Posted On November 28, 2012 by Print This Post

Lynne Marshall Presents: Is There a Secret to Creating Likable Characters?

Greetings RU Crew! Today, we welcome author Lynne Marshall to the RU campus. Lynne’s going to talk about the likeability factor of characters and why it’s so important for a reader to establish an instant connection with them.  Lynne is also giving away a print and e-book copy of her book, so be sure to comment!

Take a second to think about who your current favorite TV character is and why you like them.  Then give some thought to what makes one character more likable than another in a novel, TV show, or movie.  Is it simply because they’re gorgeous?  My hunch is – not by a long shot.

On the other hand, when was the last time you asked – who are these characters and why should I care?  Ever put down a book because you simply didn’t like the protagonist?  I think we all have. 

Perfect or Flawed 

The characters who reach out to me as a reader or moviegoer are always less than perfect, and are often far less than perfect to the point of being seriously flawed.  The question is: how far do we expect our readers to follow along with this flawed character before they’re exhausted and ready to throw our book across the room?

 The Fine Line 

One thing I’ve discovered is that we readers will put up with a lot if we like the character.  The trick is to show the character in a sympathetic light right off.  First establish their likability then slip in that flaw. 

Think Sugar Beth Carry from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet.  This is a character filled with flaws dating all the way back to high school where much of what she did seems unforgivable. The story begins ten years later when she is down on her luck. After once having it all, she is now out of money and her older cash-cow husband has died leaving her with his retched Bassett Hound.  Though Sugar Beth may loathe the dog, and she’s down to her last penny, she doesn’t abandon him.  It’s a subtle point, but it made all the difference for me as a reader.  She also swallows her pride and goes crawling back to the town that couldn’t wait for her to leave all those years ago. I rooted for Sugar Beth even as more and more of her incredibly flawed past got revealed.  Why? Because of that first glimpse into her vulnerability and the part of her that couldn’t get rid of the dog, no matter how much she hated it. 

Likable Qualities

People tend to like people who do positive things or have a talent for something.  Is your character a worthwhile character?  Do they have a profession that brings respect?  Are they an underdog working their way to their secret desire of overcoming something or becoming fill-in-the-blank

Is the character relatable?  (How many billionaires do you know?)  If they are a billionaire, what qualities would make them more like the rest of us?  For instance, is the hero a powerful tycoon who can’t resist stray dogs or cats?  Or take that one step further to a hero who saves tiny rescue pets.  Loads of them.  No matter how big the character might be, we need to bring them down to size so regular folks like us can relate to them.

Create Empathy

One surefire way to create likable characters is to make them empathetic.  If we see ourselves in them, we can relate (even if they’re billionaires).  Are they in jeopardy?  Are they klutzy? Do they have a goofy sense of humor that no one else gets, (this is tricky though, because humor is subjective) or are they in a position of power but use it for the good of others? Do they have a deep desire or longing for something that is just out of their reach? (That’s something we can all relate to.)

Remember the popular kids in high school?  A lot of the time they only got to be popular because of their looks, and once you got to know them, they weren’t that interesting, right?  Then there were the likeable kids, not always the greatest looking kids, but they were the teens with personality, the teens everyone seemed to enjoy being around.  Remember wanting to know those kids more than the popular ones?  This works in novels, too.  If you show your character being liked by other characters, the reader will want to know and like them, too.

Be sure to establish this likability quality early, then you can slip in all those juicy flaws you’ve been waiting to torture your poor unsuspecting character (and reader) with.  In other words, the story can’t all be about angst.  We’ve got to give the reader something to like right up front, something to help them tolerate the non-stop conflict until that couple earns their happily ever after, the protagonist wins the biggest fight of their life, or the alien life form overcomes evil for all time.

Example of likeable characters:  Everyone on Modern Family.  Yes, they’re all messed up, but they each have some wonderful qualities.  Even Claire!

