How to Make Your Characters Likeable
Most stories rely on good characters. There are only a few that don’t! Readers have to follow these characters around through the plot, so it makes sense that they’re interesting and fun to read. Part of that is about making them likeable. If readers like characters (even the evil ones), the chances are that they’re going to stick around and keep reading, even if the plot isn’t the best. They’ll want to know what happens to their favourites and how they deal with the challenges you throw at them, even if other parts of your story are lacking. Characters make stories!
But how do you start? I mean, it’s all well and good to say that we should focus on making characters likeable. But what does that mean, exactly? How do you come about doing it? Well, it’s actually a lot easier than you’d think. Follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to making a likeable character in no time!
a Likeable Character?
Does it mean that your audience has to want to meet every single character? That they have to want to be best friends with every single one of them? Of course not! Villains can be just as likeable to the reader as heroes, if done well. Of course, you don’t need the reader to like all of your characters. But if they’re going to have to follow this person around for the next 20 chapters, the chances are that they’re going to want to like reading their thoughts and feelings. It would be nice if the readers didn’t want to strangle every single one of your main heroes.
A likeable character is one that feels real to us. They have clear goals that we can understand and empathise with, even if we don’t agree with them. They feel emotions we understand and make us feel some of them, too. We might want to see them do well, but that’s not the only thing that. The reader bonds with them and cares about what happens to them. I’m sure you can think of a character in a book or film or TV show that you loved, even if they weren’t anywhere near perfect. That’s the point! Once writers get their readers invested in the characters, it is much easier to keep them reading. And I’m sure you want your readers to keep reading!
What about villains? Well, you don’t need to agree with someone to like them. Sometimes you like one character more than another. Or maybe you like them and it makes you feel sad that you can’t support their goals. Villains can make us like them just as much as any other type of character. It’s much harder to do, but not impossible!
Does Every Character Need to Be Likeable?
This is something I need to clear up really quickly. No, you don’t need your audience to like every single character they meet. That would be tiring for both you and your readers! I can’t even imagine feeling strong empathy every single time someone walked into a scene. No thanks! No matter how good the story is, I’d end up getting quite emotionally drained. I’d need to take breaks quite often! Plus, who doesn’t have those characters they just love to hate? Unlikeable characters can be just as fun to write and read! It’s all about getting that balance right.
Ross Geller from Friends and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory come to mind for me when I think of characters I love to hate. Although I don’t think we’re supposed to dislike them. They’re often framed as deserving sympathy. I mean, the audience is practically screaming aww at us when Sheldon’s sad. It might be worth making sure that your characters are making your readers feel the emotions you want them to. Unlikeable characters are just as great and important as likeable ones, but you need to be careful and aware of what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might end up with a complete mess of a story!
Give Them Flaws
Let’s get the one you’ve probably heard 600 times before out of the way. One of the first things you need to do to make sure that your character is likeable is to give them flaws. I’m sure everyone knows one annoying person who just seems to be perfect at everything. It’s not cute, is it? In fact, it’s very annoying! A lot of writers online make Mary-Sue characters. They’re perfect! They have no flaws! And if they do, then of course, it has to be that they’re just too good. Oh, they try too hard. They care too much. They just don’t understand how awesome they really are. These aren’t real flaws!
The problem with flawless characters is that it forces all of their struggles in the story to come from some outside force. Sure, a lot of the action is going to come from some other person or issue in the world, but it’s just not very realistic for all of their problems to come from someone or something else. In the real world, we have external blocks as well as internal flaws that stop us from doing all the things we want to. It’s about getting that balance right! There might be this big evil coming to get them, but if they have nothing that they need to deal with themselves, they’re going to beat the bad guy really easily and the story is going to end up being shallow.
So give your characters real flaws. Are they too brash and hot-headed? Are they cowardly? Do they freeze up when they’re in a hard situation? Maybe a bad habit or an addictive personality? There are so many things you can do with flaws that will make your readers relate to your characters and feel sorry for them.
Give Enough Backstory
Backstory is a great way to let the reader know why the character is the way they are. It’s not enough to give them flaws. You also need to make sure that there is a good explanation for their most annoying ones. No, you should never explain away something like a hot temper and make it seem ok. However, giving a good reason why they act the way they do can help readers to like characters who have some seriously awful flaws. A drunk man who has no life goals or motivation to do anything can be pretty awful to read. But if you introduce the fact that he drinks because his son died? It doesn’t make his issues okay, but it does make them understandable. And we have more of a chance of liking what we understand.
You need to choose when you want your characters to be likeable. Backstory should be introduced at the right point in the story. If they’re a character that even the protagonist doesn’t like, saving their backstory until the end can be an awesome way to make us shake up our views and question ourselves. If they’re your main character, it might be worth giving a little backstory before the action starts. That way, the reader has time to like them first. I mean, we have to follow them around for the whole story!
