The first terms I coined at Mythcreants were “candy” and “spinach,” featured in a 2013 article I wrote before the website had even launched. After spending years trying to predict which novels I would finish reading, I’d found that a general pattern of character properties were the best indicators. Because they were so cumbersome to describe directly, I gave them symbolic names based on food. Candy is enjoyable, but too much makes you sick. Spinach is good for you, but it’s not much fun.
Nine years later, candy and spinach sound a little silly, but they’re still a handy way of discussing character portrayal. They represent a common point of contention between readers, demystify some frequent mistakes by writers, and are related to other important character concepts like likability and karma. Silly or not, candy and spinach have a huge impact on who enjoys a story and how much.
While useful, these concepts have always been tricky to explain, so many people have gotten them wrong. With hindsight as my guide, it’s time for an updated explanation of what they are and why they matter. However, you can still read the original article via PDF.
What Are Candy and Spinach?
Candy is anything in a story that glorifies a character. A character that has lots of candy is called a candied character, and if it’s too much, the character is over-candied.
You’re probably familiar with candy through its association with the stereotypical Mary Sue or self-insert character. However, the term “Mary Sue” is sexist, and self-insert characters may not be glorified. Candy is a more accurate and neutral way to describe glorification.
Spinach is anything in a story that humbles a character. It is candy’s opposite and the principal cure to a candy overdose. However, while less common, characters can also have too much spinach. A character with lots of spinach is a spinachy character.
While glorifying or humbling a character could mean lots of different things, candy and spinach often appear in similar ways.
- Are they special or average? Anything that makes a character feel special is probably candy. That includes being chosen, being featured in a prophecy, being the last of their kind, having an interesting birthmark or hair and eye coloring that makes them stand out. On the other hand, most spinachy characters are presented as average and unremarkable. When they do stand out, it’s in a way that makes them less impressive, such as being the only person who can’t wield magic.
- Are they conventionally attractive? This one’s pretty simple. Do they have brilliant eyes? How about hair that shines golden or is so dark it sucks in the light around it? Do they have a scar that makes them look edgy? Are they lithe or muscled? Do other characters admire their looks? That’s all candy. For spinach, they might be a bit homely with dull brown hair and chubby cheeks. No one would look twice at them, much less ask them to the ball.
- How impressive are their skills and abilities? A typical candied character has impressive skills, sometimes many impressive skills all learned at a young age. Perhaps they are the kingdom’s best duelist and also a prodigy at alchemy. Any magical abilities or other special talents qualify as candy. On the other hand, if a character struggles to acquire new skills or has no notable talents, that’s spinach.
- How often do they succeed or fail? Related to skills and abilities, when a character succeeds, especially if they succeed easily, that’s candy. This can come in many forms. Maybe the character learns to duel remarkably fast, maybe they win a duel easily, or maybe they beat the best duelist in the kingdom. Alternately, being right is also candy. A candied character might be a strategist who always knows what will happen next, or they might have remarkable intuition that tells them when someone is lying. A character gets spinach when they fail to win a duel even though they’ve been practicing or they fall for tricks even when they’re careful.
- Do other people look up to them or down at them? How other characters react to someone is a big source of candy or spinach. However, it’s not a matter of whether a character is liked, but whether people think they’re impressive. That means a candied character will be surrounded by people who praise them, worship them, or, alternately, are jealous of them. A character with spinach may be laughed at, called names, or, alternately, be a target for well-intentioned pity or condescension.
What Candy and Spinach Are Not
- Happiness / Unhappiness. While candied characters are more likely to be happy than spinachy characters, that is incidental. Happiness has no effect on candy or spinach.
- Privilege / Marginalization. Candied characters are more likely to have some privileged traits, such as being conventionally attractive and wealthy. However, many privileged traits aren’t considered candy. Similarly, marginalized traits can be used to generate spinach, but a marginalized trait is not necessarily spinach. Sometimes authors invent traits that are candy yet marginalized in their setting.
- Perfection / Imperfection. Character strengths and flaws are one source of candy and spinach, but not the only one. So while candied characters are much more likely to be perfect, a character can be perfect and have spinach. Similarly, a character with flaws can be over-candied.
- Good / Evil. If everyone quakes in fear of the main character because a prophecy says the main character is the next dark lord, that’s candy, not spinach. People are afraid because they think the main character is special and powerful. The moral qualities of a character – or their perceived moral qualities – are unrelated to candy and spinach.
Candy and spinach also aren’t strictly character traits – they can represent anything in a story. And while character traits are abstract concepts we deduce from a story, candy and spinach are a matter of what actually shows up on the page or screen.
