Candy and spinach are important concepts because they describe two critical elements of character likability. Candy is anything that glorifies a character. This includes cool powers, defeating a major bad guy, being right in an argument, and anything else that makes them look cool to the audience. Spinach is anything that humbles a character: losing a fight, being chewed out by a respected mentor, getting dumped, etc.
To be sympathetic, characters need a balance of candy and spinach, but storytellers often get the balance wrong. Candy is sweet and delicious in the moment, so it’s tempting for storytellers to add too much. That’s a surefire way to make the audience sick to their stomachs. I’ve written about characters with too much candy before, but new examples are forever appearing before my eyes, so it’s time for another round. Gaze upon these over-sweetened characters.
Spoiler Notice: Teen Wolf, Six of Crows, and the Broken Earth
1. Scott, Teen Wolf
Teen Wolf is an urban fantasy show about werewolves, werecoyotes, werepanthers, and just about every other shapeshifter you can think of.* Scott is our main character, and for a while the writers do a good job balancing his candy and spinach. Scott gets cool powers from being turned into a werewolf, like super strength and being a total hottie, but he’s also confused and unsure for most of the early episodes. The show also goes out of its way to establish Scott was only chosen for the bite because he was in the right place at the right time. There’s nothing that makes him inherently more deserving than anyone else.
Unfortunately, this balance starts to slip in season three, when a new villain comes to town hoping to recruit Scott. This requires long monologues about how cool Scott is, even though his accomplishments up this point are modest. The wave of candy crests halfway through the season, when Scott becomes a True Alpha.
In the Teen Wolf universe, each pack of werewolves has an alpha: the leader who gets enhanced powers and also red eyes.* Normally, the only way for a werewolf to become an alpha is by killing an existing alpha and stealing their powers. The writers used this dynamic to create some cool conflict earlier in the show, but there was no way they were gonna make nice-guy Scott kill someone for power.
Instead, Scott becomes a True Alpha because, according to the lore, he has extraordinary virtue and strength of character. Apparently a werewolf can become an alpha just by being a really good person. The other characters won’t stop talking about how big a deal this is; it’s literally a once-in-a-century occurrence.
Now, Scott is a good person, but not extraordinarily so. Most of his good deeds seem like what any decent person would do given the opportunity. That’s part of what makes him so relatable. The idea that he’s a chosen one of virtue just doesn’t match what we actually see on screen. The writers are telling what they can’t show in a misguided attempt to make Scott seem cooler.
Ironically, the writers didn’t have to add all this undeserved candy to make Scott an alpha. They could have simply written in lore about how a werewolf who acts like a pack leader long enough will eventually gain the powers of an alpha. That’s something Scott was actually doing, so no one would have questioned it.
2. Kaz, Six of Crows
Six of Crows is a heist novel, and Kaz Brekker is the archetypal mastermind. Masterminds often suffer from too much candy, since they are gifted with the god-like foresight necessary to make every mishap secretly part of their plan, but at least in film we have charismatic actors to help sell the role. Six of Crows is a written work, and it must rely entirely on the strength of its prose. This falls apart rather quickly.
The novel begins with a scene meant to establish just how awesome Kaz is. He’s meeting with the representative of a rival street gang, and they betray him. What’s he to do? It turns out he has not one, not two, but three measures set up ahead of time to stop the other gang dead in its tracks. He’s already figured out who their spy is, he’s bribed the local police to provide backup, and he knows where the enemy leader’s mistress sleeps. The book is so busy making Kaz look smart that it has to gloss over why he didn’t tell his second in command about any of this. What if she’d attacked the bribed police by mistake, thinking they were the enemy? He probably had a plan for that too.
From there, the story continues to heap glory on Kaz. We learn that he has single-handedly dominated the local criminal economy, despite being only 17 years old. When the plutocrats of his native city hire him for a job, he bargains them up to what sounds like an outrageous price.* Once the job actually starts, his plan for breaking into the most secure fortress in the world runs like clockwork. Almost every problem is actually part of his plan, and the one time something does actually go wrong, it’s clearly because a different character messed up.
By far the most absurd bit of candy comes in a scene where a side character is considering shooting Kaz in the back because of conflicted loyalty. After some internal conflict, the side character decides not to. Kaz then smugly reveals that this was all a test of the other character’s loyalty. When pressed about the risk, Kaz says he was perfectly safe because he could have picked up a gun from the ground and used it to defend himself.
