Sometimes, perhaps more often than we’d like, a character rubs us the wrong way. Maybe they’re constantly ruining the mood, bragging about how cool they are, or just being mean to characters we like more. These annoying characters are a real problem for all kinds of stories, and it’s important to know how to spot them. This week, we talk about the different ways a character can turn annoying, how to avoid it, and why fartbending is always a bad idea. 

Transcript

Generously transcribed by I.W. Ferguson. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Wes and Oren. You know what our podcast needs? Some slapstick. How about if every 30 seconds I make a thwack sound. I mean, I will totally thwack one of you because you are within reach of me right now.

Oren: Ow.

Chris: And then you have to make a silly wail.

Wes: [silly wail sound]

Chris: Yeah. Right? Like that. I think Wes is the winner of the silly wail contest.  Okay, so Wes we’re gonna do this every 30 seconds and you can stop contributing ideas to the podcast because you’ve got a funny wail. So you’re just the wail guy now.

Wes: Okay.

Chris: And that’s all you need to do.

Wes: I’m satisfied with this. I’ll get a t-shirt and everything. [repeats silly wail sound]

Oren: That’s good. That’s very high quality.

Chris: I don’t think this is proving the point because your wail is too funny. 

Wes: I mean, it’s funny now; wait until minute 29. 

Chris: All right. So we are covering annoying characters, which Wes is definitely not at this point. Wes, you’re failing to demonstrate my point.

Maybe we can start by asking why are characters annoying? Cause this is an interesting phenomenon where every once in a while, there is a character in a popular story that people are just incredibly annoyed by. So we could talk about why this happens.

Oren: Yeah. So first of all, I just want to comment on the divine irony of the fact that we tried to create an annoying character and created a funny character instead. Cause it’s always the other way around.

One of the greatest sources of annoying characters is that they tried to create a funny character  and it just didn’t work. And it was annoying instead.

Chris: I think that generally annoying characters have something repetitive about their behavior. And most often it’s a joke and that’s why it’s repetitive. It’s because, okay, you are the character who does the slapstick jokes, often, so you’re just gonna keep doing that. And if the joke doesn’t land, if people don’t find it funny, then, wow, this character is just repeating this bad joke over and over again.

Oren: Right. Well, and it almost has to be repetitive because if it wasn’t repetitive, if they only did it once, then it would be like, well, ‘they did that annoying thing once’, as opposed to ‘they are the annoying character’, right? It has to be some recurring element of them, or they just won’t be remembered as the annoying character.

Chris: Which is also why they tend to be pretty flat. It’s because the more sides you have to your character, the more variety generally they have in their depiction. Sometimes they’re serious, sometimes they’re funny. But the characters that are really annoying, if they’re funny characters, that’s really all there is to them.

Oren: Although occasionally you get characters who are annoying in multiple ways. That is an accomplishment. There are lots of annoying characters out there, but man, it’s impressive how annoying Neelix is in different ways. He’s not just unfunny. He is definitely unfunny, but he’s also annoying in that he is super judgmental and rude.

Which ties into him being incompetent because if he was at least useful, then we might say we can tolerate him being kind of rude. But the fact that he’s also really useless and rude is like, why do we even have this guy on the ship? Right. He’s annoying at multiple levels. It’s like a pyramid of annoyingness.

Chris: The other aspect of many annoying characters is that they sabotage a character the audience actually likes, such as the protagonist. So generally they’re incompetent because they are hindering more than they’re helping. Right? And so that way they’re sabotaging all of the efforts that the protagonists are going to.

And the other key element here is that the audience doesn’t have an outlet for their annoyance because the storyteller is not actually expecting them to be annoyed. This is why antagonists aren’t usually annoying. I mean, maybe we could come up with an antagonist that’s annoying, I suppose, an antagonist that has a very silly routine. I think the bots on Clone Wars, but they’re specifically annoying actually for the opposite reason in that the jokes basically humanize them, but they’re there to be cannon fodder.

Right. And so it’s like their jokes aren’t funny because it’s just making me see them as more human. And now we’re just gonna cut off all their heads and it’s supposed to be funny?

Oren: Yeah. That actually kind of ties into one of the very common threads that I’ve noticed in annoying characters is that they break the mood. Very often that is annoying. And you’ve got the Clone Wars droids because we’re supposed to be enjoying the Jedi fighting these droids. And so then we have these poor battle droids who make silly jokes about which of them is gonna be up on guard shift next. And the Jedi just callously murder them.

