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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4 Comments

  1. “So the character can’t feel sorry for herself or do stupid things because of the plight she’s in.”

    Not sure I totally agree. I think these are human characteristics and not something that should be shunned altogether. I think a likeable character would simply recognize when she is feeling sorry for herself, or agree with another when it’s pointed out, and then resolve to change.

    Also, I think a sense of humor goes a long way in making a character likeable. I’m willing to forgive a lot when they can make me laugh.

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  2. Mark, you make a good point. Characters that are self-aware can get by with their foibles. They might admit to the problem and exhibit some plan to change. That might even make them more likable. So if someone feels sorry for herself but knows she’s being self-indulgent and is determined to change, it might work. Depends on execution, I think.

    The stupid things, though, I don’t think there’s any help for them. If the reader can see clearly what the character can’t, when both have access to the same information, then I don’t think readers will like the character.

    I’m reading a book like that now. Wish I could find an example, but I don’t have time right now to look. Let’s say the character is looking for someone who is missing. She finds a clue—a note that has some cryptic phrases. One is the name of a business. When she goes there, the people deny knowing the individual, but one person acts suspicious and races away before she can ask her questions.

    Later when doing some brainstorming with another character, she says, I wonder if that business is hiding something.

    Well, DUH!

    That’s the reaction I as a reader would have, and it makes me think the character is stupid. Not just that she’s done something stupid.

    Hope that clarifies.

    Becky

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  3. I wonder if vulnerability is a part of what makes a great character, but in regard to a desirable or noble goal. Gollum was vulnerable, but a very unlikeable character. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly was vulnerable, but rose above his limitations as he grew into the stronger, braver character needed to reach the goal of saving his parents and so himself. On the TV show Chuck, the title character was a computer geek at a Buy More. When he gains the Intersect knowledge, Chuck becomes a spy though he hates guns and hates to lie. His partners grow to support him in part because these vulnerabilities affect his personality and his ability to solve cases.

    A likeable character is often one who begins with vulnerabilities and weaknesses and achieves what others cannot, in part due to how these same vulnerabilities and weaknesses color his or her personality.

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  4. Tim, great illustrations of male characters who showed vulnerability. Gollum was unlikable before we saw his vulnerablity. When Bilbo first encountered him, he was more nearly a monster. In learning about his past, readers became more sympathetic, but many of us sided with Sam rather than Frodo and feared Gollum rather than pitied him.

    Marty McFly was that way, too, wasn’t he? (I don’t remember this so well). Wasn’t he first shown as so weak his son didn’t respect him? An unlikable character that only made sense later when we saw the turning point in his life, which his son ws able to change?

    Chuck is a great character study. His vulnerability, I think, was that his best friend got him kicked out of Stanford. We know he’s smart but doomed to a mediocre job because of no fault of his. He’s also honest, sincere, a loyal friend, a little naive, and he has a realistic view of himself.

    He doesn’t think at first that he can win the beautiful girl, but his strengths—not any physical prowess, but his character—make her notice him and eventually fall in love with him.

    The cool thing about that show has been the writers’ ability to keep Chuck, Chuck even when he became a spy.

    Thanks, Tim. Since I have a male protagonist, I needed to think about this vulnerability issue from the perspective of a man.

    Becky

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