Wednesday, October 23, 2019

5 Ways to Create Likable Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We've been looking at plot a lot this month for NaNo, so let's shift over and focus on creating likable characters.

Unless you're creating a character you want your readers to hate, odds are you want readers to like the people in your novel. You  probably want characters who inspire, who readers love or want to be, who can sweep the story up and whisk readers away in wonder.

And sometimes, this need to make them awesome can also make them too perfect to be real, because you want them to be the perfect people you see in your imagination. We've all read (and likely written, if we're honest) those Mary Sue/Gary Stu 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.

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 for 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.

Likable characters 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.

Likable characters 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's more on 8 Tips for Creating Characters)

Likable characters 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.

Likable characters are 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 Five Traits to Help You Create Your Character's Personality)

Likable characters are 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 Do Your Characters Have the Right Flaws?)

Likable characters have dreams.

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.

(Here's more on Create Characters in 60 Seconds)

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.

(Here's more on The Practical Guide to Using Character Archetypes in Your Novel)

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.

(Here's more on 8 Ways to Create Character Flaws: Learn All Your Character’s F Words)

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.

(Here's more on Are You Making This Character Flaw Mistake?)

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.

(Here's more on Five Ways to Create a Memorable (and Distinguishable) Cast of Characters)

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.

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake)

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? 

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn for the strength in each of them. Ben from Stephen King's IT who wasn't afraid to rage against the monster. Stu and Frannie from The Stand who loved each other despite the problems they faced apart and together. Claire and Jamie Fraser in The Outlander series for being two of the strongest people in a complicated fictional couple I've ever read.

  2. I really liked Ender from Ender's Game. He had his flaws balanced with this intelligence and strategic abilities and, when it had a chance to really show, his compassion.

  3. Bigwig from `Watership Down' because once you've earned his respect, he'll be loyal to death. Taran from the Prydain Chronicles, because he tries so hard to be heroic and trips himself up so often, but he really does have a core of honor that he doesn't recognize in himself. Fflewder Fflan from the same series, because he's funny and loyal and tries to hide his natural softness. Bilbo Baggins because he's clever and kind.

  4. Hey, this is really nice! It`s a great help!
    I`d like to thank you in advance for the great info, this`ll definitely help me in my writing for my next novel! Thanks!

  5. As much as I would like to say I have amazing characters (and to an extent I already do), I am always looking for ways to improve current characters or my future characters. This was very informative and I thank you for the information.

    1. Most welcome! Sometimes having a reminder of what we know is a great way for us to double check that we're actually doing it :)