This happened during the making of Finding Nemo, too. When Marlin’s backstory was saved for the end, no one really liked him. But as soon as the audience gets why he is as overprotective as he is, they can get on his side.
Make Them Self-Aware
Another way to turn your flaws into likeable qualities is to make sure that your characters are self-aware. They should see and recognise their own flaws. Maybe they can even have a problem with them, too! Self-aware characters are great characters. A lot of them have the ability to make fun of themselves, which often makes them likeable and fun to be around. They know what’s wrong with them and they are open to the fact that they’re not perfect people.
But this comes with a warning. It might be cute that someone says “I’m a coward” all the time at the start of your story. But by the end? Well, it can get pretty annoying. If they spend all of their time telling you that they’re flawed and they do nothing to even try to become better people, they can become even more unlikeable than characters who don’t even know they have flaws! I’m sure we’ve all met someone who tells you everything that’s wrong with their lives. It makes you want to shake them and say “well do something about it!” It’s the same thing. Or even worse: we might start to think that they don’t actually believe what they’re saying. Then it looks like they’re pointing out flaws for attention. Not a good look!
We don’t even need to see the character sort out their flaws. Most people don’t! The point is that we need to see them try to do something about them. If you have a cowardly character, we need to see them try to stand up and be brave, even if they fail. One of the worst things about Sheldon Cooper is that he doesn’t really see his flaws as flaws. He often blames everyone else for not being like him. Ugh.
Make Them Care About Someone
Your characters don’t need to care about everyone they meet. We don’t like unrealistic Mary-Sues, after all! And even the most devout of Christians struggle to love every single one of their neighbours. It’s tiring to watch! And we just don’t have the ability to keep it up forever. No one can keep caring that much without it having a huge impact on their own mental health. Does anyone remember the episode of The Simpsons when Ned Flanders flipped? Well, it’s exaggerated, but it makes sense that he’d eventually have enough. Who wouldn’t?
Your character can care about very few people, to be honest, but it is important that they care about someone. We can all relate to liking or loving another human being, after all. It doesn’t matter who they are! And it doesn’t have to be someone in the story, either. Many villains love a person who died long before the start of the book. In fact, often losing that person is the thing that turns them evil! As long as you show your character caring about someone and wanting them to be happy, you’re a step closer to making them likeable!
Give Them Good Traits
Yes, we’ve spoken a whole lot about flaws, but it’s not enough to just give them bad traits. They’ll end up looking pathetic! They need good ones, too! Every person in the world has good traits. You just need to take the time to think about them. I’m not talking about talents here. That’s a whole other point that I’ll cover in a little bit. What I’m talking about is the parts of their personality that make them real.
Are they determined and strong-willed? Do they listen to others well or give good advice? What about honesty or honour? These are all great traits that make it much easier for the reader to like the character. Even a villain should have a code of honour if you want them to be a likeable character. Of course, these don’t have to make you like the character on a personal level. You don’t have to want to be best friends with the villain to find them likeable in the story. Good traits also don’t have to be things you’re looking for in a friend or lover. I might find that a villain living by
So the bottom line is that you need to find good qualities that make the audience feel positive emotions towards the character. Your reader could admire or respect them. Maybe they look up to the character and they want to be like them, despite all of the flaws you’ve given them.
Give Them Talents
Just like with good traits, every single person in the world has a talent or two. So reflect that in your story! Give your character some talents, too! We want to see talents that are relevant to the story. However, you also need to make sure that you’re not just making every single talent that the character has perfect for every problem they have. It’s so unrealistic when a character just happens to be talented in all the right ways to solve their problems in the story. And if you haven’t made a realistic character, that really hurts the chances of them being likeable, too!
So spend some time thinking about what talents you want to give them. Don’t make them perfect at everything. Also, don’t give them too many talents that no one else in the whole world has. That can turn them into a Mary-Sue if they’re too unique. Boring! Readers can relate to people who share talents they do, so try taking a very normal talent like singing or running. Then, turn it into something unusual and new for your story. That way, the readers can imagine themselves in the shoes of the character better. If they can put themselves in the shoes of the character, it will raise the chances of them being liked.
Make Them Complex
So we’ve spoken about good points and bad. You need both in a character for them to be likeable. But there is also the matter of making exceptions. No one is honest all of the time. And even with our flaws, there is usually something that forces us to act despite them. That’s why you need to create exceptions for the rules you’ve made.
If a character is a coward, you need to also think of some times when they break their own rules and become brave. Is it when their loved ones are threatened? The same goes for their good traits, too. A smart person doesn’t know everything. An honourable person does dishonourable things from time to time. A king who cares about justice may ignore that for a little while if there is something bigger at stake. It’s all about making exceptions to the rules and being clear that they’re exceptions. Show that no person is perfect and life is complex. Make it clear when one of their traits trumps another. Comment on what happened, too! Make it clear why. If you don’t, they might just seem like they’re acting out of character.