Think about that. The book expects us to believe that Kaz could have retrieved a fallen weapon, turned, aimed, and fired in less time than it took the other character to pull a trigger. No one in the book questions him. This scene stands out from the rest of Kaz’s candy because it’s so unnecessary. The scene would have worked fine if Kaz had simply been confident in his teammate’s loyalty, or even if he’d actually been vulnerable. That would have made the other character’s decision more meaningful anyway.
Toward the end of the novel, Kaz encounters obstacles he hasn’t planned for, but by then it’s too late. The reader has already been taught that Kaz has an answer for everything, so instead of feeling increased tension, we’re stuck waiting for a reveal that never comes. If he’d faced a little more spinach earlier in the story, then these later problems would feel serious, but as it is they don’t even seem like a challenge.
3. Captain Jack, Torchwood
Jack Harkness first appeared in Doctor Who as one of the Doctor’s companions. As a time-traveling secret agent with a sonic cannon, he already had plenty of candy, but this wasn’t a problem because he shared space with the Doctor. The Doctor is one of the most candied characters of all time, so having a more capable companion was actually a breath of fresh air. Then Jack gained immortality and went off to start his own show where things didn’t go so well.
Torchwood is a series about a team of agents who protect Earth from hostile aliens, provided those aliens land in the United Kingdom. At least, in theory it’s about a team of agents. In reality it’s about Jack and how amazingly awesome he is.
Anything the other characters can do, Jack can do better. He completely outstrips them in the knowledge department because of his centuries spent time traveling. He’s so charming that he can navigate any social situation with ease. In a physical confrontation, he not only has major ass-kicking skills, but his immortality makes him practically indestructible.
Most of the early episodes consist of the other agents either finding or creating a problem and then waiting for Jack to save the day. This happens even in episodes that are explicitly focused on another character. Even when the writers are trying to develop someone else, they can’t help but give Jack the glory.
Not only does it feel like Jack doesn’t needs his team, but it seems like he’d actually be better off without them. He’s so competent that the rest of the team are little more than a bunch of liabilities and the occasional love interest. They don’t even act like trained government agents; they seem more like a team of random strangers Jack picked up off the street. Eventually the show’s writers embrace the problem and reveal that this is exactly what happened, making it even clearer that the other characters are just there to bask in Jack’s reflective glory.
The first season of Torchwood really feels like an attempt to recreate Doctor Who in an environment that couldn’t support it. While the Doctor is sometimes over candied as well, at least they* don’t usually have a team to show up. Jack is written like a one-man show when Torchwood is actually an ensemble story. I’ve been told this problem gets better in the later seasons, but I’ll probably never find out because Jack is just so gratingly superior.
4. Alabaster, The Broken Earth
The Broken Earth is an unusual series about a world that has an apocalypse about once a century and where powerful mages are an oppressed underclass, so it’s to be expected that Alabaster would also stand out. Unlike the other entries on this list, he isn’t the protagonist; he’s technically a mentor. I say “technically” because his extreme amounts of candy blur the line.
We first meet Alabaster in book one, The Fifth Season, and we learn he’s really good at magic. Just the best at magic. He’s so good at magic that they don’t have ways to measure how good at magic he is. Even though he’s only present for about a third of the book, he has an outsized presence driving the action whenever he appears.
The focus on Alabaster’s extreme magical ability is candy in the purest form. He can do things the protagonist hasn’t even heard of, but it’s too irritating to make him seem cool. The reader has never seen Alabaster work for his magic, so none of it feels earned. In theory, he’s supposed to be teaching the protagonist how to use her own power, but the constant reminders of how badass he is take away from that. It feels like the focus isn’t on the protagonist at all.
Alabaster is also always right about everything, especially when he refuses to tell the other characters things “for their own good.” This generally manifests as him not giving major reveals to the protagonist until they’re dramatically appropriate, because she isn’t ready to know yet. Of course the story arranges things so that he’s right. That kind of manipulative behavior is infuriating in real life, and seeing it glorified in fiction makes Alabaster even harder to like.
But the final and strangest source of candy is that Alabaster seems to be the only mage in the world who thinks to rebel against the terrible subjugation their kinds suffers. Not only is he the only one we see, but the story actually depends on him being the only one at all.* As part of his complex plan to end the frequent apocalypses, Alabaster causes a disaster that wipes out countless lives, most notably the lives of his fellow mages. The story justifies this by painting the other mages as tools of their own oppression. If any other mages were fighting back, we’d have to consider if mass destruction is really the best tool of liberation and we can’t do that because Alabaster is always right.
