Storytelling

Why You Should Watch Out for Hindrance Characters

Gaius from BBC Merlin looking sternly at the camera

Occasionally, the pressure to make our stories compelling can encourage practices that don’t actually give us the results we want. One such pattern is the hindrance character. Let’s go over what they are, the problems they can cause, and how to avoid them.

What’s a Hindrance Character?

To be a hindrance, a character has to meet two criteria. First, they need to be a friendly side character or secondary protagonist. They aren’t the main character, but they’re someone the main character respects and cares about. Often they’re a parent, best friend, or significant other.

Second, they have a continuous objective: they want the main character to stop being the hero of the story. This might come in the form of forbidding the hero from going on adventures, telling the authorities when the hero makes mischief, or simply voicing over and over again that the hero shouldn’t do what needs to be done to move the plot forward. Doing this once doesn’t make a character a hindrance character. They become a hindrance character when they do it enough that it defines their role in the story.

Storytellers use hindrance characters to generate interpersonal conflict. Since heroes often engage in reckless behavior, disagreements over that behavior is one of the easiest ways to create drama in which no character is clearly right or wrong. A helpful sidekick can quickly become a hindrance simply because the storyteller reached for this easy source of conflict too often.

Examples of hindrance characters include:

  • Gaius in BBC Merlin: While he sometimes acts as Merlin’s mentor, as the show continues he opposes Merlin’s plans in almost every episode, regardless of what those plans are.
  • Johanna in Hilda season 2: This season contains an arc where Johanna (Hilda’s mother) wants to make sure that Hilda is safe, and Hilda lies about what she’s doing because she knows her mother wouldn’t want her to go on risky adventures.
  • Lynn in Black Lightning: In the show, Lynn previously broke up with Jefferson (Black Lightning) because of the safety risks involved in being a superhero, and she opposes him taking it up again.
  • Joyce in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Before she learns about the supernatural, Joyce (Buffy’s mother) often punishes Buffy for being mysteriously absent from school or engaging in other strange behavior. Sometimes she tries to ground Buffy, and Buffy sneaks out.

How They Become a Problem

While a hindrance character may succeed in creating drama, it can cost the story in other ways.

They Make Friendly Characters Annoying

Side characters are usually judged by the audience based on how they impact the main character. A side character that helps the main character achieve their goals is generally liked, while a side character that intentionally or unintentionally sabotages the main character is often resented. When a character continually stands in the protagonist’s way, some audience members will get fed up with them.

This is perfectly okay when the story was designed for that, but that’s not the case for hindrance characters. These aren’t antagonists; they’re people the hero cares about. To be invested in hindrance drama, the audience needs to want the hero and the hindrance character to get along. For instance, with Lynn in Black Lightning, the audience is supposed to want her and Jefferson to get back together. But since she isn’t OK with the lifestyle he leads, they look like a bad match. This lowers investment in their romance.

Because storytellers generally use hindrance conflicts to create two-sided conflicts, the hindrance character is rarely supposed to be wrong. This means audience members that resent the hindrance character have no outlet for their frustration.

This problem is particularly bad in BBC Merlin. After Gaius tells Merlin to simply stand around and let bad things happen, and Merlin intervenes anyway, the writers frequently arrange the plot to prove Gaius right. This doesn’t make Gaius look better; it just makes him more irritating. That’s because no one wants to watch a show where Merlin listens to Gaius and does nothing.

They Can Call Attention to the Story’s Conceit

In some cases, the hindrance character is right by any objective measure. This is particularly likely if the hero of the story is a child; no one thinks parents should let their kids wander into life-threatening situations. While this may make the hindrance character easier to like, it leaves the storyteller in an impossible fix. That’s because if the story ever acknowledges that the hindrance character is right, it can’t continue.

Some stories rely on unrealistic conceits to operate. Maybe kids shouldn’t actually go on dangerous adventures, but the audience wants to consume stories where they do. The best storytellers can do in these situations is to avoid calling attention to the conceit, so audiences don’t think about it too much. But using the conceit for interpersonal conflict makes this inevitable. Not only that, but these conflicts are nearly impossible to resolve in a satisfying manner.

Season one of Hilda managed its conceit by having Hilda go out to play without Johanna knowing what she got up to. That may not be ideal in real life, but for an animated show, it’s close enough to avoid scrutiny. Then in season two, the show introduced a conflict in which Johanna wanted to make sure Hilda was staying clear of danger, and Hilda lied about her activities.

Hilda’s behavior was intended to represent a character flaw, and by the end of that season, Hilda apologized for both lying and breaking a promise to stay out of danger. While that may sound like a nice resolution, the third season can’t live up to that and keep Hilda as its hero. Either the conflict will continue despite these apologies or the show will have to backtrack and pretend the whole thing never happened.

On the other hand, Madoka Magica made the mistake of letting its hero win the conflict. While the city is beset by what looks like a hurricane, magical girl Madoka goes to the bathroom and then tries to sneak away. Instead of simply letting her do this, the show’s writers had her mother catch her. Mother and daughter have a brief conflict over it, but after Madoka insists she has to do something vaguely important, her mother actually lets her go out into the storm. Convenient for the story or not, that isn’t what a parent should do!

They Stereotype Women

Most hindrance characters are women – often mothers and wives. Because they are stereotyped as caregivers, female characters are handed more than their fair share of responsibility for taking care of others. Even among kids, girls are often singled out as the responsible one – a great example is Hermione in the Harry Potter series. Women are also more likely to be hindrance characters because the hero is more likely to be a man, and most couples in stories are straight.