And it’s like, what? And it’s not like that’s going anywhere, right? There’s no lesson for the Jedi to learn that they should treat these droids like people. And that’s just a weird little quirk that they do, ‘cause it’s supposed to be funny.

Chris: Right. The point is that this is a kid show and it’s okay to watch our protagonists use our lightsabers to slaughter droids, but then we added jokes to make the droids…I, I don’t understand.

Oren: Right. And you get the same thing with characters, like Mineta from My Hero Academia, who is also the gross pervert character, which is—I don’t know if that counts as annoying, but is definitely bad.

Chris: He has repetitive behavior that is very, very obnoxious.

Oren: Right. But specifically his repetitive behavior is that he’s constantly screaming and being scared. And it’s like, no, this is a superhero show. All of the characters here, we just sort of assume that they have the courage necessary to do superhero stuff. Except for Mineta. And why is Mineta even here? No one’s forcing him to be a superhero.

Chris: Right. And he is also incompetent. Right? ‘Cause he’s hindering everybody. But again, even though Mineta is kind of supposed to be annoying and is kind of supposed to be a pervert, it’s very clear that the storyteller does not consider his behavior as bad as viewers consider it to be. That’s kind of infuriating, too. It’s like, yes, the storyteller is technically acknowledging they did something bad, but these are at different levels, for instance. So Mineta is definitely an example of that happening. 

Oren: Would we consider something like the dog from Lirael to be an annoying character? Yeah. Cuz the dog from Lirael doesn’t do weird jokes or anything like that. Its problem is that it steals away the protagonist’s spotlight and is super over-powered and has mind control barks.

I’m not joking. It has those. And also it knows everything that’s happening, but doesn’t tell the protagonist, for extremely contrived reasons.

Chris: Right. So it is taking things away from the protagonist—taking the protagonist’s candy away. And maybe the protagonist is aware of that in the story universe, but the audience can still tell that that’s happening. And again, the holding information feels really condescending and it can feel like the dog is playing tricks on the protagonist.

An example of a character I found annoying is another candied character in The Black God’s Drums. Where we have this wild girl that the Deus Ex Nuns add to their party.

Oren: Oh yeah, that lady.

Chris: So we have the protagonist and they’re gonna go and attack some bad guys and they meet these puppeteer-ish nuns who then are like, Hey, we have this wild girl that we adopted from the wilderness that the writer clearly really likes. And she’s just gonna go with you.

And even though the protagonist has wind powers that give her fast dodging, she’s unable to dodge this guy with a knife. But this—I don’t know if she’s even trained—wild girl who has no powers can perfectly dodge him and, you know, the protagonist could have used a nice candied spotlight moment. And so it was just really resented that.

Oren: Right. And also that’s another common trait I’ve noticed with annoying characters is that if they are introduced late, they have a much higher chance of being annoying because I’ve already gotten used to the idea of the story with the characters that we currently have. And then so suddenly later it’s like, Hey, here’s the new person, they’re doing a new thing. And it’s like, well, hang on. I already have all the characters I like, we didn’t need a new person.

Wes: Do you think that on some level though, it’s just like embracing the disruption, like when Dawn shows up in Buffy?

Chris: Ooh, Dawn is a complicated one.

Oren: Oh, Dawn didn’t necessarily have to have that problem because Dawn shows up at the beginning of a new season, right? In a new season of TV, it’s like a new novel, right? We’re willing to accept new characters at this point. It’s not like we’re introducing her in the finale.

Chris: But Dawn was supposed to be annoying to Buffy, and I do think it really helps when a character is supposed to be irritating ‘cause there’s characters we love to hate and that’s fine. It usually becomes a serious problem when again, the storyteller is just not on the same page as the audience.

And I would say that Dawn was supposed to be annoying to Buffy, but I think that she was more annoying than she needed to be and perhaps more than intended. But also they wouldn’t give Dawn anything useful to contribute. And it’s probably that she’s supposed to be somebody for Buffy to protect, but she’s a character on the show. And every side character’s gotta help out sometimes. And so if Dawn was more helpful, if they’d given her skills or some powers or something and allowed her to contribute more, I think that would’ve also helped.

Wes: Just a halfhearted monologue from Xander won’t cut it.

Oren: Yeah. Although, Xander has the same problem, honestly, to a lesser degree, but definitely the same problem. We’re like, Xander, why are you still here? What is your purpose here? You can claim you’re the emotional support, but you’re not.

