and tries to insert herself into a cast that’s already spent four years building up their relationships and dynamics. Things do not go well.
Dawn’s first dose of spinach is that she’s really annoying – not like a rascally scamp that endears herself to the audience by annoying the other characters,* but specifically annoying to the viewers. She’s whiny, obnoxious, and entitled. She’s the personification of all the negative traits people assign to millennials.
Her second dose of spinach is that she’s useless. She doesn’t have supernatural powers like Buffy and Willow. She doesn’t have any useful knowledge like Giles and Anya. She can’t even drive, which makes her less useful than Xander, something not easy to achieve.
Finally, Dawn is always in need of rescue. Sometimes she gets kidnapped; sometimes she wanders into trouble based on her own bad decisions. Then Buffy and the gang have to risk their own lives to go save Dawn. This happens so often that the show eventually lampshaded it with Buffy saying, “So, Dawn’s in trouble, must be Tuesday.”
That’s three strikes of spinach, and Dawn has almost no candy to balance it out. Her annoyance levels are eventually turned down in season seven, and she gains some basic fighting prowess, but it’s not nearly enough. Everything about her is made worse by the way she enters the show, appearing from nowhere because of some magic ritual that isn’t addressed for several episodes. First, the audience is annoyed by Dawn’s sudden appearance, and then their annoyance is compounded by her constant failures.
2. Prince Sameth, Lirael
Prince Sameth, known as Sam, is the child of two former protagonists, so naturally he’s got some big shoes to fill. If being a prince wasn’t enough, he’s the heir to the title of Abhorsen, which is basically a magical guardian that runs around the kingdom slaying undead. Sam is a skilled mage and swordsman. Plus, he has a set of really powerful magic bells, so it sounds like he should do great.
Not so much. Sam’s story opens with him taking on a necromancer in defense of his classmates. For this heroic act, Sam is soundly defeated and seriously wounded. That’s actually a great way to open the story, because it builds sympathy for the protagonist by showing he’s an underdog, and it gives him something to work toward: erasing the shame of his defeat.
But Sam does no such thing. Instead, he spends several chapters locked up in his room, terrified of not only the undead but also his own powers and the responsibility of being an Abhorsen. He’s so afraid of anything related to death that he refuses to learn to use his magical bells, nor will he read the all important Book of the Dead. While having a character suffer lasting effects from a traumatic defeat is a valuable tactic, as it shows they behave like a real person, the book spends a lot of time on Sam refusing to learn cool magic.
Eventually, Sam runs away rather than face his responsibility as an Abhorsen, but his spinach feast doesn’t stop there. After leaving home, the first thing he does is accidentally kill two soldiers who think he’s suspicious.* Then he can’t put down his injured horse to keep the undead from raising it as a fearsome zombie horse, and another character has to do that for him.
Finally, Sam meets up with the book’s other protagonist, the far more competent Lirael. She proceeds to overshadow him for the rest of the book, until the climax when we learn that Sam isn’t actually the next Abhorsen; Lirael is. Instead, Sam’s destiny turns out to be…nothing. He spent the entire book worried sick about something that wasn’t his problem after all. There’s no resolution to his defeat at the necromancer’s hands. We’re just left with a character who can’t seem to do anything right and is happy to hand his responsibilities over to someone else. Reading about him is no longer fun; it’s just embarrassing.
3. Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica
Like Sam, Gaius begins his story with a huge helping of spinach. First, he finds out that his sexy girlfriend has been using him to infiltrate the Colonial Defense computer system, leading to a Cylon attack and a nuclear holocaust. Not a great way to start the day. Baltar piles on more spinach by being completely selfish, thinking primarily about how the genocide of humanity will affect him.
That’s a recurring theme with Baltar. For most of the series, he’s only ever looking out for himself. If he ever helps or hurts anyone, it’s only as a side effect of increasing his own standing or covering his own ass. This is not a sympathetic motivation, but it can still work to make a compelling character.
The problem is that Baltar, despite all his genius, isn’t very competent. He’s terrible at lying, which is something he does all the time. He usually gets by because other characters have no reason to suspect him of anything, but occasionally he’s saved by literal divine intervention. He eventually enters politics, and we see that he isn’t very good at public speaking. He does manage to get elected president, but only because his opponent stubbornly holds to a wildly unpopular position. Anyone with a pulse could have won the election at that point.
Baltar also spends several episodes at the mercy of the Cylons, and he survives mostly because his old girlfriend still likes him for some reason. When he gets back to the human fleet, a cult of attractive women* has formed around him for some reason, again requiring no action on his part.
