Wednesday, January 18

The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series


Q: How can I make my characters come alive so much so that the reader will be ready to flip the page before they reach the end of that page?

A: You’d think creating a compelling character was the goal every time we created a character, but often we only do enough work to create someone who can carry out our plot. We want to explore the idea we have, and their personality and history gets made up to support that idea. This isn’t necessarily bad, and some great characters have been born from such a process, but it’s easy to create an actor for the stage, not a person readers will care about.

Making characters come alive is all about one thing—likability. This is what makes readers care enough about them to keep reading their story. No matter how interesting or well drawn a character might be, if I don’t like them, they won’t come alive for me. But that doesn’t mean they have to be sweet and friendly—some of my favorite characters are really bad people.

For me, likability is created within a triangle of personality built by unpredictability—competence—and inner conflict.

1. Unpredictability


Predictable characters are boring, because we know what they’re going to say or do before they say them. They might be nice, or sweet, or even interesting, but they don’t surprise us. The characters who have always come alive for me have been the ones who were unexpected in some way. They didn’t behave the way I assumed they would, they had unusual habits or hobbies, or they saw the world in a different way. Often, there are contradictions in what I’d expect from that type of character.

A good example here is Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The vampire who was also a bad poet, who romanticized love, tried hard to portray a bad boy image (which should have been unnecessary for a vampire), and had the misfortune to fall in love with the person who’d been trying to kill him for years. Spike could be evil as the next vampire, but when he did something sweet or acted with compassion you bought it, because he’d proven he had depths that went beyond the cliche. He was just as likely help the heroes for his own reasons as try to kill them, and that made him interesting to watch.

Look at your own characters and list the traits that fall outside the norm for that “type” of person (this will vary based on the norms of your story). What aspects of their personality contradict each other? Why? (Reasons here matter or the character will feel flat). What’s unexpected about them? If you don’t see anything, try taking some of their existing traits and give them the opposite of what they already have. Now how do they feel? More interesting?

(Here’s more on creating interesting character quirks)

2. Competence


I like characters who are good at what they do, no matter what that is. I appreciate a creative villain with a brilliant mind far more than a nice hero who coasts through life on his pretty smile. Being good at what you do, especially if it goes against some cliche or stereotype, is a compelling quality.

One of my favorite characters is Kate Daniels, created by Ilona Andrews. Kate is a badass for sure, with skills and talents that make her hard to kill as well as hard to “like” from the other characters’ perspective. She’s a loner, people tend to die around her, she has a problem with authority and some serious daddy issues, but she’s so good at what she does she’s a pleasure to read about. She takes pride in her badassery, even as she understands it’s one of the things that keeps her alone.

Look at your own characters and list what they’re good at. In most cases, there’s one stand-out skill that’s admirable, even if it’s a skill better suited to a villain.

(Here’s more on developing what your characters are good at)

3. Inner Conflict


Flaws create the inner conflicts that make a character feel real and relatable. We see them struggle to do the right thing, knowing that it hurts them or keeps them from what they want. This struggle makes us care, which makes us willing to emotionally invest in that struggle and character.

The character, Eleven, from Netflix’s Stranger Things comes to mind here. She embodies all three of these traits, but her conflict is heartbreaking. She wants to be loved, to belong, to have friends and a normal life, yet she has powers no one understands, she’s separated from everything she wants, she’s been horribly mistreated by those she trusted, and worst of all, she knows a terrible secret she wants to run from, but can’t. We desperately want to know what she knows and see her safe and happy, even though we fear that’s not where she’ll end up. She doesn’t always do “the right thing” because it often goes against what she wants (and what she wants, to us, is the right thing).

Look at your character’s inner conflict (if they don’t have one, that’s probably why they’re not coming alive just yet). What are they conflicted over? What is tearing them in two directions? What are they doing wrong to get (or keep away from) that conflict? How is this affecting their decision-making process? A solid inner conflict drives the character’s actions, and often helps make them unpredictable.

(Here’s more on creating inner conflict)

The triangle of likability scales from character to character, but all my favorite characters fit into it. Some might be stronger on one side than the others, but they all balance out to form a character that feels real, compelling, and likable.

(Here are more ways to make a character come alive)

What makes a character come alive for you?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

1 comment:

  1. Excellent rules.

    I think you left out what's often called the most appealing of all: perseverance. That's the trait that draws everything a story has done and converts it into all into the sense that this hero *feels* all the pain and all the hard choices he's had to go through, and yet he keeps going.

    For an example, take the Winchester brothers from *Supernatural*, who go through hell for each other (literally, almost every season finale).

    ReplyDelete