Chris: He has not been, we’re just gonna retcon that. Just imagine he was the emotional support character the entire time.

Oren: Pretend!

Chris: An interesting example of this outlet thing. Oren and I were watching Nancy Drew recently and we had started season three and we had forgotten to watch the last episode of season two and didn’t realize it.

So we started watching season three and are introduced to this character named Temperance, who is a…I mean, she looks young, but she’s supposed to be really old, and she used magic to make herself look youthful. And she comes off as just so obnoxious, like she has so much candy and is just kind of smug and sure of herself.

And she’s allowed to get that last line. Well, Nancy Drew and the entire team just stare at her in shock after she says her last line. And there’s somebody who’s committing a crime, but it definitely doesn’t seem like it’s her. Right, so she doesn’t appear to be that antagonistic.

But then going back and looking at the last episode of season two, that really does frame her as an antagonist that’s gonna be the big antagonist of the season probably, and is just working her way up to being an open threat. And after I saw that, she just became automatically less annoying. Because I understood that she was supposed to be a bad guy who was making moves to try to get the protagonist to trust her, and was a little smug and not just a character that the writers absolutely love and are keeping tons of candy on for no reason.

Oren: Right. And there’s an implicit promise when you set up as a bad guy, that the protagonist is going to defeat this bad guy. And then the bad guy will get their comeuppance. And so when the bad guy starts to do things that if another protagonist did them, it would be annoying. It’s not as annoying because we’re like, “mmm, I’ll get you one day bad guy!”

Right? And then sometimes the storyteller breaks that promise and it’s really obnoxious. One episode of Star Trek that does that—I don’t remember the name off the top of my head—but there’s the episode of Deep Space Nine where, I think it’s O’Brien and Sisko, beam down to this planet where all their technology doesn’t work and the society is run by this evil eco-fascist lady.

And we find out that she did a tech thing to make all their tech not work so that she could run this town like her weird little authoritarian fiefdom. And for most of the episode, that’s fine ‘cause she’s the villain. And it’s like, whatever, we’ll beat her, eventually, it’s fine. But then at the end they do arrest her, but the characters were all like, “You know what? She had a good point about living without technology that she forced us to do. And so some of us died. Wow, what a great community we built because of her.”

And at that point it was like, I’m so annoyed with this villain. I hate her so much.

Chris: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And again, generally candy is good for villains. But you know that you’ve gotten too attached to your villain if you’re not willing to let them be fully and completely defeated at the end of the story.

Oren: That’s just a bad sign in general. On a related note, one of the reasons why child characters often end up being annoying is that the writers don’t really know what to do with them other than put them in danger and then have the protagonists have to rescue them.

And that’s admittedly a balancing act, right? Because they are a child, it would be kind of weird if they suddenly knew kung fu. You know, Hit Girl notwithstanding. That would be kind of odd, but they need to have something going on other than needing to be rescued constantly. And the same thing applies to animal companions. Animal companions and child characters have a lot in common.

Chris: The chicken from Moana.

Oren: Yeah. Moana, Uh-huh. Heihei is his name?

Wes: Heihei.

Oren: I hate that chicken. It’s like the chicken constantly needs to be rescued and almost loses the magic stone that they need. And also isn’t cute and it has no real interesting characteristics other than being likely to die. And it feels even weirder ‘cause it feels like it supplanted her actual animal companion, who was that pig that she had at the beginning, who doesn’t go with her on the trip for some reason.

Chris: But, yeah, this is why we always say that any side character, any child, any animal companion, should help as often as they hinder, because if they don’t, they will likely get annoying.

Oren: Another character who is annoying just by pure breaking of theme is Meelo from Legend of Korra, from the early seasons.

Wes: Oh, god, is that the fart bender?

Oren: Yes. That’s the fart bender. The one who is drawn like a Rugrat.

Wes: Yes. That’s exactly it. Oh, no.

Chris: Right. This is also example of jokes that don’t land because again, it’s potty humor designed for small children, and that’s not the main audience for this show.

Oren: The avatar wiki has a whole thing about how they came up with this character. And I just don’t believe them. In my heart, I know that what happened was that they were told to make this show more in line with Nickelodeon’s gross-out humor, which is Nickelodeon’s bread and butter. And they made Meelo to try to do that. Nothing will convince me otherwise.

Chris: You know, it reminds me of Raya and the Last Dragon where there’s that martial arts baby. Right. But it emphasizes your point about feeling like it doesn’t belong in the story. She’s just breaking theme. And she feels like she’s there for a very different—probably much younger—audience.