In complete fairness, the book does try to give Alabaster some spinach. We learn about the hardships he faced growing up and how he’s partly a pawn in the plans of a magical species called the Stone Eaters. We even get a scene where the protagonist chews him out for being so rude. Unfortunately, none of this is enough. Alabaster’s childhood trauma happened in the past, so it isn’t as meaningful as something the reader experiences firsthand. The Stone Eaters may be using Alabaster, but they come off as so godlike that every human is helpless before them anyway. The protagonist scolding him is better, but it doesn’t fix any of the core problems; it just makes him a little more polite.
5. Flynn, The Librarians
Flynn Carsen is the Librarian, a strange man who travels the world collecting magical artifacts and storing them in an extra-dimensional space called the Library. Yes, it does sound like he should be retrieving books for a library. No, I don’t know why the writers decided the show would be about magic swords and statues instead. Flynn began life in a trilogy of TV movies, but it’s the 2014 series that we’re interested in today. As you can probably tell from the plural title, this is the story of new characters coming to work for the Library, so Flynn is no longer the Librarian, simply a Librarian.
Unfortunately, Flynn is written like an American version of the Doctor. He has the same combination of wacky antics and extreme competence, especially when it comes to knowledge. He has the same unofficial superpower to make any danger pause while he monologues his way to a solution. The way he introduces himself as “the Librarian” is so similar to “I’m the Doctor” that you expect BBC lawyers to appear at any minute. They even have similar theme music!
A character like the Doctor doesn’t do well in a team show because they overshadow everyone around them. That’s why the Doctor usually has traveling companions, not a crew of other Time Lords. Flynn doesn’t have that option: in his show, each of the other Librarians is supposedly there because they contribute a vital skill.
Ostensibly, Flynn’s character arc is learning to work with his new team, but that completely flops because it rarely feels like he needs them. Like Captain Jack before him, Flynn is smarter, stronger, and somehow more socially adept than the other Librarians despite sounding like an insufferable know it all. Even after two of the other characters gain superpowers, he’s still more competent than them!*
In most episodes, the only time Flynn ever needs his fellow Librarians’ help is when he has to solve a problem that requires extra warm bodies, like a puzzle where a person has to stand at each corner of a pentagon simultaneously. These are tasks anyone could do; Flynn has already done the dramatically important work.
As a final bit of candy, Flynn enjoys the romantic interest of his co-protagonist, Colonel Eve Baird. On top of being super attractive,* Eve is a proper badass who solves problems in a believable manner, never resorting to Flynn’s brand of wacky antics. They don’t have much chemistry, and the show constantly plays her exasperation with him for laughs, so this feels more like Flynn is being rewarded with a hot lady than a real relationship.
6. Kazuma, Kaze No Stigma
This anime is all about magical families who keep Japan safe from ghosts, demons, and anything else that goes bump in the night. Each family controls one of the four classical elements, and protagonist Kazuma Kannagi comes from a lineage of fire mages. Shocking twist: he doesn’t use fire magic; he uses air magic. Air magic is widely looked down on as magic only fit for servants, so it sounds like we’re in for a story about Kazuma struggling to earn the respect of his family!
Alternatively, the story could be about Kazuma being the most powerful mage ever and also the smartest man in Japan and also kind of a creep. I guess that sounded more appealing to creators, because that’s what they went with. In the very first episode, we see that Kazuma is incredibly powerful despite only training with his magic for a few years, and this power only grows from there. He defeats more experienced mages with ease, and even the demonic big bad of season one doesn’t phase him.
This robs the show’s fights of any tension, which is a problem because the show has a lot of fights. It’s impossible to get invested in a battle when you know it’ll end the moment Kazuma finishes monologuing. I think the writers even realized this at some point, because in one of Kazuma’s fights they blatantly attempt to mislead us. Kazuma is dueling a powerful fire mage,* and suddenly Kazuma is worried that he might not be able to win. He even gets some scuff marks as he dodges powerful fire attacks. Then Kazuma unleashes a special move that takes his opponent down in one shot. Kazuma could have done this at any time and chose not to because the writers wanted to build false tension.
Kazuma is also always right about everything, a trait he shares with many over-candied characters. Even when his predictions make zero sense, they always turn out to be true. In one episode, he predicts that a woman who keeps trying to kill him can be convinced to return to team good. He has no evidence to base this on, and the woman has already demonstrated she’s perfectly happy to kill innocents in her quest to get Kazuma. She even gives a creepy speech about how much she loves evil. But of course Kazuma is right, and in the end she makes up for all the evil she’s done by becoming a nun. Sure.
