There’s an art to making likeable characters.
Let me clarify: we’re not talking about “good” or “moral” characters—we’re talking about characters that readers will enjoy seeing on the page. Sometimes that means the character is good and virtuous, but other times a character can fall into the category of “likeable douchebag.”
One example is Tony Stark, from Marvel comic book fame.
Especially in the movies (because in his early incarnations I don’t remember him being as douchebag) he’s come to be that guy who both irritates yet entertains. Why does the audience like him when he’s actively insulting or angering everyone else on screen?
I have 5 tips I think any author can add to their toolbox (and this isn’t even all the tips!) so without further ado, please enjoy!
#5—Save the Cat
This is a famous phrase that was popularized in the mega-successful book “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” – it’s a book on story structure, and the importance of having a likeable character.
The phrase is shorthand for “have your character save a cat.” The reasoning is simple. People will like a character that goes out of their way to save an animal. The more the character has to go out of their way, the more the audience will think highly of them.
This works especially well with characters that people believe will be jerks.
And it doesn’t NEED to be an animal, it just needs to be something or someone that is in need of compassion.
In the mega-hit series, Game of Thrones, Jamie Lannister is a jackass who sleeps with his twin sister. Pretty unlikable, right? Well, it turns out he’s nice to his brother—Tyrion—who is treated poorly by the rest of the family. (Later in the series it turns out Jamie might still be a douchebag to his brother, but in the first novel, Jamie is made likeable by this nice exchange).
Even ONE instance of “saving the cat” can endure a character to the reader. Don’t underestimate the power of the helpless kitten!
#4—Have Relatable Flaws
Think of your character like a stairway. Every step is a facet of that person. The further it goes, the deeper the individual.
Now imagine that all the good traits are ultra-smooth steps, and all the flaws are carpeted steps. It’s okay to have a mix of both (and you should definitely aim for that!), but if your stairway is waxy-smooth the whole way down, people are going to hate your staircase.
No one is perfect, and lately people are more critical than ever of the dreaded “Mary Sue”—someone who is so awesome and amazing that they can do no wrong.
Tony Stark is a jerk and has a drinking problem. Bruce Wayne is a recluse who isn’t the great father.
These aspects make it easy for a reader to relate, and if the character overcomes the problem, it’s even better.
Which leads us to…
#3—Overcome Some Problems
Minor flaws are amazing because it’s very believable that someone can change them. Plus, it’s satisfying as a reader to see a character acknowledge a problem, and then do something to fix it.
If your character starts the story going to an AA meeting, you already have a sympathetic situation. The character has a problem, but they’re actively trying to get better. If the reader dislikes drunks, they’ll root for your character to succeed. If the reader is AA themselves, they’ll find common ground with your character. And even if your reader is pro-drinking, they likely understand the importance of moderation, and will again, root for the character to learn that lesson as well.
Problems are meant to be solved!
#2—Make the Character REALLY GOOD at SOMETHING
This isn’t “make your character good at EVERYTHING.” That’s insufferable. This is “good at SOMETHING.” One thing. Maybe two or three, but never ALL THE THINGS.
Let me put it this way: people like competence. Too much sad-sack behavior will make anyone unlikable.
Again, take Tony Stark for example. He’s a computer, coding, and engineering genius. This skill allows him to build the Iron Man suit and save the world a couple times, but it won’t solve his drinking problem. Or his women problem. Or his terrible personality.
HOWEVER, his ability to help in a world-ending crisis is amazing. His skills give him value, and people really like those who bring value to the table.
If your character is good at something—even random things, like singing, or crafting statues out of paperclips—it can be seen as impressive, and thus, likeable.
#1—Have a Goal
I know this might sound too simple, but sometimes this step is overlooked during character creation.
If your character has a goal they’re working for, people respect that. They like to see a character who is taking active steps to achieve said goal, and they like to see a character who has enough self-awareness to know whether they can obtain that goal.
If the goal is unreasonable, or terrible, the reader will not be impressed.
Example: if your character’s goal is to kill random people because that’s how he gets his jollies, then people will hate him.
BUT, if your character’s goal is to kill only villains because he’s damaged and unable to control his urge for blood, then he’s likeable. The reader WANTS that character to succeed, and he then becomes interesting.
Which is the premise for the hit TV show, Dexter, by the way. Murderer who kills other murderers. Very likeable.
And that’s it!
These 5 tips are great, and I know they’ve helped me improve my own writing. I hope they serve you just as well.
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