If you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like—or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.
This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons for being that way—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.
My own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t cotton to her. And I can understand that.
If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re going to have a hard time getting readers to settle down, buy the book and the world. That’s the voice of experience talking.
This is particularly true for series characters. I recently devoured the Phyrne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood. They’re fun, set in 1920’s Australia–but the important thing here is that Phyrne, while she has her flaws, is funny, sharp, and I’d love to sit down to dinner with her (particularly if she has her staff cooking). The books are a delight and I read all twenty because I wanted more time with Phyrne. Others have felt the same for the books have been made into an Australian TV series.
As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. Kurt Vonnegut even notes in his Eight Rules to “give the reader one character to root for.” That’s good advice and if you break that rule you’d better have a good reason and even more talent.
But this brings up the question—what is likeable?
This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people—or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:
Mad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why sports figures at the top of their game—we like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.
Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child, and she may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him.
Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this).
Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times).
Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words. I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. But think of Tony Stark in Iron Man–it’s his sense irony and his humor as much as his iron suit that makes him stand out in any crowd.
Quirks – Every character needs some flaws—no one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective.
Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation—they need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks.
Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits—that would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. And keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).
Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the main character too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.
Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And if you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)
Above all remember that you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things. At the very least–make sure you like them and find them fascinating.