In another episode, Kazuma and several other characters investigate a seemingly haunted school. Despite the fact that this is a magic setting with all kinds of spirits, Kazuma somehow knows there’s no actual ghost and that the school has really been infested by pixies. Of course he won’t tell the other characters this because he’s a jerk. Instead, he taunts them about their ignorance until he can smugly reveal he knew what was happening the entire time. I know it’s hard to believe, but this is a character we’re supposed to like.
It’s impossible to know a storyteller’s intent for sure, but I’m guessing that the show’s creators imagined Kazuma’s extreme levels of candy were justified by the spinach in his backstory. In flashbacks, we learn that Kazuma was mistreated as a kid, exiled because he couldn’t use fire magic. We’re supposed to cheer for the banished kid and his new powers. This completely fails. Not only are backstory events less impactful, but even if we’d gone through Kazuma’s banishment at the start of the story it still wouldn’t be enough to justify how bizarrely overpowered he is.
7. Kvothe, The Name of the Wind
Our final entry today is not just the most candied character on the list, but he’s the most candied character I’ve ever seen. Kvothe isn’t necessarily the most powerful character out there, or the one with the most hot romances, but he’s easily the most blatant in his over glorification. It’s practically a selling point.
Our story starts with a prologue in omniscient narration where Kvothe is dying of boredom in a tiny town that is totally beneath him. We learn that he has a fae prince for a student, which is certainly worth some candy.* The fae don’t send their princes to learn from just anyone, presumably. Then a scribe comes to learn the story of Kvothe’s life, and the candy floodgates open.
First, Kvothe says it will take three entire days to tell his story, even though the longest the scribe’s ever spent with someone before was one day. Then Kvothe figures out the scribe’s personal language with an hour or so of practice, a language the scribe spent years developing. As the cherry on top of the candy sundae, Kvothe proclaims that the scribe will not alter a single word of his story, because he is Kvothe and Kvothe has the best words.
When he finally starts telling the story, Kvothe is a master of everything he tries. First he masters music, then he masters magic, then he masters being a pickpocket, but he’s just getting started! After he’s done with pickpocketing, he goes to magic college where he’s the best and also youngest student they’ve ever had. Did I mention he has a super rich mage mentor who thinks he’s the best and that the few people who don’t like him are almost always portrayed as being threatened by his awesomeness?
You might wonder how such an obviously overpowered character ever faces any challenges, and the answer is that he seems to forget the resources available to him. For most of the book, Kvothe’s big problem is money. His family was murdered, and despite his immense talent he’s always short on cash for things like food and tuition, so he has to struggle to get by.
Except… he has a super rich mage mentor who would certainly give him a loan. I’m guessing a beta reader asked about this, because at one point Kvothe claims he didn’t think of asking his mentor for help because he was in shock from his parents’ death. That might work as a justification in the short term, but this book takes place over years. The shock would have to wear off eventually, right? Apparently not, because Kvothe never considers reaching out to his mentor for help. Worse, the book never establishes a reason Kvothe has to go to the magic college right now. It feels like he could just take a year or two off to build up some savings and come back when he isn’t in danger of starving.
The combined effect is less “hero with relatable problems” and more “privileged poser slumming it for a year.” Kvothe comes across as someone who chooses to be poor because it’s exciting. That’s not only hard to relate to but actively insulting to anyone who has actual money problems.
What really makes Kvothe stand out is the way he directly tells us how awesome he is. Most of the book is first person, and he makes no attempt to be demure about the fact that he’s the best at whatever he does. This is so over the top that it has lead many readers to assume Kvothe must be an unreliable narrator puffing up his own ego. If that’s the intent, there’s no sign of it in the first book. Neither of the characters Kvothe relates his story to ever question it, even the really absurd parts, and that’s typically how an author would make it clear that Kvothe is unreliable. Even if Kvothe is revealed as a liar in the sequels, which I doubt, that won’t change how he’s portrayed in this book.
Authors give their characters too much candy for many reasons. Sometimes the author identifies with the character and enjoys their glory vicariously. Other times, the author thinks audiences will enjoy a character more with extra sweetness. Whatever the reason, the results are the same: a character that’s really hard to like. When candy isn’t balanced by spinach, it stops being sweet and just makes us sick.
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