Example of so-so caricatures:  The entire cast of The New Normal. (My subjective opinion.) 


Lynne is giving away one print and one e-book of ONE FOR THE ROAD, her award winning single title contemporary romance (Finalist in the 2012 Colorado Romance Writers’ Award of Excellence contest, 3rd place in Ancient City Romance Authors Heart of Excellence Readers’ Choice Contest, and 2nd place in the Wisconsin Write Touch Readers’ Award contest – Mainstream with Strong Romantic Elements category) to lucky two commenters who answer the following question:   

Who is one of your all time favorite characters from a novel, TV show, or movie, and share one reason why.


Lynne Marshall is a multi-published category romance author for Harlequin, Mills & Boon in the Medical Romance and Special Edition lines.  She also writes longer books for The Wild Rose Press Last Rose of Summer line.  Her latest book is TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT, a reunion romance featuring over-forty characters.  To learn more about Lynne and to read an excerpt from her book check out her website. You can also connect with Lynne on Facebook.






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55 Responses to “Lynne Marshall Presents: Is There a Secret to Creating Likable Characters?”

  1. Hands down, my favourite character is Dexter Morgan from the show, Dexter. He is seriously flawed. A serial killer, he has from a young age had to learn how to act ‘normal’. But during the years of the show, Dexter slowly learns that perhaps he also has normal human tendencies and can form close personal relationships, despite his ‘dark passenger’. Thought provoking, funny, wonderfully acted and amazing writing makes Dexter a standout character and show for me.
    Great post, Lynne. I’m going to go back over my current WIP now and make sure my hero is someone the readers can sympathise with. Thanks!

    Posted by LaVerne Clark | November 28, 2012, 2:51 am
    • Hi LaVerne!
      Oh, I have to admit, I like Dexter, too. I never thought I’d like a serial killer, but as you said the show is wonderfully written and they took what we’d all think of as a monster and gave him likeable traits.

      I think having the ability to hear his inner thoughts is the key with that show.

      Thanks so much for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:04 am
  2. I certainly think you’ve nailed it on all counts. I was trying to pick my favorite point, but they’re ALL important. Good article, Lynn.

    Posted by Liz Flaherty | November 28, 2012, 6:45 am
  3. Great post, Lynne. I agree with Liz. You nailed it!

    Eve Dallas came to mind as I read your comments. Talk about flaws! Yet the reader pulls for her, wants her to come out on top!

    Posted by Jerrie Alexander | November 28, 2012, 7:28 am
  4. Great post, Lynn. I think creating empathy is one of the most important things a writer needs to do to make the hero and heroine likable. I just finished a book where the hero suffered from PTSD and the writer blamed his acting like an idiot on that. It was hard for me to excuse everything he did to the heroine just because he was suffering for a mental disorder. Had she worked harder on creating empathy for him, maybe I would have liked him better and enjoyed the book more.

    Posted by Katherine Grey | November 28, 2012, 7:30 am
    • Hi Katherine – Suffering from a condition doesn’t give us the right to be jerks. Not if we want people to like us.

      Deep POV helps the author show the character struggling with their demons, sometimes that’s all we need as a reader – just that little crumb to know the person knows they’re being a jerk and they really don’t like themselves that way.

      But while they’re working through that tough stuff, it wouldn’t hurt to give that character a very likeable trait, even if it’s a scroungy old cat that he can’t resist feeding and petting. you know?

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:10 am
  5. Great post, Lynne! A wonderful look at what makes an appealing character. Some of my favorite characters come from the TV show The Big Bang Theory. Certainly not perfect but wonderfully flawed. In a perfect world they’d be the popular guys: extremely smart, funny, caring. Okay, maybe not Sheldon. But we root for them because we can relate to their insecurities and dilemmas.

    I recently started watching a movie with a totally flawed character who, I swear, had no redeeming qualities. She was awful. I think her name was Mavis (?) and the movie was called Young Adult. We had to quit watching her character was so off putting.

