Characters don’t have to be necessarily likeable, but readers do need to connect to them. Even the anti-hero has to have some sort of sympathetic quality. We’ll talk about how you can boost that reader/character connection. Let’s face it, if readers love a character, they’ll stick with the story.
Show of hands: Ever read a story or book that you didn’t like that well, but the character kept you going? You just had to know what happened to him or her?
Why do you suppose that is?
There are different ways of making a character likable/relatable
- Justification for shitty behavior (bad past, revenge, abused)
- Likes dogs/cats/babies—willing to go out of his way to be kind to them
- Shows likable qualities as least part of the time
- Does bad things in the name of good (Raylan on Justified)
- Does his shitty things with style and humor (humor and style go a long way)
- Does things that the reader can identify with
- Smiles through the pain, or at least takes it and keeps going
- Shows strength
- Even when totally amoral, still does positive things (The Black List, Boyd Crowder)
- Makes attempts to be ‘good’
- Recognizes failings and wishes to change on some level
Ways to make a character unlikable:
- Blaming others a lot
- Never taking responsibility
- Always taking the easy way out
- Kicking people when they are down (unless of course they totally deserve it)
- Making fun of people for no good reason
- Taking advantage of people who don’t deserve it
- Never feeling sorry/apologetic/remorseful for what they’ve done
- Never working/being lazy
These are not hard and fast rules. The truth is you can break all of these rules and succeed, but you have to be careful. Again, it’s not about being likable (unless it is) but giving the readers a way to connect and want to know that character’s story.
You deliver a person characters through four major methods:
- Other people’s perspectives
Actions and dialog tend to fall under the first two lists. What they do and how they do it and what they say.
Voice and exterior perspectives can add nuance.
Voice: This lets your reader know if your character has fears or reasons for behavior. Voice can go a long way toward making your character seem reasonable or a lunatic. Look at Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. He’s a pedophile, but seems to reasonable and ordinary for so long. He thinks of Lolita in a loving/adoring way on some level. That’s what’s so squicky about the novel—how easy it is to sympathize with him.
The voice is your character’s choice of words, tone, syntax, choice of swear words (or not), and so on. It’s a window directly into his mind.
Exterior perspective is one of your most powerful tools. If a reliable character interprets the unlikable character as hurting, then the reader will look to see why that trusted character thinks so. If your ‘good’ character says, “He’s such an ass. I don’t know why I like him.” Then your reader is going to say, okay, there’s something likable but hard to find in this character. I will look for it. Then you have to use Actions, Dialog, and Voice to help the reader find those glimpses that say this character is sympathetic.
There’s something about a character who tries and fails in being good. Maybe he succeeds sometimes, and maybe he recognizes his failings. At the same time, there’s something terrifically fun about characters who totally are sociopathic and you know it. But ask yourself—why would anyone like Hannibal Lector?
Your villains or antagonists should not be black and white with no gray. That gray makes them interesting. You want to be able to tell the story from his perspective and make him sympathetic. Not that you would, but if you could, then you understand him well enough to make him a compelling character, where readers want to like him and know they shouldn’t
Remember what Misty Lackey said: Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.
And remember Hitler thought he was a good guy. He loved, he had a dog, he was saving the world and so many people were trying to destroy it.
- Take your villain and list out his bad characteristics: At least five.
- Now list the positive characteristics. At least 5.
- Now write a paragraph or two from someone else’s point of view describing him and making him sympathetic.