- A bit of dialogue by two side characters praising the main character is candy. This is true regardless of the accuracy of their praise or whether the main character can hear their conversation.
- If the narrator mentions a character is a famous singer, that’s candy. If the narrator mentions their famous singing again, that’s more candy.
- If instead of simply calling the character a “famous singer,” the narrator says “their singing was renowned throughout the lands for its wide range and pure tone,” then the longer description would provide more candy because it puts more emphasis on the famous singing and mentions a couple of praiseworthy qualities.
You can think of candy as a sort of authorial endorsement of how cool a character is. Sometimes a character is candied because they are objectively really badass, and sometimes a character is candied because the storyteller will not shut up about how badass the character is. Similarly, spinach means the storyteller is portraying the character as an ordinary, not-heroic individual, perhaps even an embarrassing disgrace.
How Do They Affect Enjoyment?
At Mythcreants, we measure a story’s ability to engage its audience by assessing four factors called ANTS: attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. Attachment is how emotionally invested the audience is in the story. Compared to the other ANTS, attachment is the most long lasting, and a story’s characters are the biggest factor in generating attachment. This is why when I was looking to predict what books I would finish in my early years, I focused on traits of the main character. If I was attached to the main character, I would continue the story even if it got boring.
For many storytellers, candy and spinach present a big dilemma. A person who is already attached to a character generally wants that character to get candy, not spinach. Candy provides wish fulfillment, and it can be lots of fun. For the audience members that can instantly bond with a character, lots of candy may be really attractive. These are likely to be people who are similar to the character in important ways and identify with them. In addition, some audience members are more naturally inclined toward candy than others.
However, for a broader audience, lots of candy will prevent attachment from forming in the first place. In fact, it will turn many people against a character. One of the biggest reasons for this is character karma.
Candy Sabotages a Character’s Karma
Character karma is one of the basic laws that underlies how people respond to stories. When a character faces hardship but deserves better, that character gains good karma. This means the audience starts rooting for them to succeed. In other words, the character is a sympathetic underdog, and they’re more likable as a result. This builds more attachment for a character, especially from a broader audience that may not see themselves in that character.
On the other hand, when a character succeeds without doing enough to earn that success, they gain bad karma. Because they’re always showing up more hardworking people, many audience members will start rooting against them. In likability terms, they are often perceived as an arrogant character who needs their ego deflated.
Over-candied characters don’t just succeed, they succeed easily. They never have to work hard to earn their success, because they are inherently bestowed with all the talents and traits they need. Then, they are continuously rewarded for their good luck. Storytellers do this because it provides the most wish fulfillment. It feels good to be inherently awesome, secure in the knowledge that this awesomeness can never be taken away. But for people who want the character to prove themself, this is a recipe for bad karma.
It’s the spinachy character that works hard and struggles their way through challenges. It’s not their fault that they were dealt such a poor hand at birth. They didn’t decide to have dull hair or trouble learning how to swing a sword. And not only do spinachy characters usually deserve better, gaining sympathy and good karma, but their life experiences are also more relatable. Most of us are more likely to describe ourselves as average looking than having golden hair and violet eyes. For these reasons, spinach usually encourages attachment.
Storytellers Are More Candy Inclined Than Audiences
As I mentioned above, people who are already attached to a character generally want that character to get candy, not spinach. The problem is that storytellers often fall in this category. They’ll give their favorite characters lots of candy because it feels good to them, and they won’t realize that their audience is coming from a different place. If you’ve discovered a character in your story has too much candy, I have an article on correcting this with minimal heartache.
Some storytellers want to feed their character all candy and no spinach, but they know their audience expects a character with more humility. This is what causes the phenomenon of fake spinach, in which a storyteller tries to make it look like a character has spinach when they don’t. Sometimes, fake spinach is even candy. For instance, in Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia bemoans that her blue eyes are too big. Inventing traits that are candy yet somehow marginalized in the setting, such as stigmatized magic, is another way of accomplishing this.
To be clear, wish fulfillment is not a bad thing; it’s good. Many people have tough lives. If you can give everyone joy and validation by telling them a story, do it. The issue here isn’t that there’s too much wish fulfillment. It’s that the people who aren’t attached to a candied character don’t get to experience that wish fulfillment; they only get the resentment of putting up with the storyteller’s pet character.
The best way to deliver wish fulfillment to a broader audience is to give the main character more spinach to start. The main character is the person the audience is most likely to get attached to, and giving them spinach will further encourage attachment. Then, as the story continues, you can slowly increase the main character’s candy, particularly if they work hard to earn it. Maybe after they almost die from fighting a monster, they win a medal and get a cool scar.
