How do you create likable characters? This is a start.

Today’s post was inspired by my Google+ friend John Ward who asked this question to his circles:

I know that question well. I’ve asked myself that very question several times and wondered if my characters are likable enough or if they’re too whinny or if my villain is too evil in the cartoony way. 

It’s obvious that characterization is extremely important when you’re telling a story. While plot may be the who and what, the character keeps the reader going. It’s the character and their reaction to the plot that will make readers cheer or jeer. That’s why, when I’m teaching creative writing I always start with creating characters. I want to make sure that my students get this down first before moving on. 

So, how do you make a character likable? This is how I’ve solved that through the years.

First, you gotta make them real.

Before you can focus on making characters liked you have to make the believable. That’s more important than anything. In order to do that, you have to base the character in some sort of reality. It doesn’t matter if your character is Harry Potter or a Golden Retriever, something about them should be grounded in reality. 

One of my favorite examples is Elphaba, from the musical Wicked. Here is a character with green skin and magical powers. She is odd and nothing like the characters surrounding her. She’s the heroine of the tale and she is the most “real” among the characters. Why? Because she is grounded in reality. She wants what everyone else wants which is acceptance. Ephaba shares a common motivation. It drives her through the entire story and goes a long way into turning the girl with green skin into a likable character. 

It’s that one thing

Another aspect into making a likable character is making them relatable in some way. A villain is better understood if the reader knows they weren’t loved as a child. 
Note: Relatability doesn’t necessarily mean conjuring sympathy in your reader for a character. The goal is for them to understand the character by adding another layer to them. This is what makes characterization so fulfilling but at the same time so delicate. Making characters relatable gives creates layers and makes them three dimension rather than a caricature. 

So, what will make a character relatable? It’s that one thing that makes them different than what they became. For example, a person who is a stone cold killer loves their mother. That is their kryponite; it redeems them. Imagine it as the last life line that keeps this person from going off the deep and what keeps the reader reading. It signals to them that the character has the ability to change, if only a little. That will help you with your character arc immensely. 

But remember likable isn’t everything 

Likable is overrated. 

To me, likable sometimes means boring. If the character did everything they were supposed to do, there would be no story. Remember conflict drives story and there is no better conflict to play with than internal turmoil. The reader doesn’t have to like the character but they have to understand them and be intrigued by them. 

Complex, layered, relatable, with an Achilles’s heel–that’s the kind of character you want. 

Want to learn more about creating awesome characters? Good! I’m teaching a free webinar on How to Create Awesome Characters at 10 a.m. CST Nov. 17 on this blog. Join us!