Before we dive into today's topic, just a heads up that I'm also over at Pub Crawl talking about the ins and outs of infighting between characters. Come on over and say hello when you're done here.
Unless we're creating a character we want our readers to hate, odds are we want readers to like the people in our novel. This is doubly true for our protagonist. We want to create characters who inspire, who readers love or want to be, who can sweep the story up and whisk readers away in wonder.
And those characters often come across as too perfect to be real, because we want them to be the perfect people we see in our imagination. The Mary Sue characters who do everything right and have no flaws at all. It's hard to like a character like that. They're just not someone readers can relate to.
(Here's more on creating un-likable, yet compelling characters)
There's a fine--and often moving--line between likable and perfect, which can make it difficult to create a well-balanced likable character. While every character will be different, there are some common traits likable characters share.
Common Elements to Likable Characters
- They show compassion or empathy
- They have strength or fortitude
- They display a talent or skill
- They're funny or entertaining
- They're broken in some fashion
- They have a dream
Let's look at each of these elements a little closer.
They show compassion or empathy: Nice people are nice. They care about others and have the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes. That doesn't mean they have to do charity work at the hospital every afternoon, or even be the most popular kid at school, but at their core they're a nice person. If all they have is one friend, they're nice and care about that friend. Even if it's a cat.
They have strength or fortitude: It's hard to like--or respect--a doormat or a whiner. It signals weakness, and it's hard to root for someone with no backbone at all. But strength can be a quiet thing, a sense of resolve to change a bad situation even if you're currently powerless to do so. To endure the unendurable, or defy oppression in small ways. It's that hint of iron that will keep this person from breaking and give them the ability to be the hero when they really need it. A character doesn't have to be Superman to be strong.
(Here are more ways to create a character)
They display a talent or skill: Competence at something suggests that this character will be able to do whatever the story needs them to do. They've already proven they can learn or excel at a skill, or have the natural ability that will likely apply in some way. They're not just sitting there letting life pass by, they took the time to learn or develop this skill, or did something to put a natural gift to use. Even if this ability is small or seemingly useless, having it shows a character has layers they can tap.
They're funny or entertaining: This is very subjective, and probably the hardest trait to work with, because "funny" doesn't mean they crack a lot of jokes. That's one way to be funny, but they could have a dry wit, an intriguing way of looking at the world, a fun speaking pattern--any number of things. If they're not funny, then something about them is worth watching. A reader will enjoy just hanging around them for a while.
(Here's more on using archetypes to create characters)
They're broken in some fashion: Flaws are a character's greatest strength. They keep a character from being perfect and give them things to overcome that are relatable to readers. They're often the things that make a character quirky or unique, and the things they have to overcome to succeed. Flaws make a character feel like the underdog, and readers tend to root for the underdog.
(Here's more on adding flaws)
They have a dream: No matter what it is, big or small, realistic or pie-in-sky, a likable character has a dream that shows they have ambition and a drive to do something. It turns them into people with hopes that extend beyond the boundaries of the book, and that makes them feel real. A real character is easier to connect with.
Five Ways to Create a Likable Character
Now that we have all these traits to play with, let's look at some ways to create a character.
1. Use People You Like as Templates
Think about your friends and the people you really like. What about them to do admire or enjoy? If you like those traits, odds are others will to. Try listing the things you like about someone and see how those traits can develop into a character who fits your novel. Find or create a trait for all six things of the common element's list. Don't copy anyone outright, but mix and match personalities until you can see this new person and get a feel for who they are.
2. Play the Opposite Game
Write down an example for all six elements, then create an opposing example for it. For example, if the character shows compassion by caring for her sick grandmother, give her something that shows she lacks compassion, such as refusing to help anyone else because her plate is already full. This will help round out a character who doesn't always do the right thing, even when they're doing good things. It'll also provide potential places or situations for conflict throughout the story.
3. Start With the Flaw
People often try to compensate for their weaknesses. Try thinking about how a person with this flaw might have grown up, what they faced to cause this flaw, how it helped them, how it hurt them, how it shaped their life to this point. Then think about how a person like this would exhibit the other elements on the list. Someone who doesn't trust others would show compassion differently from someone who grew up with a lot of love and attention.
4. Start With the Dream
If this dream has shaped this character, then try thinking about what they did to prepare themselves for it, or how wanting it changed them. Someone who dreams of being President probably ran in student elections, maybe got involved in local politics, or at the very least volunteered or was elected to lead whatever group they belonged to. Think about how that dream might affect the choices that character made or will make, and how it might shape their personality. Then, fill out the details on the list.
5. Start With Your Favorite Trait
You might already have a personality trait in mind, and if so, start there and think about the person that trait might embody. If they're funny, what do they use humor for? Is it to make friends? Deflect conflict? Attract attention? If this trait is a defining aspect of their personality, then why? And how might it have affected the character as a whole? Build your list based on this element.
Some elements on this list will probably be stronger or more prominent than others and that's okay. Nobody is 100% anything, so if the list feels unbalance don't worry about it. Maybe the character has a small, silly talent, but never backs down from anything. Or they're incredibly good at slaying monsters but don't have a great sense of humor. Use what works for the character you want to create.
What do you find likable about a character? Who are some of your favorite characters and why?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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