Oren: Yeah. ‘Cause this just didn’t seem like the kind of movie where babies could do kung fu, and now it is. At least if I was going to see The Boss Baby, I would know what I was getting into. This just feels like you lied to me.

Those two characters, both Meelo and the baby from Raya and the Last Dragon, neither of them are really much in the way of hindrance characters. They don’t do the normal things you would expect from an annoying character, but they just break theme so badly.

Wes: They’re not breaking theme, they’re breaking mood. They’re not providing necessary relief in tense scenes. They’re just making scenes not tense. Full stop.

It’s important to cut the tension and if they’re just making it so you’re never having a tense moment because this naughty wind bag is farting all over the place in an otherwise more adult show, then It’s hard to take anything seriously. And that just lowers all the stakes.

Chris: I should also mention: the baby in Raya is a trickster. And that’s a big one. This is a very common trait of candied side characters where they are tricksters who are always getting one over on the protagonist, or on the main character, the character we actually came to root for.

And that’s one of the things that makes them super infuriating and obnoxious is because we have to watch this character that’s just gonna be glorified through the rest of the story, just completely embarrass the protagonist and steal their spotlight. And so that’s one of the reasons,  yes, it seems like the baby in Raya comes from a different movie, but there’s also that trickster aspect that’s obnoxious. Just like the dog from Lirael kind of feels like a trickster.

Oren: Yeah. The trickster really feels like the author felt like they were being clever where it’s like, aha, you thought the protagonist was cool, but look at this weird little animal monster thing. It’s really gonna get one over on him.

Chris: This dog, or this baby, or this…you know, whatever we have…robot, probably somebody’s done it with a robot.

Oren: And it’s like, look guys, I like the protagonist. You’ve invested me in the protagonist. Why are you doing this?

Wes: You’re not supposed to get invested ever, Oren. That’s what they’re telling you.

Oren: And it’s not like you can’t ever have a character who gets one over on the protagonist without it being annoying. Right. That can happen. The protagonist can get tricked. It’s just that, with trickster characters in particular, it becomes contrived very quickly. And the baby is annoying because when the baby is pulling tricks on the protagonist, it’s like, it’s a baby, it shouldn’t be able to do that.

And with the dog, the dog is annoying beyond the fact that it is taking the protagonist’s spotlight. It’s also just like theoretically, the dog is on the same team as the protagonist. And so the fact that it is playing tricks on her is like, don’t you guys wanna win? Why are you wasting your time with this? It’s like, in that case, if you’re gonna have a character play tricks on the protagonist, you really need to apply a high level of scrutiny and make sure that they feel natural and that this is something the character would actually do, and they don’t seem contrived.

Chris: Yeah. And then the thing to do is, of course, after they’re kind of a minor antagonist at the time, right? Maybe they’re joining team good later and that’s fine. You gotta let the protagonist beat them. You gotta let the protagonist turn the tricks around on them and thoroughly show them up, because until you do that, there’s gonna be resentment against that character.

So they can’t just like, haha, look at my tricks. I got one over you. And how about if I join your team now? That is not gonna make people happy with the character.

Oren: And to be clear, giving your character—your trickster—god powers is not the solution, in most cases. This is the thing: some people think if they have god powers, then they can do anything they want. So it’s obviously not contrived. And it’s like, no, that ends up just getting frustrating.

And this is why the early Q episodes of Star Trek are really bad, because those episodes are just Q showing up and then being like, ha ha Picard, finger snap. Now things you didn’t want to happen are happening. And well, there’s literally nothing any of the characters can do about this. So it’s just very frustrating.

And that’s why the good Q episodes are the ones that have more than that, where Q will snap his fingers and make something happen that Picard doesn’t want. But then that creates a scenario that Picard actually can interact with. Right. That’s why we like the Robin Hood episode, even though it’s very silly,

Chris: The silly holodeck episode, but still, Q sets up the holodeck. And then there is an actual stereo for them to play out without Q’s interference constantly.

Oren: Right. Or like Q sends them to the Borg and then they have a fun Borg episode. Or Q lets Picard go back in time to change what he sees as a mistake in his past, that sort of thing. Those are the good Q episodes, as opposed to the ones where Q is just kind of running around the ship being, you know, chaotic annoying.

Wes: I was thinking about characters that aren’t necessarily super annoying to me, but just don’t serve a purpose, but they’re included for the fans. And I think prequels are mostly guilty with this.