This doesn’t mean a main character shouldn’t have any candy to start. A main character that has nothing but spinach will create a gloomy experience, especially as the story continues. A little candy will show the audience why this person is the main character and promise them more enjoyable moments to come. So go ahead and give your character shining hair, a special talent for magic, or a mystical birthmark. It’s simply about balance.
How We Apply a Double Standard
When we analyze candy and spinach in media, we need to understand the current double standard that is applied to characters based on their level of privilege. As I mentioned above, people are more likely to identify with characters that are a lot like them. Then, if they see themselves in a character, the wish fulfillment that candy provides is more likely to work.
Since we live in a society controlled by white men, where the dominant narrative about stories is set by white men, white male characters with lots of candy are often celebrated, while other characters with that much candy are torn down. This is why even though candied men are more prevalent in big-budget stories, the best-known term for candied characters – Mary Sue – specifically targets women.
This is also why Mythcreants will never stop making fun of Kvothe from The Name of the Wind. Below is a list of the candy Kvothe gets in the first fifty pages of the book, which is only the story’s framing device.
- Kvothe has “true-red hair, red as flame.”
- Kvothe moves “with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.” The opening specifically mentions he knows the names of all the stars, as a precursor to introducing a magic system that uses names.
- A minor characters ruminates on Kvothe’s eyes: “They were less sea-foam, less green-grass then they had been. Now they were like riverweed, like the bottom of a green glass bottle.”
- Kvothe wields an ancient sword that appears brand new. It’s described thus: “It looked as if an alchemist had distilled a dozen swords, and when the crucible had cooled this was lying in the bottom: a sword in its pure form.”
- A stranger who comes to Kvothe’s inn calls him Kvothe the Bloodless, and says “I heard you sing, and I knew it was you. I heard you in Imre once. Cried my eyes out afterward. I never heard anything like that before or since. Broke my heart.”
- Kvothe has lots of scars across his back that are “smooth and silver, streaking him like lightning.”
- Kvothe has a fae student, Bast, who clearly worships him.
- A famous chronicler comes to town to record Kvothe’s life story and clears his schedule when Kvothe demands it.
- Kvothe learns the chronicler’s unique notation system perfectly in fifteen minutes, and previously, he apparently learned a language in a day and a half.
The Name of the Wind is a bestselling book that has won four awards. The unfinished trilogy it is a part of, The Kingkiller Chronicle, has been praised by famous authors like George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and Michael Chabon.* The story of Kvothe has received veneration that few books enjoy, while similar portrayals of women are laughed off as cheap stories about Mary Sues.
But that’s not all. These double standards also operate on the other end of the candy-spinach spectrum. White male protagonists are allowed to have more spinach than marginalized protagonists. This makes the character more relatable to a white male audience, and people will assume he needs no other skills or qualifications for being a hero.
A good example is Emmet from the 2014 The Lego Movie:
- His defining feature is being unremarkable in every single way.
- He’s a lonely person who uses his houseplant for company and goes unremembered by the coworkers that he considers his friends.
- While his mentor declares him the “Special” of prophecy, he lacks the skills of a “Master Builder,” making him inadequate for the task.
- He embarrasses himself in front of a bunch of Master Builders, and they refuse to follow him.
As the story continues, Emmet does build the skills he needs to save the day. But for quite a long time, the movie provides viewers with little reason why Emmet, among all the people in the setting, should be the hero.
While characters representing the most privileged people are allowed to be candied or spinachy while receiving funding or acclaim, characters representing more marginalized people must walk on a tightrope. If there’s too much candy, the story is cheap wish fulfillment for a niche demographic. If there’s too much spinach, a character is considered incompetent and worthless.
At Mythcreants, we generally recommend a balance between candy and spinach, with more spinach at the start and more candy at the end. But, as with many things, we shouldn’t forget the nuances of this topic.
- Wish fulfillment isn’t inherently bad. It may not be what you want to do with your story, but it brings people enjoyment, and enjoyment is good.
- You can write for a smaller, niche audience if you want to. The problem comes when so many stories written for a niche and privileged group are treated as though they are profound works appealing to everyone.
- Before we deride characters, we should examine the context they exist in. Who is this story being marketed toward? Does this character represent people who are more privileged or more marginalized? How are similar characters of other demographics being treated?
As storytellers, the best thing we can do is be aware of what we’re putting into our stories and make intentional choices. That way we don’t subconsciously give a favorite character more candy than we intend, only to face a rude awakening later. No one wants their beloved character to be hated by their audience.
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