Jun 18 2009
Here are some of the things that can make a character likable.
- A distinct personality, even if it’s sinister or abrasive. This is one of the reasons that Sylar (a serial killer) and Dr. House (a curmudgeonly asshat) are fan favorites.
- Relationships. These are particularly important if the character is unrelatable. If the character has a thought process that is really unusual to readers, we’ll probably get to know him through how he interacts with other people. If an unusual character isn’t interacting with other people, readers probably won’t find him very interesting because they don’t know enough about him.
- Competence. This is especially important for villains. Readers usually love the villains that scare them, and competent villains are scary. See Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.
- Relatability. For example, in young adult fiction, the hero is usually a few years older than the readers (young enough to be relatable but old enough to be impressive). Having an everyday job (or having once had an everyday job) can also help here.
- Style. Most stylish characters are competent, a bit clever and witty.
- A sense of humor. Obviously, not every story is a comedy, but even a bit of humor can make a character more likable. For example, Han Solo only got a few lines like “we’re all fine here now, thank you,” but they were enough to establish his personality.
- Flaws. Often, the flaws make a character more likable than his assets do. Flaws are more unique and they tend to stand out more. There are thousands of brave heroes, but what people remember about Captain Kirk and James Bond is that they’re recklessly brave.
- Limit the complaining! Brooding, moping, crying and angst usually make the character sound whiny. It’s really hard to like a character that whines, no matter how seriously awful his life is.
- Proactivity. This is what distinguishes Sylar (a character dealing with a seriously hard life) from someone that complains about how hard his life is. Readers would much rather see a character try to solve his problems than talk/complain about them. This is one of the (many) reasons that Han and Luke are more likable than C3P0.
- Good intentions for the villains. This is a useful way to add depth to the antagonists.
- Variety. This is particularly important for the hero. Give him opportunities to try different solutions and improvise.
- Stark characterization. Please don’t make your characters “kind of an ass” or “sort of brave” or whatever. Go big! It’ll be more distinctive and interesting than a hero that just sort of does whatever is most convenient for the plot. Also, it will raise the stakes and make the conflicts sharper.
- Growth. Stagnant heroes are usually a bit boring. If the hero’s quest doesn’t change him in some way, what’s the point?
- Vulnerable. This is particularly important for the hero. Ideally, he’s a bit less powerful than the villain and might actually lose. That will force him to be intelligent and will leave readers on the edge of their seats.
- Lone superheroes often benefit from interesting alternate identities. The alternate identity helps establish what’s at stake and makes the character feel real by giving him something to do besides beating people up. Alter-egos are more challenging for superhero teams because there’s less time available for each character.
- Context/justification. Some traits that might otherwise raise a lot of eyebrows might be forgivable or even endearing in the right context (e.g. extreme paranoia and being hyper-violent might be an issue in a police story but probably not in a zombie apocalypse or a DC fundraiser).
There are many more, I’m sure. What am I missing?