Think about it. You’re in the middle of reading a great book, a wonderful book. You love the plot and the setting and the writing – until suddenly, a character is introduced and you hate them. You detest the very sight of them. You skip the parts with them in it. When you talk about the book, you pretend the character doesn’t exist. The author didn’t want the character to flop, but it did.
Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re definitely not the only one. But what is it about that one character that makes them so annoying, so hate-able? What qualities do they possess that the other characters don’t? To answer these questions, you have to think of the reverse, bringing us into the subject of today’s post: what makes a character likable?
1. They Are Realistically Flawed
Here’s a secret: readers like characters who remind them of themselves. Since no one is perfect, no character should be perfect, either. There are countless books out there where the main character can do know wrong, where the main character always makes the right decisions and does everything they aspire to do in life. Here’s another secret: That’s not interesting, at all. When the characters actually do things that probably shouldn’t have done, when they have compelling flaws that are realistic and hit close to home with readers, that causes us to sympathize more with them, and hence, like them more.
Okay, that’s great and all, but how do you go about creating character flaws? Well, as it turns out, Newton was right and every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Bob may be ambitious, but sooner or later that ambition will turn into greed, and greed will cause Bob to make bad decisions. Or what about Tina? Tina is a very confident person and always believes that she will succeed. Shh! Do you hear that? Tina’s ego is her primary character flaw. Bob’s greed and Tina’s ego are weaknesses that stem from strengths. They are also the devil whispering in their ears as they make important decisions, and just like in real life, sometimes your ‘bad’ side triumphs, so take advantage of that.
2. They Have Admirable Qualities About Them, Too
We’ve already touched on how strengths and weaknesses correlate, so let’s elaborate a bit more on the strengths. Obviously, everyone has strengths, so your characters should too. However, they shouldn’t be so big that they completely overshadow your weaknesses – in fact, your strengths and weaknesses should be compliments of each other. Let’s go back to the Bob example. As we’ve stated, Bob’s admirable quality is his ambition. Readers are supposed to admire his ambition, so don’t hide it. By all means, throw in those all-nighters and montages, because they only enhance his strength, but also throw in all the times he stole credit from his friends in order to look better. There is a careful equilibrium to the character flaws/strengths balance, and it is your job to find it.
When you are writing antiheroes in particular, this equilibrium is even more important. Since antiheroes usually have a darker side than your typical protagonist, the antiheroes’ weaknesses is amplified more than their strengths. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have strengths! Everyone does, even if that strength is hacking into illegal files and the power of persuasion (to, you know, get people to buy drugs). How your characters are portrayed depend on how you let your characters be portrayed. However you choose to work the balance directly affects the characters and is the difference between a hero and an antihero.
3. You Can Sympathize/Empathize With Them
News flash: sympathy and empathy are two different things, but both increase the likability of a character. For example, is it easier for you to like a character that’s poor and lives in poverty or a character that’s rich and has a privileged life? Even if that is the only difference between the two characters, you are still more inclined to like character one. That is the power of sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, is more complicated than just giving someone a tragic backstory. If you really want to make a reader understand a character, you’ll need a believable motivation for them, and a good one at that. You’ll need a hard, almost impossible motivation the character will stop at nothing to achieve. You’ll need a motivation that makes the reader say, “Yeah, I’d be like that too!” It’s one of the main reasons some villains you just can’t bring yourself to hate.
Creating a good character motivation is a whole other story. Characters have two basic types of motivations: internal and external. Internal motivations include trying to overcome PTSD, while external motivations include trying to slay a dragon. Whatever the motivation, it has to be relatable. Another way to create empathy is by letting the character show emotion – not the angry type of emotion, but the depressed kind of emotion. When a character’s mom dies, you feel both empathy and sympathy for them, because you relate to the feeling of having your mom die or you imagine how it must feel. Also effective is the pet-the-dog method, where an otherwise mean/grouchy/etc. person does a genuinely good thing and the reader realizes that the character may not be so bad after all. In other words, a moment of kindness and vulnerability can overpower ten thousand moments of cruelty.
4. They Are Entertaining to Read About
Taking a break from all the ‘make the character suffer’ vibes, it’s a fact that if your characters are entertaining to read about, they’re probably more likable, too. After all, a funny character is more likely to be well-received than a character without a sense of humor. Unless the humor is that they have no sense of humor. Anyway, let’s say there’s a character named Sally that’s really funny. Over time, you’re going to associate Sally with humor, which means that pages with Sally in it will make you laugh, which means you will be more likely to read scenes with Sally. Of course, humor is not the only thing that should define a character, but it does play a big role in likability. And a funny character that uses their funny-ness to hide the fact that they are depressed? Even better.
5. They’re Interesting
Interesting, of course, is a very subjective term. I think classical music is interesting, but you may find it incredibly tedious. Likewise, you may think that knitting is interesting, but I would sooner throw myself off a cliff than knit. So obviously, I’m not talking about that type of interesting. I’m talking about complicated motivations, mysterious personalities and backstories, and other things along those lines. If you think the reader will be able to sit through eight hours of a lecture solely about that one character, it’s safe to say your character is interesting enough and has been developed with the above and below guidelines in mind.
6. They Develop Over the Course of the Story
Character development, guys. I cannot stress how important this is. Your characters need to change and grow. No, they don’t have to get rid of all their flaws. In fact, do not let them get rid of all their flaws. Character development is the change the character undergoes from the first page to the last page. It is actually very likely that most of the character’s flaws will not be gone; they just evolve. In any case, character development is important because, for one, that’s actual humans do – they learn. Even Sherlock Holmes, with his practically non-existent character arc, learns things. Secondly, character development empathizes how far a character has come since page one. As ThinkWritten says, “It’s not just who they are in the beginning – It’s who they become.” NowNovel also has useful information in order to craft better character arcs.
That’s all for this week’s post on making characters likable! Next week, I have a very special classical-music-related post for you guys, and I’m so excited to share it! Thanks for stopping by my blog and have a nice day 🙂