Making Characters Likable

When I get a chance, I’ll jump into the discussion about climate change, but I’m sagging off the topic to write about what’s on my mind now. I just finished an editing project and am back at work on my own writing. This is what I love, but I feel like I’m still learning.

This weekend I was once again thinking about the magic that happens when a reader takes to a character in a novel. For one, readers are forgiving of lots of other things—wordy descriptions, predictable outcomes, sketchy settings, plodding prose.

Mind you, I’m not advocating the idea that writers should concentrate on writing great characters so they can slide by in other areas. I’m just saying, when readers fall in love with a character, they will overlook other problems.

Another bit of the magic that occurs—readers don’t forget books when they love the character. They may even line up to get the next one, if the same character is the star.

But most importantly, I think, when readers love a character, they think about the character’s dilemma and heart aches and decisions and dangers and changes. In other words, they are engaged with the character in a way that makes them think about the larger issues.

The question is, how does a writer create characters like this? Over the years I’ve written on this subject quite a bit, but I think I stumbled on something I hadn’t thought of before, at least when writing female characters. (OK, I just saw this same “discovery” in a post I wrote three and a half years ago, so I guess this isn’t new at all. I just forgot it! 😳 )

I think a likable character will not only have strengths and weaknesses, be larger than life, be properly motivated, and have all the other necessary elements, but also will have vulnerability. A character readers love is a character they feel compassion for. Not pity. And not disdain.

So the character can’t feel sorry for herself or do stupid things because of the plight she’s in. She needs to be strong enough to keep going forward, but not so strong she seems to need no one else.

As I think about it, I belief Knife in R. J. Anderson’s wonderful Faery Rebels is an example of this kind of character. She was tough and resourceful and eager to be out in the world, but when she got there, she came face to face with things she didn’t have and people she didn’t want to lose. The further into the story, the more her vulnerability showed.

Anyway, now I have to think about whether or not this trait is something male protagonists need too, and if so, in what ways it differs from their female counterparts. Your thoughts?

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm  Comments (4)  
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