Character likability is one of the most important parts of telling a good story. If readers don’t care about your characters, it’s doubtful they will care what happens to them.
It doesn’t matter how mind-blowing your plot is. If readers don’t feel a connection with the story’s cast, they’ll put down the book and forget they ever tried reading it.
While plot-driven stories might work for certain genres – e.g. thrillers, crime mysteries, and some horror – they will cause epic narratives to fall flat. Readers of heroic genres like high fantasy and sci-fi adventure tend to crave a deeper emotional connection with the story and characters.
How do you make sure readers develop this connection?
The good news is that cultivating love for your characters is both an art and a science. Sometimes, it really does come down to simple steps.
Today I’ll teach them to you.
First, the foundations
Back in 2015, I wrote a guest blog post at Keystrokes and Closed Doors that covers the basics of writing likable characters. I highly recommend reading that first, as this post will expand on those principles to include what I’ve learned since then.
In case you’re in a rush, here’s a quick summary of what that blog post teaches. Some techniques for making readers care about your characters include the following:
- Make readers feel sorry for your characters.
- Put your characters in jeopardy.
- Make your characters funny, nice, or good at what they do.
- Introduce your characters as soon as possible.
- Put your characters in touch with their own power.
- Place your characters in familiar settings.
- Give your characters relatable flaws and foibles.
I encourage you to read that guest post for more explanation on all these points. Since writing that post, though, I’ve learned something: Sometimes these techniques aren’t enough.
Taking it to the next level: Admiration
I recently listened to an old episode of Writing Excuses (a podcast I highly recommend, by the way). They described something fascinating: One of the best things you can do for a character’s likability is to make her admirable.
What does this mean, exactly?
A character becomes admirable when he has traits that readers see in themselves, or want to see in themselves.
This even works for nefarious characters, because we may see some of ourselves in a villain, or find things about her we secretly wish we had (e.g. power, strength, commitment to actions, self-confidence).
How do you make a character admirable? According to the folks at Writing Excuses, character likability is more like a scale than a simple set of criteria, as I previously thought.
You can move a character up and down this scale, making him more or less likable, according to how many admirable traits he has.
I’ll show you how it works.
Moving up the admiration scale
You can make a character more likable by giving her more of the following traits:
This doesn’t always mean that your character is funny himself, or that he’s constantly cracking jokes. It just means that he has a sense of humor about his situations. When things get dark, he still finds a way to make light of things, or he just has a good attitude and sense of optimism. (Famous examples: Jack Sparrow, Han Solo.)
Vulnerability takes two forms: flaws and emotions.
Every character needs flaws. It’s essential to remember, though, that these are not the same things as disabilities or disadvantages. The fact that your character sucks at chess is not a flaw. Instead, a character flaw might be the fact that she struggles with impatience and is notoriously irritable every time she loses.
A character flaw needs to be something relatable, but it shouldn’t be static. An admirable character is aware of her flaws and is actively trying overcome them.
Vulnerable characters will also share their emotions – if not to their peers, then at least to the readers. Let your character open up with the audience and give a peek into her heart. Show her falling apart. Reveal her weaknesses.
The stiffer and more standoffish a character seems to the audience, the less they can connect with her.
But the more they see her humanity, her emotions, her inner doubts and insecurities and fears and regrets, the more they can empathize with and care for her.
Show your character failing at his goals sometimes, in spite of trying his hardest. Too much competence can work against your character. If it seems he can do everything well, he will become annoying and less relatable.
The best way to combat this? Make him fail sometimes.
Failure keeps your character human. It’s important, though, that he keeps going in spite of mistakes and setbacks. There are few things as inspiring and admirable as a character that never gives up and has tenacity in the face of hardship.
4. Inner strength
Good characters get up and get things done. Passive characters are hard to admire. Even if we are passive ourselves, we know instinctively that it is a negative trait, not something to aspire to.
We admire characters who are proactive and confident. All of us want to feel confident in ourselves, and we look up to characters who exemplify that for us.
As mentioned earlier, an admirable character notices her own flaws and fights to overcome them. Self-aware characters also seem to recognize their own place in the world, including the impact they have on their environment and on the people around them.
6. Approval from other characters
We are highly socially driven, even in fictional settings, to follow the leads of people around us. If a character we already like shows affection or preference towards another character, we are more inclined to like that character, too.
In Writing Excuses, they gave an example of this from the sci-fi cult show Firefly. The pilot episode introduces a character named Kaylee, who is bubbly, sweet, and spunky, with the kind of personality you can immediately love. By contrast, one of the show’s main heroes, Mal, feels a bit gruffer and more standoffish at first. But when Kaylee says about him, “I love my captain,” we immediately feel like we should love him, too, just because Kaylee does.
7. Kindness and selflessness
Probably the easiest and simplest trick for creating character admiration is this: Show him being nice.
If a puppy walks into the scene, have your character stoop down to pet it. If someone needs help, show your character trying to assist in whatever ways he knows how or can.
An admirable character also put others before himself. He shows generosity. He gives, and does not take.
Moving down the admiration scale
Let’s take this in the opposite direction. Perhaps you want to make a villain – someone for readers to hate.
Or, perhaps even more importantly, you want to avoid accidentally creating an unlikable hero (as I once did, which I’ll talk about at the end of this article).
