Aug 18 2011

How to Make a Serious Character Likable

Published by at 6:12 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

From my email: “What Makes a Character Likable? was helpful, but what if the character is serious and a bit of a hardass?”  Here are some ideas that come to mind.


1. The character has a sympathetic goal that calls for seriousness. For example, the protagonist in Silence of the Lambs is an FBI agent pursuing an unusually vicious serial killer and nobody else knows what’s going on besides a serial cannibal. Under these circumstances, it would probably be hard to like the FBI agent if she weren’t serious.


1.1. The character is hard, but has a good reason to be. If a surgeon snaps at a nurse for getting something 95% right, I think readers could probably be persuaded to sympathize with the surgeon because a 95% competent nurse might get somebody killed. It’d be harder to sympathize with a teacher snapping at a student that got a problem 95% right–unless he’s teaching Bomb Defusal 101. I think bigger stakes and stressful situations make it easier to like a hardass.


2. Serious characters (even hardasses) can still be witty, charming and/or funny. Some examples that come to mind include Michael Corleone from The Godfather, Dostoevsky’s unnamed protagonist in Notes from Underground, the protagonist of True Lies, Batman*, etc. For example, there’s one episode in Justice League where Batman is interrogating an Eastern European terrorist. The terrorist says, in subtitled Kasnian, “You can’t understand a word I’m saying and I wouldn’t tell you anything if I could.”  Batman responds, also in subtitled Kasnian, “I can… And you will.”  

*Superhero Nation: Hopefully the only website that has ever used Batman and Dostoevsky in the same sentence.


3. The character is serious but empathetic. For example, two detectives solving the case will probably ask for similar information, but the one that shows human concern will probably be more likable and productive. Which of these detectives would you rather speak to?

  • EMPATHETIC: “I’m so sorry about what happened to your wife. Can you think of anybody who might have wanted to harm Veronica?  [If the witness can’t think of any:] Were there any issues in your marriage?”
  • COLD: “We found unidentified male DNA on the victim. Who might she have been sleeping around with?”

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “How to Make a Serious Character Likable”

  1. Grenacon 18 Aug 2011 at 8:32 am

    Ah! I can really benefit from this article. Thanks a bunch 😀

  2. Mynaon 18 Aug 2011 at 12:44 pm

    I can think of another example, everyone loves Dr. House even though he’s a complete asshole. xD Being witty and clever goes a long way.

  3. Chihuahua0on 18 Aug 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Comically Serious comes to mind for number 2. Basically, the serious character produces comedy from the hilarious situations he encounters.

  4. Jonie Legaspion 27 Aug 2011 at 7:57 pm

    I also find serious characters much more likeable if they loosen up around friends and family. Can’t be switched on all the time, after all.

  5. shannonon 18 May 2014 at 3:28 pm

    The cold detective reminds me of season 1 of BBC Sherlock, and something that he’d ask.

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