Storytelling

The Best Characters Eat Their Spinach — and Their Candy

Spinach and Candy have wagged a war over every character you’ve ever loved. Candy has been loudly launching grenades at spinach, while spinach tries to infiltrate the candy base and steal their flag. Not only is the fate of the character at stake in these battles, but so is the tone of the story, and the audience’s interest in the story’s outcome.

What I am talking about here? Let’s pretend for a second that we’re reading a story about a girl named Jane. Maybe Jane is a good person, maybe she isn’t, what matters is that Jane is a person we’re rooting for. We want her to succeed.

Candy

Candy is any story element that glorifies Jane. She may or not know she’s being glorified. It’s not for her; it’s for the readers cheering her on.

Candy wins against spinach when:

  • We find out Jane is one hot momma
  • It’s revealed Jane has some serious talent and skills
  • She succeeds at doing awesome things
  • Other people watch her succeed, clap and cheer, and/or make admiring comments
  • Some plot twist reveals Jane is crucial to saving the world, or heir to the throne

Spinach

Spinach is any story element that humiliates Jane. It doesn’t have to be embarrassing for her, although if she knows about it, it’s going to be a disappointment or a sore spot. Sometimes it’s just a reminder for the audience that she’s only human, or cyborg, or whatever she is.

Spinach wins against candy when:

  • It turns out the opposite sex (and/or the same sex) really isn’t that into Jane
  • She discovers she’s really bad at something no matter how much she practices
  • She tries to accomplish something important but falls short
  • She is embarrassed in front of her entire high school class and they ridicule her
  • It turns out Jane’s not the real princess/chosen one after all, she’s just a decoy for assassins

Spinach isn’t Hardship, Candy isn’t Happiness

Spinach and candy are indicators of Jane’s value as a person, as perceived by the audience cheering for her. If she has no faults but goes through pain and suffering, candy still wins because she isn’t any less perfect – just unhappy. On the reverse side, let’s say Jane thinks she’s a fabulous chef, but everyone in town only pretends to like her cooking because they feel sorry for her. She may be very happy and carefree because she doesn’t know, but the audience knows, and spinach has triumphed.

Storytellers often try to balance a candied character by throwing in hardship. It helps, but it will never quite do the job. Only spinach can defeat candy.

Balancing the Battle

Every time we turn a page or watch an episode we’re hoping candy will sneak past the spinach defenses and gain the upper hand, if only for a moment. We live vicariously through Jane, so that candy is just as sweet as if we ate it ourselves. But we need spinach to hold its own too. A strong showing from spinach makes Jane an underdog, which is one of the reasons we like her. Without spinach, she couldn’t aspire to be someone better than she is today.

Now I’m going to summarize some real warfare. Here’s the Battle for Harry Potter at the beginning of Sorcerer’s Stone:

Harry’s not even in the scene but the battle is already on: McGonagall mentions how he, just a baby, destroyed the evil villian! It’s an astounding early victory for candy, ladies and gentlemen. And candy’s not even done! He has a cool-looking scar and he’s famous. People everywhere are talking about how awesome he is! The battle could be over before it’s even begun.

But look — spinach is pulling out the big guns: an emotionally abusive family. Harry’s now surrounded 24/7 by people who will remind him of just how inferior he is. He has no friends to counteract them, and he’s pretty funny looking with his knobby knees and dorky clothes. What a recovery! Spinach hasn’t entirely taken over though, what we have now is the special underdog, an ideal starting place for a battle.

It’s a long hard slog after this, but candy slowly erodes spinach’s defenses. It starts with the announcement that he’s a wizard — a weak attack, the audience already knows. But then we hear more about his defeat of Voldemort, and he’s taken to the Leaky Cauldron, where everyone wants to shake his hand! Spinach tries to fight back by introducing Draco to make Harry feel out of place, but then candy retaliates by bringing in Ollivander to comment on how “great things” are expected of him.

Candy gets in a few good volleys at school too: Draco tries to befriend him, and the sorting hat is very impressed with his talent and mind. But wait – here’s spinach with an appearance by Snape, the biased teacher, and he makes sure Harry is ridiculed in front of his class. Candy is really pushing for flying lessons, what is it up to? Wow – Harry is a natural at the broom, and… I can’t be seeing this right… he’s the youngest Quidditch player in a century, in the position that always determines the outcome of the game!!! It’s an overdose, ladies and gentlemen, an overdose! What a victory for candy!