Either way, the scale works the same way – just backwards. To make a character more unlikable, give her more of the following traits:
1. Complaining attitude
Instead of taking life on with a sense of good-natured humor, an unlikable character whines about his circumstances. He maintains a bad attitude. This can be just as annoying in fiction as it is in real life.
People who never show their weaknesses can feel… phony. Even in fiction, we can only tolerate an invulnerable, “perfect” character for so long before we feel disconnected with her.
It’s okay if your likable character is tough and maybe reluctant to share her feelings, and but at some point – and hopefully as soon as possible – the readers need to see inside her heart, even if other characters don’t. We need to see she is human.
However, if you keep your character cold, detached, emotionless, closed-off, or otherwise “inhuman”, her empathy level is guaranteed to plummet.
3. Too much competence
This is probably the most important part of this blog post. If you get nothing else out of today’s article, I hope you remember this:
Giving a hero too much competence is a mistake I see made over and over again in many lesser-loved books, movies, and TV shows. It’s the easiest way to accidentally create an unlikable protagonist.
We like to show characters that are strong and capable heroes, and that’s great, but only up to a point. A character that never fails is hard to empathize with.
Even as he progresses and gains skills, a hero still needs to be human. He can’t be good at everything.
For example, is your hero getting better at sword craft? Great! Maybe he’s failing at interpersonal relationships. Or is he a legendary and fearless ship captain? Awesome! Maybe he makes an honest mistake that ends up killing half his beloved crew. That’s devastating, and it makes him real.
On the flip side, a character who somehow can’t fail quickly becomes frustrating (if he’s the antagonist) and annoying (if he’s the protagonist). This can work for or against you, depending on what you want.
Rather than proactively getting things done, passive characters sit back and let things happen to them.
The result? They feel wimpy.
It’s difficult to respect or look up to a passive hero, no matter how realistic she may be. While this can be part of a character’s arc – e.g. she becomes more proactive by the end – she still needs to have some level of proactivity at the beginning, or readers will never be able to care about her enough to watch that character journey.
5. Lack of self-awareness
A character with no self-awareness is irritating to read about. This could take the form of blindness to something important in her life (e.g., “Can’t you see that he loves you?”), or the fact that she never improves her flaws. She may even be proud of those flaws, by celebrating her lasciviousness or boasting in her cruelty.
In short, she is not broken over her own imperfections.
6. Loss of trust from other characters
Think about what happens when a character we empathize with used to trust someone, but no longer does. Or if someone he once esteemed loses his respect.
Because we are socially driven creatures, we are likely to follow that character’s emotional lead, take sides, and lose our admiration for the other character, too.
7. Unkindness and selfishness
The easiest trick in the book for making someone unlikable: Show him being mean.
If a puppy walks into the scene, have your character kick it. (Didn’t a part of you feel mad just reading that?)
Also, characters who always put themselves first are immediately frustrating and unlikable. You’ll see this technique used a lot in books and movies because it’s so effective at creating a quick, strong feeling of disgust.
Deplorable characters will hoard possessions instead of being generous. They will have opportunities to help someone, but will hold back in order to preserve themselves or maintain their own sense of comfort.
Putting it all into action…
Let me clarify: You don’t need to give a character all the admirable traits to make him likable. Similarly, an unlikable character doesn’t need all the negative traits with none of the good.
Antiheroes are often great examples of characters that have a combination of traits from both lists. That’s why this technique functions like a scale rather than a recipe. You can move a character up and down the scale to adjust their admiration levels to your liking, according to the story’s needs.
In short, it’s a balancing act. You can get away with giving a hero some unlikable traits, as long as she has enough of the likable traits, too. And villains very often have traits from both lists to make them feel human.
What does this look like in practice? To see the admiration scales at work, let me tell you a little story…
Case study: Lasía
In the guest post, I talked about a character named Lasía that I had used – I thought – to create effective empathy. As far as I saw it, I had checked off all the marks for likability: she faced terrible misfortune, she was shown in danger, she was introduced in the first sentence of the book, she had her own source of power (fighting prowess).
But later, I learned a surprising truth from beta readers: They all hated her.
Confused, I did some investigation to figure out why. As it turned out, I hadn’t moved her traits far enough up the admiration scale. Yes, she was vulnerable sometimes, but she was also mean – cruel, even – to another character that readers liked (an enormous blow to her respect). This other character hated her, and so readers took sides emotionally: they hated her, too.
As one reader said to me, “I really liked her at first, but there was a scene where I felt she showed her true colors. I couldn’t respect her after that.”
In the next draft, I worked at tinkering her scales. I brought her meanness way, way down, until it was almost nonexistent, and increased her kindness. I lessened the other character’s hatred of her, replacing it for mere irritation (which eventually didn’t last). I also increased her vulnerability, letting her show a bit more emotion and being less standoffish.
When I passed it to my editor, she said that Lasía was her favorite character, “hands down”. She continued by saying: “She was so hardcore, but then she had her soft points… Lasía is my favorite and you got her character spot-on.”
By using the technique of admiration scales, I was able to give my character a 180-degree turn from reader hatred to reader love. How’s that for writing power? Booyah!
Was this helpful for your own characters? Will you be changing any of them now to make them more or less likable? Let me know in the comments below!