    Posted by Karyn Good | November 28, 2012, 8:43 am
  6. Morning Lynne…

    I agree with Jerrie, and Eve Dallas is a great character. one of my favorite tv characters is Sheldon, from the Big Bang Theory.

    Sheldon is character you love to hate, and yet you have empathy for him. He keeps saying “My mother had me tested, I’m not crazy.” He reminds me of a cat, because everything he does and says is all about “ME” and everyone else in the world is secondary. And yet…you’re drawn to him, he has a circle of friends who thinks he’s nuts, but they don’t abandon him either.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post Lynne!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 28, 2012, 8:47 am
    • Hi Carrie – so now you’ve convinced me why even Sheldon is likeable. Perhaps it’s because he knows flat out he’s the oddest man in the room, and it is fascinating to see how he deals with it.

      Plus they always give him great lines to deliver. 🙂

      thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:14 am
  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, Lynne. And though I’m a big fan of JD Robb’s Eve and Roarke for their flaws and chemistry, I have another character in mind to add to the discussion.

    Dexter. The serial killer with a code. I never imagined I would care about him or what he does, but they show him being kind, raising a child in a normal way, navigating the pitfalls of romance, respecting his sister, doing his day job – all the while ridding the world of baddies that fall through the cracks of the system. I’m not endorsing what he does, I’m just saying the writers have done some great characterization there.

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | November 28, 2012, 9:08 am
  8. Hi Lynn! I’m struggling with my characters at the moment and I appreciated this well-timed post to remind me of what’s important.

    I love the character Sawyer on LOST. He’s a con-man but so charming and funny. Then they gave him a really great character arc where he has to step up and be a leader. Loved watching that progression! I really want to write a similar character but have been afraid I wouldn’t hit that likability quotient. Maybe I should try?

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | November 28, 2012, 9:24 am
    • Hi Kat – I’m thrilled this blog is well timed for you.

      Yes, Sayjer is a good example of a good looking guy who, if he didn’t step up, would just be another souless good looking guy.

      Definitely give that kind of character a go – but I’d slip in a hint or promise of likeability early on, even before he steps up to whatever you decide he needs to conquer.

      Write that character!

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:20 am
  9. Excellent points, Lynn. I always try to give my characters an interesting and/or endearing quirk.

    My current favourite character is John Reese on Person of Interest. He is so dark and broken, but every now and then he cracks a smile – swoon.

    Posted by Grace Hood | November 28, 2012, 9:37 am
    • Grace – endearing quirks are the key to making a so-so character a special character.

      I have watched Person of Interest, and I love, love, love looking at that man (Jim C. I’d butcher his last name if I tried to spell it)
      Until they brought in his backstory, I wasn’t sure about him. However, along with coming off cold and calculated, he seemed kind and caring – that makes the difference for me.

      thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:23 am
  10. Great post, Lynne.
    Currently my favorite TV character is Matthew Perry in Go On. The writing so far has been good so I hope they don’t lose that. I love the vulnerability in MP’s character and hope the writer’s don’t go for the cheap jokes and the slapstick because right now I’m loving the sensitivity.

    Posted by Robena Grant | November 28, 2012, 10:06 am
    • Hi Robena,

      Yes, they’ve taken a wisecracking, what some could construe as a jerk, and softened him with his getting over his cool guy status and hanging out with the oddest group of people. And he enjoys himself, though complaining bitterly the whole time.

      I love when they brought back his wife for some deep delving into the love (and loss) of his life.

      I, too hope the writing keeps up and that they don’t got for the slapstick too much.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:25 am
  11. Hi Lynne,

    Your post made me think of Larry Hagman. The characters he created were polar opposites and totally believable. Tony Nelson of I Dream of Jeannie and J R Ewing of Dallas had distinct personalities.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 28, 2012, 10:22 am
  12. I love your analysis, Lynne. You nailed it! Characters are so important, flaws and all.

