Likability

by Ashy

Question: How can I make my character likable? What can I do make sure readers care about my characters?


Answer: There are a few basic methods to create a character readers like and care about, all of which have empathy at their root. For instance...

1. Make the character similar to your ideal reader. This is not always possible (or desirable) in literary fiction, but it's quite common in certain genres. For instance, women's fiction and romance usually feature a female main character of similar age to the reader. In Young Adult and Children's fiction, the narrators are usually teens or preteens.

In taking this approach, you want to give your main character problems and situations that your ideal reader can relate to.

One reason people read books is for the experience of seeing how fictional characters handle the same issues or difficulties they themselves are wrestling with, or people they know are wrestling with. It's easier to empathize with someone like oneself.

More specifically...

2. Give the character values and strengths the reader admires. Make the character someone the ideal reader wishes he/she could be. This increases empathy, because the reader already imagines him/herself being in such a character's shoes. We all like to imagine ourselves stronger, better, smarter, more successful, and more virtuous than we are.

3. Give the character weaknesses and flaws the reader can relate to. Perfect people are hard to relate to because they are so unlike us. So in addition to admirable qualities, giving your main character flaws the reader can relate to will also increase empathy and likability. For example, Harry Potter may be brave, selfless, and good at sports, but he doesn't get top marks in school and he doesn't know how to talk to girls -- traits many teenage boys can relate to. While it's true that most teenage girls do not have to compete in anything like The Hunger Games the way Katniss does, they do understand having to navigate a world where everyone expects you to be something you're not, where you can't always know who's your friend and who's your enemy, and where you're pressured to have a boyfriend you may not love just so others will approve of you.

4. Make your main character unique. Most people have a quirky friend who they can count on to see the world differently or behave differently than everyone else in their life. We like unique people because they break the monotony. Empathy works here because most of us wear a certain mask to fit in with our friends, while secretly wishing we could just be ourselves. We like people who let their uniqueness show because we secretly wish we were brave enough to do the same. (This goes back to the second point.)

5. Make your character charming. This works especially well in first person narration where the main character treats the reader as their confidant. Even if the main character is a complete villain and his explanations of why he does things make no sense, it's flattering to have him tell you his secrets. You can't help like the character more for that.

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