Creating a Likeable Character from the Ground Up – The Basics
So maybe you have a character in your mind that you’ve been gestating, just waiting to give birth too. (Not the best metaphor in the book, Hannah. But then again, writing can be bloody, painful, and just kind of gross), but you’re worried that when you finally get around to shoving him/her out, you’re just not going to have something likeable. Likeable characters are key to any story – they are who the readers come to care about, and really, it is all about the readers. So here are some of my steps to creating what I hope will be a likeable character.
Name Choosing and Why it Is Important
I know the saying is ‘don’t judge a book by your cover’, but you totally do. A name needs to be pronounceable, straightforward, and make a good first impression. A unique name can do this, but so can a simple name. The point is, I know I personally judge a person in a book by their name. It’s wrong, because a character is not their name, just as a person is not their name. But there’s always names that, in real life and literary life, we assign certain traits to. Doris is going to like to read. Brittini is going to be a flake. Josh is going to be a jock. If your character name is Aethylyne Butterfly, people are going to judge that right off the bat. If you do choose an unusual, complicated name, the opening scene becomes even more crucial. Opening Scenes and First Impressions Your mom used to hark on you how important first impressions were. The same goes for characters. You want to establish things about your characters. They don’t even need to be established as a necessarily good character. Something bad could be happening. They could be in the process of committing a crime. Regardless, the first impression of your characters is crucial to impress and hook a reader. If your character comes off as a total dick, it can be off-putting to a large amount of readers. If Aethylyne Butterfly’s first appearance is her sitting beneath a giant oak, ruminating on some tragic event and crying because she accidentally squashed an ant when she sat down, it might make a reader just roll their eyes, close the book, and go outside. And as writers, we don’t want readers to leave whatever their reading for the outdoors. That’s bad writing. I’m going to use a movie example here, because movies are just stories with pictures, and while not everyone reads the same books, movies are pretty well known. In “A Walk to Remember” The opening scene introduces us to Landon, the male protagonist. First off, it’s a good name with a bad boy vibe to it. Second off, he’s seen harassing and essentially bullying someone. When something goes wrong and everyone else takes off, Landon hesitates running and instead helps, essentially indicating himself in a crime. Right from the beginning, we can see he’s a bit of an asshole, but that he has redeeming qualities. It makes his character complex, and that definitely piques a viewer’s curiousity and makes him more likeable, and we want to see him grow. Growth is key.
Avoiding the Extremes – Flaws and Conflicts
Character conflict is almost always a must. Conflict leads to growth, and growth in a character is something readers expressively look for. Without growth or lessons learned, it’s almost a waste of the reader’s time. If dickwad continues to be a dickwad, not so interesting. A dickward learns something the hard way a la Clockwork Orange, it’s satisfying. A likeable character needs to be complex. They cannot just be the way they are because that’s the way they are. They cannot be shallow. They cannot just ‘do’. In ‘doing’ however, you must avoid extremes. You must avoid the Mary Sue. Everyone hates Mary Sues, and for multiple reasons. In real life no one is perfect. Flaws are what makes people people. They are driving forces in the real world. Having Aethylyne Butterfly be an absolutely perfect and beautiful and wonderful person who poops sparkles and rainbows is not realistic. It’s off-putting. Those flaws are what makes them relatable. It’s what invokes sympathy and identification. Do we pity them, do we admire them? Hannibal Lector is an antagonist, but we still love him. He’s also not a boring character. Characters that are perfect are boring. And even if they are relatable, readers are still going to harbour a small grudge. Have you ever met a perfect person? Someone with absolutely no flaws, or someone in high school that acted as if they had no flaws other than “I care too much”? We all hated them just a little bit. We all held little jealous grudges. Your readers should NEVER feel that way about your characters. That being said, if you make an asshole of a protagonist in the opening few chapters, make sure there are at least a few redeeming qualities or explanations that the character is the way they are. Yes, everyone loves to hate a certain character, but complexity makes your characters more realistic, and thus more likeable.
Remember Your Characters are People
This is one of the biggest issues I see in books that I don’t enjoy. Characters that don’t seem like real people, or don’t react as real people would react. Did Aethylyne Rainbow’s family get brutally murdered, and she shrugs it off because forgiveness is magic? Well, she shouldn’t. If she does decide to forgive, it should arrive following a myriad of other emotions and actions that drive the story. She should develop. A good character, a likeable character, is always learning and developing. We’re all constantly changing. Characters that don’t change are hard for us to relate to, and above all a relatable character is a likeable one. Think of the people in your life. You love them because they are themselves, but you also love them regardless of flaws because of those flaws. The acknowledgement that they are flawed is a reassuring one, and if you’ve ever been in love with a person, either real or imaginary, you know that those flaws help make those people into the people you love. Remember that your characters are people like the people around you. Develop them as such. What are their fears? Their tics? Unconscious bodily motions? Develop them. All of these go into make a realistic and relatable character.
A) A regular character is a likeable character
B) A character that makes a good first impression is a likeable character
C) A character who grows is a likeable character – we root for them.
D) A flawed character is a likeable character. Perfection is not.
E) A complex character is a likeable character
F) A realistic character is a likeable character
G) A well developed character is a likeable character
H) A relatable character is a likeable character
I’ll just add in my usual disclaimer down here. I am by no means an expert at character development. Really, I’m not. The above are my own personal views concerning character development and relatable and likeable characters. If yours are different and they work for you, that’s awesome, and you rock. Different strokes for different folks.