Posted On January 26, 2015 by Print This Post

Creating Likable Characters by Heather Webb

I’ve talked a lot about characters here at RU (see my articles on Character Motivation, Action, & Goals and Character Renewal a.k.a. Character Arc), and as far as I can tell, it’s a favorite subject of writers. Perhaps because what a good book comes down to—a memorable one—is its characters. Readers want to bond to the protagonist, feel as if they can step into their shoes and view the world through their eyes. In order for this to happen, we must:

GIVE READERS A REASON TO ROOT FOR THEM The first thing you want to do is hook your reader and that comes not only from a snappy event that reveals who your protagonist is, but from evoking their sympathy. This can be achieved in a million ways, but here are a few to get you started. Make your protagonist:

  • a victim of some horrific incident—abuse, neglect, loss, an accident, bullying, stood up at the altar, abandoned
  • friendless or partner-less because they’re new to the area, shunned for some reason, or are “special” in some way
  • struggle with body image, health issues, or unemployment
  • lost—they don’t know who they are or what they want out of life

SHOW THEIR WEAKNESSES A hero’s weakness is what intrigues us and makes us want to cheer for them. Iron Man is a cocky, rich, womanizer, but he’s also friendless, isolated by his position as CEO and genius. He longs to be the hero—rather than the man who sells arms to foreign countries—and to be understood.

Even a villainous protagonist needs to be sympathetic, or at the very least, relatable in some small way. Maybe they have a weakness for kittens and babies. Maybe they punish themselves for their own behavior. Perhaps no one loves them and that’s what they’re really after. Bottom line is, give your character a softness to not only balance their strengths, but to layer their motivations.

GIVE THEM PAIN As human beings we all have pain, so characters without it are cardboard cut-outs. Besides, without pain we don’t LIKE them—they come off as “lucky” and, unfortunately, we humans have a bit of schadenfreude kicking. In other words, we like to see people fall down on the job JUST LIKE US. So torture your protagonist, if only a little, so that readers can see them rise above it to better themselves. Watching others strive and fail, and strive again inspires us to do the same.

CREATE DISTINGUISHABLE DIALOGUE “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” “You can’t handle the truth!” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” We remember movie lines (or TV lines) that are poignant, well-delivered, and that epitomize a particular character’s voice. Dialogue is a big part of what makes us fall in love with a character. Are your lines authentic to the protagonist’s emotional truths? Are they unique to this one person? If we plucked one of your lines of dialogue out of your story, could we tell which character said it? Shape and finesse your dialogue to make your characters’ voices sing.

A GLIMMER OF SELF-AWARNESS Often characters start out not knowing themselves; the scope of their pain, where their physical or emotional limitations truly are, and sometimes, not even what their goals are. By illustrating even a shadow of self-awareness in the narrative, it helps us attach to them as readers. For example, take Damon from the Vampire Diaries (I know, groan, but it’s a good example). He doesn’t apologize for his thirst for blood, or for killing people. But what makes him likeable is that he knows who he is. There’s something comforting and even enviable about a character (or real person) who accepts who they are. It also means this character would understand what they need to grow and change—unlike a hero who has no clue where to start. At the end of the day, we admire people who know, understand, and do.

Can you think of a memorable character? What endeared them to you? What made them seem so alive?

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12 Responses to “Creating Likable Characters by Heather Webb”

  1. In the first couple stories I wrote, I tried so hard to make my heroines strong and ballsy, they came across as bitchy. For some reason, my heroes weren’t a problem. I’ve always been kind of a “pleaser” and in trying to avoid that with my heroines, I went too far in the other direction.

    Thanks so much for this – I bookmarked it!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 26, 2015, 12:26 pm
    • That can definitely happen. I’ve been working on a heroine that’s the opposite–she’s a people-pleaser and I find I’m making her way too watered down and weak. I wouldn’t like her AT ALL in person. I’ll definitely be cleaning that up in revisions!

      Posted by Heather Webb | January 26, 2015, 5:34 pm
  2. Once again, I go back to GWTW; Scarlett is the Becky Sharp of this book, but we can sympathize with her, even her most ruthless behavior because Margaret Mitchell did almost everything Heather suggest, withholding only self-awareness, and very little of that, until the end. In fact it is her lack of true self awareness that makes the ending so poignant.

    Posted by Ruchama | January 26, 2015, 2:07 pm
  3. Hi Heather,

    I love these posts on characterization.

    My question is about characterization through dialogue and a character’s use of cliches and colloquialisms. In the real world, we speak in cliches, i.e., blood is thicker than water or give the dog a bone. But I’m always wondering if I my character’s speech sounds cliched if he/she speaks in cliches. Am I making sense?

    Thanks for another great post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 26, 2015, 4:33 pm
  4. Once again, I return to GWTW, one of the many things many readings gives you is an understanding of the “tricks” the writer uses. In GWTW, Scarlett is said to have grammar that is no better than her poor “cracker” neighbors; but her dialog never reads that way. She does have some stock phrases that she recites, which i think help her characterization. She also rarely uses the “N” word, although it would fit with the “cracker” speech she is said to, but never shown to have.

    Posted by Ruchama | January 26, 2015, 6:15 pm
  5. Evening Heather…

    One of my favorite characters is Eve Dallas from the JD Robb series. She’s just all tough, muscle and so totally focused on her job that she doesn’t even realize there’s anything more to life. Even after 2-3 years of marriage to Rourke, he still has to remind her that she has friends, that she can take a vacation, that she has a life beyond her job…it’s been fun watching her grow and change and still curmudgeonly try to hold on to her old ways as long as possible.

    Awesome post Heather!!!

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 26, 2015, 9:55 pm
  6. I’m late to the party, but thanks for another great post, Heather! I love these posts. 🙂

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 29, 2015, 1:49 pm
  7. Great post!!

    Posted by Traci Krites | January 29, 2015, 6:12 pm

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