Rowling throws the battle back and forth a lot, which is effective in keeping readers on the edge of their seats. But overall, she has a sweet tooth. Though the ideal balance between candy and spinach is probably a matter of taste, its generally better to err on the side of spinach.

Too Much Candy Makes You Sick

Candy tastes great, so it’s easy to over-indulge. But the more you have, the less enjoyable it becomes. Eventually, you just feel sick and disgusted. Fanfic has gained a reputation for having way too much candy, and so many of our best examples of this are fanfic parodies.

In the Buffy episode Superstar, the minor character Jonathan has cast a spell to give himself all the candy:

Buffy: “Well, I was just kind of wondering if maybe anyone else thought that Jonathan was kind of too perfect?”
Xander: “No, he’s not. He’s just perfect enough. He crushed the bones of the Master, he blew up a big snake made out of Mayor, and he coached the US Women’s soccer team to a stunning World Cup victory.”
[…] Buffy: “And how did he graduate from med school? He’s only 18 years old.”
Xander: “Effective time management?”

In the Girl Genius short comic Fan Fiction, the Mary Sue character Maria Antonia Fantasia Philomel abruptly enters the story when the heroes are in need and saves the day:

Bill: You’re as bold and beautiful as you were the day we rescued you from the bandits who kidnapped you — after your mysterious yet famously powerful Spark tribe was completely wiped out, leaving you the only heir to its secrets!

Maria: Oh, enough about my tragic past! (I was also a princess!) All that matters now is that I rescue you — with this ice ray I happen to have just invented!

When candy is winning over the central character of the story, the audience is more likely to defect and get really attached to the side characters that are still underdogs. Buffy herself is short on spinach. She may go through trials and tribulations in the series, but as a character she is a greatly admired, has amazing skills, and rarely makes an important mistake. This is probably one of the reasons many fans prefer Spike, the lovelorn, downtrodden vampire.

Too Much Spinach Isn’t Any Fun

For obvious reasons, storytellers don’t overdose on spinach very often. But when they do, it saps the enjoyment out of a story, and becomes pretty depressing.

Assassin's ApprenticeThinking about reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy?

Spoiler: Farseer Trilogy

The main character of the series, Fitz, has cool powers, but he never succeeds at ANYTHING. There is no real candy, not ever. I just saved you a week spent desperately searching for it. You can thank me later.

Since spinach increases the appetite for candy, the audience may stick around for a surprisingly long time hoping they’ll be thrown a chocolate bar or at least a jelly bean, but after they finally get fed up, they won’t come back.

In the End, Candy Should Triumph

Assuming you want a happy or at least satisfying ending for your tale, candy should make a knock-out blow to spinach during the climax — but never before. Many storytellers start with a healthy dose of spinach, but by halftime are serving exclusively candy. Spinach should hold its own up to the ending, so victory is that much sweeter.

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Comments

  1. Jack Marshall

    I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve considered this analogy when reading or thinking of a book. It is brilliant! Who knows, maybe I’ll even take the spinach in life a little less seriously and consider instead its value.

  2. gayle

    I like this one.
    Very fun.
    Applies to life too, I think – too much candy and we don’t appreciate it – too much spinach and we get depressed.
    Still want candy though.

  3. LoopTheLup

    If you want a heaping dose of spinach, try just about anything by John Steinbeck. Man must have had an iron deficiency or something.

  4. Rand al'Thor

    As I re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone I thought of this! It’s too bad that Harry Potter was the first big speculative fiction book I ever read, it made me appreciate candy way too much. I kind of liked the Chosen One trope for a while until I got into books with clever escapes like the Hobbit.

    I was lucky enough that my mom introduced me to Harry Potter and read it to me.

  5. Brigitta M.

    I think how much spinach or candy is doled out is determined (largely) by genre. Fantasy and Romance give out a lot more candy than say, Horror or Tragedy, by their very nature.