    Posted by Linda O. Johnston | November 28, 2012, 10:35 am
    • Hi Linda O!

      Wow, I’m thrilled to know I got it right.

      For those who don’t know (which would be all of you, because, how could you know?)

      Linda O. Johnston was my very first romance writing teacher way back when. I learn a gazillion things from her.

      Wishing you much success on your Pet Rescue series (speaking about likable character traits – who could like a pet rescuer!)

      thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:54 am
  13. Hi Lynne, I loved your post! I find one of the hardest things in writing is portraying both the good and bad in a character, in a sympathetic way. Like Mary Jo I also thought of JR Ewing as a good example of a flawed man who is still strangely likable. He obviously loves his family to pieces, despite everything, which is his redeeming feature. I wrote a blog post on how to create a charismatic hero as this is something I’ve really struggled with in the past:
    Your post was a great help. Looking forward to checking out your book!

    Posted by Helena Fairfax | November 28, 2012, 10:46 am
    • Hi Helena –
      Thank you for reminding me that JR had many good qualities. All these years later, what I remembered was the deceitful and tough guy that he could be.

      Your blog about charismatic heroes sounds great!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:55 am
  14. I don’t get much sympathy for this, but I loved the character of Shane from The Walking Dead (the now late Shane). Even though he was eventually viewed as completely nonredeemable I never forgot the fact that he couldn’t stop loving Lori and her son just because her husband showed up, still alive! Oh darn. I suppose he was to just flip a switch (the way she did).

    Posted by Maria | November 28, 2012, 11:10 am
    • Hi Maria –
      I actually get what you’re talking about with Shane. He had many likable qualities until they started showing his dark side. Just a little deceit her (like not telling Lori the whole truth about Rick) and a glimpse at his youth where he screwed anything and everything willing, etc, and we began to see he was seriously flawed.

      I loved his intensity, though, really liked his character. I’m sorry he turned…

      Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 11:14 am
  15. Hi Lynne! I’m a big believer in establishing the empathy first too. Even the great Margaret Mitchell led with “Scarlet O’hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” So right off the bat we know this woman has developed some big, Southern charm to compensate for a lack of traditional beauty. We now also know Vivian Leigh, (a great beauty IMO, not even Hollywood ugly), was mis-cast as Scarlet!

    Posted by Sam Beck | November 28, 2012, 11:51 am
  16. Great post!

    Posted by Lisa Rayns | November 28, 2012, 11:56 am
  17. Great post. I have several favorites.

    Posted by Lisa Rayns | November 28, 2012, 11:58 am
  18. Very thought provoking post Lynne. I enjoyed it.

    Posted by Calisa Rhose | November 28, 2012, 12:03 pm
  19. Hay, Calisa,
    Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.

    Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 1:12 pm
  20. Hmm, so many characters to choose from. I think my favorite characters are always the ones that may be flawed, but put family high on their own list. Then there is humor especially when it is directed at self. The character who knows s/he is flawed but can laugh at her/his own OCD or whatever the flaw is. I guess I require a self-aware character. It may not stop the flaw, but they at least see it.

    Of course I also enjoy utterly evil characters like the Evil Queen, Regina in Once Upon a Time. I love that you see how she became evil and that like all of us she’s just looking for acceptance and love. Sure, in a totally twisted way, but you understand why which is just brilliant writing. Regina shows us that a great villain is the heroine of her own story.

    Posted by Maria Powers | November 28, 2012, 1:38 pm
    • Hi Maria!

      You said: a great villain is the heroine of her own story.

      that’s a fantastic statement, and oh, so true. A villain is also the center of their own universe. That’s hard to relate to and the love only goes one way.

      I, like you, enjoy a self-aware character. We know we’re doing something that usually gets us into trouble, we’re trying to stop doing it, but oops, it happened again. The key is they don’t give up on trying to do the right thing.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 1:45 pm
  21. I love Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory. He is so weird and out there. I can’t wait to see how he reacts to the next crisis.

