Creating Likable Characters

When someone likes your character, they’ll follow him into the evil witch’s castle, to the center of the earth, and through enemy lines. If someone likes your character, they’ll be invested. They won’t just read your novel, but get sucked into it. They feel – ache – for your character(s). And hopefully, they’ll become a fan, and read all your novels.

Creating a likable character isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t simply snap your fingers and be done with it. The character has to be believable and compelling.

Here are some traits found in most likable characters:

  • Selflessness. The protagonist is willing to put others before himself. Sometimes the willingness to do so is reluctant, but it still happens. Characters that are willing to risk their lives to save others is an instant likeability trait.
  • Actions. Action is what gives breath to a character. The protagonist doesn’t sit around and watch or wait for a resolution. He resolves the situation.
  • Kindness. Your protagonist can be rough on the outside, maybe even seem cold, but underneath there’s the desire to help others.
  • Others love him. Many heroes have loyal sidekicks. Many novels have romance arches. When the protagonist is loved and/or has earned the loyalty and respect of other characters, readers’ get more attached. Having other characters show their affection validates the character.
  • Morality. The protagonist represents the morals of the community. He stands up for those that do not have a voice. He fights those that would conquer and kill good people. He is the vision people want to live up to. Do this, and readers will root for your character.
  • Competence. Characters need to get the job done. Sure, they can stumble around, make mistakes, or be a klutz. But at the end of the day, they win, whether by luck, skill, superpowers, an army, or the help of a few, loyal friends.
  • Determination. Yes, your protagonist can have moments of doubt, but he continues to get back up every time he gets knocked down.
  • Bravery. Characters must move forward and face terrible and horrifying odds. They can’t see a dragon and curl up into a blubbering ball. They see a dragon, and fight it to protect the village it’s about to burn.
  • They’re relatable. Protagonists come from all over. They can be women or men, boys or girls. They can be from the slums or be part of the one percent. But no matter where they come from, they have an element that relates to readers. This can be a goal, a belief, a dream, or a desire. We may not be able to relate to a girl from District 12 going to compete against other children to the death, on television nonetheless. But we can relate to her need to protect her younger sibling (a loved one).
  • Humor. A little wit can go far. Think James Bond, Jack O’Neill, Elizabeth Bennet, Han Solo, Tony Stark, or Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow isn’t selfless, and he isn’t the smartest individual. But people love him. He’s entertaining. He makes us laugh. And he’s got great comebacks in the face of danger.

A few other tips:

  • Characters that whine, that don’t care they broke a promise, that play dirty, or that see themselves as superior to others aren’t going to win any likeability awards.
  • Beware of making a character too good or too bad. If a protagonist is pure and noble to the point of flawlessness, they’ll become too saint-like. They won’t be relatable. If the antagonist is completely evil and doesn’t have a single redeeming value, they become stereotypical.
  • Protagonists are both ordinary and extraordinary. It’s the character’s ordinariness that creates the first strings of attachment. The protagonist seems real. But then the protagonist rises out from the ordinary to do something extraordinary. I like to think of Kenzi from Lost Girl. Kenzi is witty and loyal, but she’s got no physical strength because she’s so tiny. She’s not the type you’d expect to win any fights. But as Hale (also from Lost Girl) says, “Nah. I’ll play it just like you, all right? General cowardice with moments of crazy bravery.” (S1E13) Kenzi, despite the odds, is willing to do anything for those she cares about. That is extraordinary.

Who are some likable characters you can think of?

2 thoughts on “Creating Likable Characters

  1. painterwrite

    Thanks Brittany, this is great. Character development is my biggest writing nemesis and the part that gets the bulk of my focus in revision. This will definitely be a big help.

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