    Saying that something had “too much candy” may or may not be true, but with that HP reference, it made sense for that much candy to be doled out early on. He’s still riding that wave of finding out that yes, magic is real and the candy, imo, was a way for the reader to ride that wave with Harry.

    I write horror, so I dole out a lot of spinach, especially with stories that grab the reader by the throat at the beginning and don’t let go. Candy, in those tales, is doled out sparingly, and the reader learns early on that it’s really only a breather before the next heap of spinach comes along.

    Horror readers love their spinach though. We’re a weird lot.

    In short, I think rather than saying a story has too much candy or too much spinach, determining the balance that works for an individual tale is the best way to go about it as opposed to saying something like “that was too much candy/spinach for me.”

  6. Alex Riley

    I agree with Brigitta about there being more Candy in fantasy. I don’t think there needs to be though. The whole time reading this I was thinking of Merlin (the BBC TV show)- when I younger I loved this show but now, watching reruns, I just want everyone to shut about about Arthur. Maybe it’s A Song of Ice and Fire that did it because it’s perfect and got me hooked on realism but I don’t think that level of spinach will work for every fantasy story. ASOIAF is basically a lesson in the idiocy of inherited power and so it’s hard to watch Merlin which says ‘yeah, he’s going to be King even if he’s an asshole but look (/listen because it’s far more telling than showing): he’s so wonderful- in that he’s not a terrible person- so we should all be glad he’s the King.’

    Also wanted to add that Harry thinking Snape was evil and being wrong was a nice dose of spinach in the first HP.

  7. SunlessNick

    candy retaliates by bringing in Ollivander to comment on how “great things” are expected of him.

    Spinach gets a good riposte there, though, because Ollivander is rather creepy about that, not least because the “great things” are compared to Voldemort’s own. Special might not be good.

    • Chris Winkle

      I’m of the mind that whether a character is portrayed as good or evil doesn’t really effect the candy level. For instance, in Book 2 all the other students think Harry is Slytherin’s heir. While that’s not technically good, it’s still super badass. It’s candy.

      Spinach is about eating some humble pie. I don’t think there’s anything humbling about learning you’re going to do great but terrible things. However, perhaps that depends on the reader.

  8. Tora Blaze

    All my OCs fall into the category of “perfect and unhappy”. They are the embodiment of candy. Spinach barely affects them. Needless to say, I love all of them and find them none the less lovable and interesting. I’m sure my readers will feel the same.

  9. Nick

    I’m confused now.
    You have an entire section about not equating a character’s personal emotions with candy/spinach:
    “If she has no faults but goes through pain and suffering, candy still wins because she isn’t any less perfect – just unhappy.”
    but in the section after that you talk about Harry Potter and about his first dose of spinach:
    “But look — spinach is pulling out the big guns: an emotionally abusive family. Harry’s now surrounded 24/7 by people who will remind him of just how inferior he is.”
    When we read the book we already know that Harry isn’t inferior, he’s just just abused. He’s also remarkably well adjusted given the circumstances, something that only makes him more likable. None of the specific examples you mentioned seem to be personal failings of the character, are they? Am I missing something?

    • Cay Reet

      That is actually the point. Spinach (to counteract the candy) should be personal, but Harry’s situation isn’t his fault. Which means his situation, living with the Dursleys, being neglected and abused, is no spinach and doesn’t counteract the ‘chosen one’ candy.

      • Nick

        Oh. I thought that whole section was meant to be a positive example of how to balance the two, not a cautionary tale. my mistake.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yes, the character’s personal emotions don’t matter that much. But the reader’s feeling about their situation does. Many plot events aren’t designed to get an emotional response from the character, but from the reader. That includes the Dursley’s abuse of Harry. Harry may be used to it, but the reader isn’t. The reader feels for Harry when they see he has no friends and his own family doesn’t even like him.

      And specifically, the reader needs to feel embarrassment/humiliation on the character’s behalf. I wanted to make the point that having tragic things happen might make readers sad, but not invoke that specific feeling. Social rejection, regardless of whether it’s justified, is something we are conditioned to find humiliating. (Though social rejection that’s justified as ‘I don’t like you because you’re just so badass/amazing’ does not have the same effect’).

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