Making these responsible women into hindrances assigns them a more negative female stereotype: the nag. Nags are depicted as technically correct but also annoying and overzealous, framing the hero, often male, as justified in ignoring them. Since heroes have to ignore hindrance characters just to keep the story going, this dynamic is hard to avoid. After Joyce tells Buffy she’s confined to her room, everyone cheers as Buffy climbs out the window. Whether they’re right or not, there’s no way for the hindrance character to win.

In turn, this nag stereotype also supports the “hen-pecked husband” dynamic. These depictions stereotype women in straight relationships as demanding and unreasonable, and their male partners as either incapable of making them happy or suffering because of their refusal to do whatever their wives want. For comparison, there is no “rooster-pecked wife” stereotype because it is considered normal for husbands to have authority over their wives.

Even when women aren’t depicted as nags to any degree, the responsible women stereotype is used to give men a free pass when they aren’t responsible. In the Harry Potter series, Ron never has to be the foil for Harry’s recklessness because that role is always given to Hermione instead. Harry and Ron can goof around in class and then make Hermione tutor them or just copy her homework. Since no one expects Harry and Ron to be responsible like Hermione, their behavior is held to a lower standard.

How to Make Them Better

Having a character that doesn’t want the hero to behave recklessly isn’t always a bad thing. It becomes a problem when it’s used in the wrong context or used too much. If you’d like to include hindrance conflicts, these guidelines could help.

  • Ask if your conceit can stand up to scrutiny. It’s reasonable for a teenage hero to risk their life if that’s necessary to save the world and there’s no one else to do it. It’s less reasonable if the hero is a child, lives aren’t at stake, or adults can do the saving. If it’s not acceptable or believable for the hindrance character to come around and let the hero do reckless things, don’t use a hindrance conflict.
  • Give the hindrance character a broader role in the story. If a side character usually assists the hero or gets involved in other ways, hindrance conflicts won’t define them as much. Similarly, if the hindrance character was on board with the last three plans, it’s fine for them to oppose a plan that’s especially wild. Just making the hindrance conflicts a small percentage of the character’s screen time will help.
  • Distribute responsibility and hindrance evenly by gender. If you’d like to use hindrance conflicts, look for male characters who can also be responsible and disapproving. Avoid making these men strict and stern; give them the same kind but concerned mannerisms that most supporting female characters have. While you’re at it, examine which characters are giving emotional support and look for men who can do that as well.

When in doubt, come up with a long list of ways you can generate interpersonal conflicts in your story. With other options in hand, you’ll only use hindrance conflicts when you really want one.


Your audience won’t forget they’re consuming a fictional story. They want your story to be enjoyable, just like you do, and they know that may require the hero to do things that aren’t advisable in real life. So realistic or not, characters working against the story will wear their patience thin.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    To be fair to Joyce – what should a single mother think if her daughter gets into trouble continuously and she doesn’t know anything about the whole ‘slayer’ business? To her, it looks as if Buffy is completely out of control.

    I know a lot of people despise Joyce, but I don’t. Is she an ideal parent? No, she’s not. Is she a reasonably realistic parent? Yet, that she is. The writers could have handled her better, though, since she only does exist to hinder Buffy and we rarely see her be supportive of her daughter instead. I mean, there have to be parental figures, since Buffy is still underage. A parent who is absent a lot or too focused on their work or life (as much as that normally wouldn’t make them good parents) would have been better. With Joyce, that would have made sense – she’s a single parent and has to earn money for them. She could be juggling two jobs and just be away a lot.

    The “Don’t tell my parents …” series handles the problem with teenaged heroes (or villains) pretty well by presenting three different sets of parents. Penny, the MC, has parents who are a little clueless about things (they are not aware how much Penny’s powers are already developed), but would definitely hinder her. Her best friend’s single mother knows what’s going on and supports the trio. Her love interest’s parents are neglecting him, so they don’t care what he does.

    You’re right about hindrance characters, of course. A character who is the voice of reason every now and then is fine, but it shouldn’t be their only job and they shouldn’t constantly be doing it. Perhaps they also should be wrong every now and then, showing that the hero made the right choice (but they also should be right every now and then – some heroes need to make wrong choices and suffer the consequences).

  2. CJ

    So Dumbledore?

  3. N

    I’m reminded of the movie Suicide Squad where a side character’s wife is portrayed as a hindrance (and the husband as sympathetic) because she… Didn’t want her children to grow up around a violent criminal who could set people on fire with a snap of his fingers. That’s literally the tragic backstory they went with for that character, that his wife was leaving him and taking the kids so he got angry and lost control of his powers and killed his whole family… Which absolutely proves his wife’s fears justified. And then they don’t address that in his “redemption”, they make a big deal about how he has trauma about using his powers but he’s okay with using them in a fit of temper whenever it’s plot convenient.

  4. Raillery

    In what is perhaps my favorite novel (which I won’t reveal the name of to avoid spoilers), there is an interesting hindrance conflict in which the female lieutenant of a POV popular male government enforcer repeatedly tries to rein him in from his increasingly bold and visible attacks on the setting’s exploitative commercial class. Eventually the bad guys have had enough and persuade the enforcer’s boss to assassinate him, so he dies about 1/3 into the book. The remainder is from the POV of the promoted former-lieutenant as she quietly investigates and discovers that the enforcer was only fighting the symptoms of the bad guys’ plan, not the true cause.
    Basically she is full hindrance mode until she is proven right, then she gradually overcomes her reluctance to actively oppose the bad guys as she learns more of their secrets.
    I suppose this would qualify as giving the hindrance character a broader role, but I doubt you had killing the protagonist in mind when you listed that option.

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