If you want an example, let’s take my main character from The Queen of Freaks. Evanna is very shy and quiet at the start of the story. As the second youngest child, she’s quite used to being pushed around. But she has her limits! While she’s timid when people bully her, she meets a group of orphan kids and she’s more than ready to scream and shout when they’re in trouble. It’s all about context. Don’t bind your characters by their good and bad traits. Use them as a springboard to make a great character.
Give Them a Purpose
Every character needs a purpose or motivation. If not, they can get pretty boring. And how can you like a character who bores you? I know that lacking a goal is one of the flaws I spoke about before, but it is one of the ones that you need to make sure your character breaks out of. It can be a slow thing. In fact, they could go a long time without realising that they actually do have a goal! But it does need to happen.
I mean, where’s the fun in watching a bunch of people wander around the story world with no purpose? It might be funny for a few scenes, but what about after that? There needs to be a goal or aim in the story to make it interesting. And interesting characters have a much higher chance of being likeable. So do yourself a favour and have a think about what the purpose of each character is. This is really important if they are going to be in the story a lot. But even the smallest of characters
Purposes can be as simple or complex as you want them to be. Your character could want to save someone or find out a piece of info. They might just want to survive or get rich! It’s up to you. But it needs to be there.
Likeable Characters Grow
Character arcs are vital. A good character is going to grow in your story! It’s really as simple as that. So it’s important that you have a think about how your character is going to change and what they’ll learn along the way. Who wants to read about characters who are the same at the end of the story? What was the point of even reading?
It’s endearing when a character learns something or becomes a better person, or even when we learn something about them. Most of the heroes and villains in a story go through a character arc by the end. It’s part of what makes stories good and what makes us like characters even more. You see, even a character who started off being likeable can become annoying and hated if they learn nothing and don’t grow. So make them grow! Let them learn a thing or two. Make them better, wiser, faster or stronger by the end. Do something with them!
But I know that character arcs aren’t easy. Not only do you need them to grow, but you also need to give them a reason to grow in the story. There needs to be an event, person or some other thing that makes them change them or shapes them into a newer version of themselves. Readers still need to believe they’re the same person! It’s all so complex to understand! So try checking out Creating Character Arcs by K. M. Weiland to help you. It’s a great book that’s packed with ways to make you a better writer.
Let Us in Their Head
This one is a lot like the backstory issue. You see, it is much easier for a reader to like a character if we understand what’s going on in their head. This is especially true of sarcastic, rude or grumpy characters. When you just see them from the outside, it’s very easy to roll your eyes and say “well, they’re the worst”. But they might be grumpy for a really good reason the reader doesn’t know about! So if you let us see what’s going on in their head a little, we might just be able to laugh with them and like them much more.
When your main character makes a choice, it’s often important for the reader to see where they’re coming from and get what’s going on behind the scenes. That way, if they make a bad choice, readers can say “well, that was a stupid choice but I get why they made it” instead of “That was a stupid choice for a stupid character”. It’s all about empathy again. If you can empathise with the character and get into their shoes, it’s going to make them 100x more likeable. Readers react better to characters they understand.
So take some time to sit down and find ways to show a character’s thoughts. That’s right. Show them, too. “She
If you want your characters to be complex and well-rounded, do yourself a favour and get notebook.ai. I swear, I’m not being sponsored by them! I just think it’s a great app that deserves a good mention. The character section of notebook.ai is full of some awesome criteria that you should fill out. Make sure you write as much as possible about each one of your characters! That way, you’ll have a mixture of good, bad and neutral character points.
Filling a profile out for each of your important characters will get you well on your way to making them likeable. It will prepare you for all the things you should add to your story to make them better characters all-round. Even better is the fact that it takes away most of the hard work that comes with planning. All of the boxes are there for you to fill. You can link related characters. You can even search for the character traits that you’re looking for using the handy page finder! It’s everything you could possibly want in a planning app and cuts down planning time so much! You can get writing as soon as possible!
Plus, filling out your character profile is 100% free. You have to upgrade to use the advanced features like magic systems, languages or landmarks, but the basics you need to start a story are all there!
Of course, you’re going to like your character. It’s much easier for you to like someone you understand! Other people might not have the same reaction, though, and you might find that they hate your character. So you need to make sure that you let people criticise your story from time to time. It will make you a much better writer in the long run!
You see, you might have reasons and motivations and good traits for the character, but these might not show as much as you think they do in your writing. You might get that Mr Protagonist is angry because his loved ones all died, but if that doesn’t show very well, no one else will feel the same way about him. And you’re the one writing, so it is easy to mistake the plan in your head for what the story really looks like. It’s a common issue because people think they can be way more subtle than they actually can be when giving their character motivations. Not a good idea. Check with a few people who have nothing to do with the story. If most of them don’t get why the character acts the way they do, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
So have a look at your characters. Are they really as likeable as you want them to be? Have you written a story people can relate to? If not, it might be time to make some small changes here and there. It will make your story better in the long run!
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