    Making my characters memorable is my goal this next year. Thank you for your post.

    Posted by Nena Clements | November 28, 2012, 2:12 pm
  22. When I think back to my fave TV characters, I realise I like a lot of unlikeable characters. The same goes for movies. But with books I’m different. Two of my fave characters goes all the way back to Sooner or Later. 13 year old Jessie and 17 year old Michael. Michael fell into the popular, gorgeous crowd, but there was more to him than looks. He was considerate of Jessie’s feelings. As for Jessie, as a tween I could relate to her. I haven’t met a romance couple (adult or YA) who can top these two yet.

    Posted by Mercy | November 28, 2012, 3:53 pm
    • Hi Mercy –
      That is such an interesting observation. Funny how we fall in love with characters, and that special feeling they gave us in our youth, and hold on to that good feeling long afterward.

      They sound like very special characters.

      As for liking unlikeable characters on TV, I’ve done the same thing – like the entire cast of Seinfeld. None of us would want to know people like them in real life, but on TV, I always looked forward to what they would be up to each week.

      I think the TV puts a buffer between us and the characters, whereas with reading, we are much more invloved in the process. That’s why it’s so important to give each character something worth liking about them – along with the flaws, of course. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 4:13 pm
  23. That’s a great way to put it, Lynn–how the TV and silver screen create a buffer, because I couldn’t see myself wanting to read about those characters in a book.

    Yes, I love the Seinfeld characters, too.

    Posted by Mercy | November 28, 2012, 4:19 pm
  24. Hi Lynne,

    Had a crazy morning, so I’m late to the party.

    I find myself doing character studies when I’m watching t.v. shows. Someone mentioned Dexter, who is one of my favorite examples. It takes great writing to create a sympathetic serial killer.

    I also like Louis Litt from “Suits”. He’s so unlikeable and yet viewers see his need to be liked and his struggle for approval. He doesn’t realize that he is his own worst enemy. Just when I think he’s going to do something nice to redeem himself, he reverts to being a jerk. And the weird thing is, I STILL hope that he’ll come around.

    Thanks so much for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 28, 2012, 4:26 pm
  25. Thanks for a great post, Lynne! I’ve had some trouble with a couple of my heroines – I’m going to bookmark this for reference!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 28, 2012, 6:00 pm
  26. Great post Lynne and very timely! I’m currently dealing with a hero who needs to incite some empathy.

    Some of my favorite TV characters are seriously flawed. Don Draper from “Mad Men” for one. He’s like an onion, so many layers…and it doesn’t hurt that he comes in a very appealing package. 🙂

    I’m also a huge fan of “Sons of Anarchy”. The creator of the show (Kurt Sutter) really excels at creating empathy for even some of his worst characters. It’s fascinating and certainly a mark of a good writer.

    Posted by Caroline | November 28, 2012, 7:50 pm
    • Caroline – you mention two shows that are edgy. My son-in-law watches Sons of Anarchy, so I’ll have to quiz him about the characters.

      As much as I love Jon Hamm, I have yet to see Mad Men, yes, I know, that’s outrageous!

      His package is well appreciated, LOL, don’t take that literally, I’m referring to what you said. !
      But a character must still redeem themselves for me to feel satisfied.

      OK – too many sensual inuendos. 😉

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and I’m glad my post was timely for you.

      Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 8:58 pm

    Liz Flaherty wins the print version of One for the Road


    Grace Hood wins the digital version.

    Please contact me via my website –
    Lynne @ Lynne Marshall dot com
    No spaces.


    I so enjoyed blogging here today. Thanks so much for the active participation and comments.

    Posted by Lynne Marshall | November 28, 2012, 10:27 pm
  28. A big thanks to Lynne for joining us today. And thank you everyone for dropping by and commenting!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 28, 2012, 11:17 pm

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