In honor of the Writing Idle podcast on crafting likable characters, which we recorded tonight, I thought I'd talk a little about what makes a character likable, and almost as importantly, do they have to be likable?
I am a big fan of complex characters in my writing.
I really want my characters, especially my POV characters, to be real and nuanced people. This means that they are going to have flaws, because let’s face it, we all do. It’s part of being human.
In my novel, In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, it’s possible that I edged too far over into writing characters that were too real. A consistent comment I have received in reviews and at book clubs that I have attended is that the characters are well-drawn and complex to the point of being shockingly real. The characters are what people either love or hate about my novel. Readers find Richard, the husband, narcissistic and sociopathic, even though there are lots of people in the world who are. Natalie and Daniel are too weak and in the thrall of Richard, even though these sort of co-dependent relationships are common. And please note, all my characters had very likable characteristics too. Richard saved his brother’s life, Natalie saved the farm, and Daniel took care of the farm animals and loved Natalie.
So, should I have tried to make them more likable?
The short answer is, it depends. Readers have different tastes and tolerances for characters who are likable. Some readers prefer characters who are almost flawless heroes or heroines. Read a few romances and you will see many of these almost perfect characters. Other readers don’t mind seriously flawed or even almost unlikable characters. Literary fiction is replete with pretty unlikable characters. Consider Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, or Humbert Humbert from Lolita. True they may have a few redeeming characteristics, but would you want one of them to be your BFF, would they even be capable of it? Nevertheless, readers snapped these characters up. Read Adrienne Crezo’s take on the importance of unlikable characters.
What are the characteristics that make characters likable?
Let's just say that I wanted to make sure all of my characters were likable. How would I go about it? Characteristics that theoretically make characters more likable include:
1) Not being too vile or mean.
Even bad characters have to have good characteristics, and most readers would not want to spend too much of a novel in the head of a truly bad character. Dropping into the head of the truly bad villain occasionally is okay, but they have to have some good characteristics—perhaps they love animals, or their mother—or they have a good reason for their badness—perhaps they were abused as a child. It is hard to define what is too vile or mean though and if done with delicacy, a terrible character can be likable. Hannibal Lecter is in theory pretty vile character and yet people liked him.
2) Not being too perfect or good.
Someone who is too good, or perfect is also annoying. Nobody is perfect. And we are quick to hate someone who appears to be. Flaws, such as having a quick temper, being clumsy, or disorganized, make a character relatable. Your character has to make the wrong decisions sometimes, or let their flaws show through occasionally. At the same time, they must also be aware of their flaws and strive to keep them a bit under control.
3) Not being too annoying or crass.
We all know annoying people. We all know people who engage in crass or rude behavior. We might even do some of those things ourselves sometimes. But just as we do not want friends who are consistently annoying, crass or rude, we don’t want to spend too much time in the head of someone who is that way. We also don’t want too much information regarding certain aspects of the person’s life.
4) Having a backbone or agency.
They have to take action and do something or they are boring. Characters who simply react to everything, even though this is in fact what some people in the world do, are often not as appealing to readers as characters who are more active in creating their own destiny. On the other hand, Bella Swan was a character with limited agency and obviously readers liked her, or liked something about Twilight (maybe it was the sparkles). Anna Karenina is another famous pretty weak character.
5) Having a goal and being persistent.
This relates to having agency. Characters we like have to have something they want and work toward achieving it in a persistent manner. They can give up or take a rest occasionally (this can be the dark night of the soul for your character), but they eventually need to pick themselves up and go on again.
6) Having other “good” characteristics.
To be likable, in addition to having a backbone and a goal, your character often will need to have a blend of other good characteristics. Not too many of course, but enough. Characteristics that readers often find appealing include being modest, courageous, kind to others, fair, funny and dependable, and uncomplaining (few people like a persistent whiner).
7) Being complex.
This relates to not being “too” anything above, but it goes beyond that. Do your characters have unique or idiosyncratic obsessions? Do they have a history? Do they have interesting skills or party tricks? What are their fears? We all have quirks and different aspects of our personality that make us unique. Your character should have those too. Just being Prince Charming with no other major characteristics other than a nice smile, horse and lots of money does not make for a likable character.
8) Having a name that suits them.
This is a minor point, but important. Names matter and say a lot about a character. It is not a matter of having a likable name, but having the name that suits the character. Think Ebenezer Scrooge, Scarlett O’Hara, or Atticus Finch.
9) Reacting the way real people react.
If your character’s family is murdered in the night, or she turns up to the ball with her dress tucked into her underwear, it is important that your character respond in at least one of the ways we all think we would respond, not making too light of certain situations, and not going over the edge in other situations. Characters have to be realistic in order to be relatable.
10) Learning and growing.
While readers may not be thinking it as they go into a story, we all (apparently) like characters who learn and develop as a result of their actions and the things that happen in the story. Just was we don’t like someone who seems stuck by their life situation, we don’t love characters who seem incapable of change, even though realistically, many real people are in fact stuck or incapable of change. This relates back to having agency. They have to be willing to stand up and do something, about something. That way we can root for them while they are undergoing their growth. You can’t root for someone who never gets out of bed… well you can, but it soon becomes evident that it is fruitless.
11) Being good looking.
This one is not a necessity and there are many famous unattractive characters, but many readers do like characters who are attractive. We want to live through their eyes after all, and being good looking can be enjoyable.
These are important things to keep in mind when developing your characters. The bottom line is that nobody will like every character. Just as we all have different tastes in friends, we all have different tastes in characters, and different characters will appeal to us or be more relatable to us at different points in our lives. Thinking about how likable a character is matters, but remember that likability is a complicated combination of a whole bunch of characteristics, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and motivations. The idea is to make your character complex, flawed and realistic enough to be relatable, but also motivated, cool enough, nice enough and talented enough to be a bit extraordinary. It is a tough line to walk!
On the Writing Idle podcast we talk about making your character real like your readers, but just a little bit more extraordinary, and more likely to do what your reader hopes they will do in difficult situations (that they may or may not ever encounter). Check it out!