Creating Likable Characters

damonI’ve been on a character kick across the web lately (see Character Motivation, Action, & Goals and Character Renewal a.k.a. Character Arc), so I thought I’d keep it rollin’. Ultimately, what a good book comes down to for me—a memorable one—is the characters. That isn’t so easy to do, it turns out, but I’ve got a few tips to make it a bit easier.

GIVE US A REASON TO ROOT FOR THEM  This can be achieved by making your character a victim of a horrific incident, friendless, a member of a screwy family, or perhaps the character is “special” in some way that makes them an oddball and left out of society. Perhaps the character is overweight, or alone in the world, or unemployed…these little or large things make readers want to root for them.

SHOW US THEIR WEAKNESSES not just their strengths. A valiant hero’s weakness is what truly makes us cheer for them. Iron Man is a cocky, rich, womanizer, but really, he’s very alone and longs to be loved by someone. This yearning endears him to us. Even a villainous protagonist needs to be sympathetic in some way. Maybe they have a weakness for kittens and babies. Maybe they punish themselves for their own behavior. Perhaps no one loves them and what they’re really after is fulfillment and love, deep down. Bottom line is, give your character a softness to balance their strengths.

GIVE THEM PAIN  We all have pain so characters without it are cardboard cut-outs. Also, without pain we don’t LIKE them—they come off as “lucky” and, unfortunately, we humans have a bit of schadenfreude kicking. In other words, we like to see people fall down on the job JUST LIKE US. So torture your protagonist, if only a little, so that readers can see them rise above it and become better. Those type of stories inspire us to do the same.

A GLIMMER OF SELF-AWARENESS Often characters start out not knowing themselves; the scope of their pain, where their physical or emotional limitations truly are, and sometimes, not even what their goals are. By illustrating even a shadow of awareness in the narrative, it helps us attach to them as readers. For example, take Damon from the Vampire Diaries (I know, groan, but it’s a good example. Plus, I just wanted to post his picture here.). He doesn’t apologize for his thirst for blood or for killing people. But what makes him likeable is that he knows who he is. There’s something comforting and even enviable about a character (or person) who accepts who they are. It also means this character understands what they need to do to change,  to become better—unlike a hero who has no clue where to start. At the end of the day, we admire people who know, understand, and do.

Is there a memorable character that comes to mind for you? What endeared them to you?

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Heather Webb

Writer, Editor
Heather Webb is the author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE, her debut historical (Plume/Penguin 2014). A freelance editor and blogger, she spends oodles of time helping writers hone their skills—something she adores. You may find her Twittering @msheatherwebb, hosting contests, or hanging around RomanceUniversity.org as a contributor to the Editor's Posts. She is also the Twitter mistress for the popular Writer Unboxed. She loves making new reader and writer friends. Stop on by her website, Between the Sheets!

8 thoughts on “Creating Likable Characters

    • Little Bee is one of my favorite books of all time (and that’s saying a lot)! I completely agree, Wendy. She carries the story and makes us pull for her every step of the way. And the way Chris Cleave wrote her voice was so vivid, nuanced, and engaging.

  1. I really like your last point. Self-awareness is something that’s not always talked about, but you’re so right–it’s an important piece to consider. I think not only makes characters more likable, but also can be a way to show character growth. I’ll definitely keep this in mind as I write (and rewrite) my characters. 😉

  2. A glimmer of self-awareness — yes! This is the first time I’ve seen this mentioned and it’s so true! Characters who are aware of their flaws, their mistakes, and so on are indeed more likable, as Amanda says.

  3. I always resist the idea that characters should be likable (would you want to hang out with Macbeth, Lear, Humbert Humbert, or Batman?). You can have a really great story with non-likable characters (Chinatown is a great movie, for example, and pretty much everybody in it is awful). When I see rules about characters, I always check them against Sherlock Holmes (certainly the most consistently popular fictional character over the last 100+ years). Likeable? No, but he does fit all of the specific characteristics you mention, which is why he endures.

    I think the self-awareness is a big factor, as it is in life. I had a girlfriend once who was very hard to get along with (pretty much everybody who knew her had this opinion, by the way), but she was appealing, at least to some people, because she knew exactly what a pain in the ass she was and she was enjoying every minute of it. It was like Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts, who worked very seriously at being crabby.

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