How to Create Likable Characters

So I’ve started the first draft of my next book–title unknown at the moment–and I’m deep in the throes of trying to figure out what’s going on. I forget how hard beginnings can be for me. (Then again, I think every stage of writing can be difficult in its own way. Usually the one I like to complain the most about is the one that I’m working on at the moment.) The problem I face with beginnings is that I just don’t have a complete read on the main point of view characters at first. It’s like getting to know someone you’re going to be stuck with for a good long time, except in this case if that person has anything that really bugs you too much, you can just change their character or fire them and refill the position.

Mwa ha ha! The sheer power of being an Author!

I’m trying out two point of view characters for this book, something I haven’t done since the third book I wrote (and that was the only time I’ve ever tried it). It took me a few weeks, but I believe I more or less have the identities for the main characters set in place enough to start writing. I’ve got the initial chapters done for both characters, so I should be off to the races, right?

Not so much, as I was reminded of last night when my writing group had its first go at the new material. (NOTE: I realize that a lot of writers wait until they have their entire book written before they start workshopping it. I am not one of those writers. I believe one of my strengths lies in revision–in adapting what I’m writing to the whims of an audience. One of my big weaknesses is the inability to really tell what’s going on in a book of mine until someone else reads it. I completely stink at self editing, and I know it. So why in the world would I want to write an entire novel, think it’s working, and then discover once it’s all in place that a ton of it is complete garbage? I’d rather get that input early on in the process so I can smooth out rough edges as I go.)

The current first chapter of the book is told from the girl’s point of view. In my mind, she’s a snarky underdog fighting against the odds. She’s good at heart, but has a crusty exterior she throws up to protect herself. I think people will really like her and root for her, and I think she’ll be a lot of fun to write. So far so good, right?

I wanted to start right in with the action. She’s got a horrible father who’s pretty much a failure as a human being. Amoral. I’ve always found the concept of “you can’t choose your family” intriguing,. You can have some really stellar children saddled with some really awful parents–and vice versa. So I started the first chapter with the girl having a dramatic showdown with her father. The thought was that it would get my audience on her side right away, establishing the family dynamic and what she’s up against. Emotions were tense in the scene–it should have been great stuff.

Except my writing group strongly disliked it, and they were completely right.

You see, I’d forgotten some of the basics. At the beginning of the novel, everyone starts with a clean slate in the reader’s eyes. In this scene, the daughter was actually coming across as just as despicable as the father. Both of them were saying and doing awful things to each other, and so no one liked either of them. The closest I can come to describing it is the feeling you get when you turn on a sports game in the middle, and you’re unfamiliar with either team. You don’t know who to root for, and so you’re not committed at all to the outcome. Anything you see either team do on the field is going to sway your opinion, but both teams end up with an equal shot of being the one you want to win. (For me, I always end up going for the underdog–whoever seems to be behind at the moment.)

To actual fans of those teams, the lines are clear from the very beginning. They know who to root for, and that skews their entire game watching experience.

With a book, you need to remember to give people the chance to know who to root for–and why. Starting my novel in the middle of an argument with two hot headed people left my audience feeling like they didn’t like either side and wanted nothing to do with them. There wasn’t enough context given to clue readers in to what was really going on. This can be a book-breaking problem.

However, the longer I write, the more I begin to be convinced that some book-breaking problems are actually pretty simple to fix. (Book breaking *plots* can be trickier, but even they can be solved with judicious edits.) In this case, what I need to do is clear: clue readers in on who to root for, and make sure that character shows herself to be worthy of their support. There are a couple of avenues to take to do this (and I’m not going to spoil which one I’m choosing just yet, as I think some of my writing group will be reading this, and I’d like to have a fresh read on the revision). Here are the basic approaches off the top of my head:

  • If your character has a tendency to be brash or unlikable, make sure there’s someone else in the scene who’s significantly more unlikable. Your character is only as good or bad as the characters she’s surrounded by. Put Danny Ocean at the head of a charity, stealing money from the good-intentioned, and he could be a pretty despicable person. Put him at the end of a ragtag group of thieves stealing from an awful slimeball, and we all suddenly think he’s a stand up kind of guy.
  • Have your character do something noble or praiseworthy in-scene. If your character is awful, but she does something that indicates a better side, that helps a lot. You’ve got to up the noble action in direct proportion to the awfulness of the character, however. With this in mind, it’s always easier to not have your characters be ridiculously hard to like. However . . .
  • Make your main character funny. Humor goes a long way. At the very least, show us something to like about that character. Phil Connors at the beginning of Groundhog Day is a despicable human being, but he’s a funny despicable human being, and so we’re okay watching him–especially when bad things happen to him. The same holds true for Gru in Despicable Me. He gets away with being mean and awful at first for two reasons: he’s funny, and bad things are happening to him.
  • Don’t dwell on the unlikable. If one of the points of your story is that your character redeems herself, then have that redemption process start sooner rather than later. Give us an inkling of what’s coming. You don’t have to spoil the whole thing, but let your readers know you’re not going to leave them hanging. (And then be sure to follow through on that redemption. Unless this is an artsy book, but come on: who actually reads those?)
  • Give your character a history. When we deal in generalities, it’s easy to condemn and dislike people. This is easily seen online and in traffic–anywhere where people are anonymous. It’s easy to yell at the guy who cut you off or berate the idiot who’s misspelled defenses of Twilight just drive you up the wall. But it’s not nearly that easy when you know the person who cut you off is your grandma, or the Twilight lover is your niece. Once a character has a history, we can then begin to at least understand what they’re doing, even if we can’t condone it. Again, try not to make that history have to account for too much of present day awfulness. It’s a trick that can only go so far and for so long.

So there are some of the ideas and tools I usually use to balance things out. I’d be interested if any of you have any other tips or tricks you keep handy. I’m always open to learning a new approach or two. In the meantime, I’ve got to go back to my first chapter and have my main character save a puppy from getting shot in the head by her father. (Oh wait–I forgot I wasn’t going to spoil my fix. Great. Now I’ve got to come up with something else . . .)

2 thoughts on “How to Create Likable Characters”

  1. My characters got so much more likable when I instituted a “no whining” rule. My characters are not permitted to whine. Ever. I try not to write the whining, and when I slip up, I cut it ruthlessly. Whining doesn’t advance plot or character, doesn’t garner empathy, and doesn’t build relationships between characters. In short, it accomplishes nothing but annoying the reader. So out it goes.

    I am truly horrified about how long it took me to learn this.

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