We’re left with a character who has extremely unsympathetic motivations and who is also highly incompetent. After a point, it feels like he’s only still alive because the writers want him to be. And the reveal that he’s being kept alive by God doesn’t help either, because it only reinforces how incapable he is. It gets so bad by the end that not even the acting skills of James Callis can overcome the bitter taste of spinach.
4. Fitz, Assassin’s Apprentice
Fitz is unique on this list of spinach addicts because his resume makes him sound like an over-candied chosen one. He is taught sword fighting and riding by the king’s own retainers. He is trained in poisons and stealth by a master assassin.* He even has two distinct magic powers: The first is that he can commune with animals, a serious advantage in a medieval setting. The second is a highly versatile set of telepathic skills, including the ability to subdue enemies by projecting negative emotions on them.
How can such a character have too much spinach? It’s a gradual process. Unlike Sam and Baltar, Fitz doesn’t start his story with a big helping of the bitter stuff. Instead, he acquires it through numerous failures and a complete lack of agency.
Fitz never succeeds at anything he does. He tries to forge a deep connection with his dogs, and he is thwarted both times. The first time his dog is sent away by Fitz’s adopted father, who thinks Fitz’s animal magic is evil.The second time, his dog is killed while Fitz is out of the castle. When he tries to protect his romance interest from her abusive father, he only succeeds in upsetting her.
This goes on and on through the whole book. Fitz fails to learn control of his telepathy, he fails to find the man who killed his dog, and he fails at romancing his love interest. Even Fitz’s occasional moments of triumph are dampened by the bitter taste of spinach. In the middle of the book, he has a mind battle with his telepathy teacher, which he technically wins but at the cost of losing this ability until the climax. At the climax, he bumbles around until he finally gets his big moment, which is to use his ability to give someone else a power boost.
Every aspect of Fitz’s life that might seem to glorify him is actually the result of someone else’s actions. He’s trained in weapons and riding because he has royal blood. He’s trained as an assassin because he’s a bastard and the king has a policy of training bastards as assassins.* He’s trained in the use of telepathy because a noble woman feels bad for him. He never does anything to earn these privileges.
5. Harry Kim, Voyager
Oh boy, Harry Kim, the Eternal Ensign. At the start of Voyager, Kim is clearly meant to be the fresh-faced kid, and as such other characters are constantly showing him that he has a lot to learn. That’s fine, up to a point, but Kim never grows out of it. For seven years, Harry is the butt of embarrassing jokes and a source of constant failure.
For the first few seasons, any episode focusing on Kim will inevitably be about something terrible happening to him. Sometimes he gets a terrible alien virus, or worse, he gets food poisoning from Neelix’s food. Sometimes he literally dies and is only revived later through time travel or alternate universe trickery.
As the show progresses, Kim is allowed to take the lead in a few stories, but they almost always end in disaster. Once he nearly gets both himself and Tom Paris killed when he leads an away mission. Another time, he is given command of an alien medical transport, and he proceeds to make a series of rookie-level management mistakes. He also commits a war crime, but that’s another story.
His romance stories are even worse! In an early episode, an alien infiltrates the ship, tries to seduce Kim, but then immediately throws him over for Tuvok. Then Kim is attracted to the newly arrived Seven of Nine, but when she reciprocates he flees in terror. While there’s nothing wrong with him deciding he didn’t actually want a relationship, the scene is clearly meant to be funny at his expense. As if that wasn’t enough spinach, one episode features Kim actually getting in trouble for sleeping with an alien. This is something that’s never been a problem before and will never be a problem afterwards, but Kim has a permanent reprimand on his record for it.
And finally, there’s the matter of Kim’s rank. He starts the show as an ensign, and in seven years he is never promoted, even though he clearly wants a promotion. Some noise is made about there not being room for advancement, but that’s clearly not true as at least two other major characters are promoted and this doesn’t cause any problems.
There is only time when Kim is ever allowed to be a total badass. It’s a future incarnation of Kim trying to undo his past self’s mistake. In isolation, that makes for a great episode, but when compared against the rest of the series, it further drives home that Kim is a total failure. He starts unable to do anything, and he ends the same way.
Admittedly, giving a character too much spinach is not a common problem. Storytellers are far more likely to give their characters an overdose of candy in a desperate attempt to make the character more likable. Even so, the consequences of too much spinach can absolutely ruin a character, destroying any chance they had for a compelling arc. Don’t let that scare you off of spinach entirely; it’s vital for a character’s long term health. But if spinach is all your character gets, your audience will complain of the bitterness.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?