For example, the inclusion of C-3PO and R2-D2 in the prequel trilogies—especially the first ones—annoy me because there’s no point—at all—for why they’re there. I think that it’s just kind of almost like a pandering thing to the crowd of, oh, well, you know, this Anakin kid is not only space Jesus, but also a droid prodigy. Did you know that he built C-3PO? And it’s like, what does this have to do with anything? This is already making me not like this child actor anymore.  And it doesn’t even matter to the plot.

So I just think that anytime a prequel comes out, I’m prepared to be annoyed by something, because they feel like they have to shoehorn in characters in some form. And those forms are probably younger and less developed, which means they’re going to be more single dimensional and therefore annoying. I just think that it’s another big red flag for prequels in my book.

Chris: This can actually in sequels, when the previous main character shows up, who is no longer the main character, those are the worst.

Wes: Oh yeah. ‘Cause they get reduced into just some single thing, often.

Chris: Well actually, in my experience they’re way over-candied.

Wes: Oh, that too. Yeah.

Chris: Because they’re a previous main character, but they’re not the main character of this story. There’s a different main character of this story who needs to, you know, solve their own problems, and having a super candied character come in, even if it’s a previous protagonist, first of all, not everybody’s gonna have read the previous story, especially if it switches main characters.

Oren: I have recently read stories that do both, actually.

Wes: Oh no.

Oren: I have two beautiful examples. So, the first one is Lirael—I was just talking about—because in Lirael, the two protagonists from the first book, Sabriel, are still around. And they should still be solving these problems. They’re still in charge of the kingdom. So they’re still the main problem-solvers, but they’re not the main characters anymore. So they get like shunted off to go do some diplomatic negotiating that accomplishes nothing. And it’s really frustrating that they were just gone for the whole book.

And then the other one is that same book I mentioned last time, The Wizard Hunters, and its sequel, The Ships Of Air. Because these books, one of the weird thing about these two books is that they are an unofficial sequel to an older novel that Martha Wells wrote in the same setting.

That novel was about the current protagonist’s father and his friends. And for the life of me, I do not know why the father is not just the main character of this book, too. Because the book constantly talks about him and his friends and how great they were and how they’re the best at everything.

And then he shows up at the end of book two and is like, “Well, protagonist, your plan was bad. Now let me do my plan, which is objectively worse, but like, I’m super cool. So we’re gonna act like I’m the greatest. Oh, and also I convinced the bad guys that I wasn’t a spy by telling them I wasn’t a spy. And they figured that checked out ‘cause a spy would never say that.”

Wes: Of course.

Oren: Yeah. So, I’ve seen it both ways and it’s annoying either way.

Chris: It’s really hard to deal with characters that are no longer the main character.

Oren: I’m still confused why that guy’s not the main character of this new book. It’s like just make him the main character, why not? Anyway, moving on.

Oh, on the subject of villains real quick, ‘cause there are two things in particular that can make villains very annoying. The first is the “How dare you?” villain. The villain that is just affronted that you would dare to fight them. And then the other one is, if your villain is a hypocrite. Now it is possible to make your villain a hypocrite without making them annoying, if that’s the point of the story—

Chris: —but you have to recognize that they’re a hypocrite, as opposed to having a character that’s supposed to be a villain with a point. And again, they’re getting those last lines and they’re pretending that it’s oh, my, goodness, maybe the villain has a point, but this entire time they’ve just been a hypocrite about it.

Oren: Maybe Thanos has a point about killing half the foxes.

Chris: Did you know, all of the animals in nature are recovering? It’s like, wait a second, it’s been five years. Didn’t Thanos kill half of them? How?

Oren: There are lots of species on earth for whom they would now be below minimum viable population numbers. And probably there aren’t enough zookeepers to look after them anymore. Thanks Thanos!

Chris: Yeah. I mean, I guess if we look at only the animals that can reproduce fast enough to double their population in five years so that they could be beyond where they were; the cockroaches, they’re doing great.

Oren: All of the animals that focus on having lots of babies, instead of a few that they pour a lot of effort into, they’re all doing fine. All right. Well, with that, I think we will go ahead and end this podcast.

Chris: If you’d spend a buck to keep listening to the Mythcreants podcast, please become a patron. You can go to Patreon.com/mythcreants or Mythcreants.com/support.

Oren: And before we go, I wanna thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at Therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

 [closing theme]

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