How can I make my characters likeable?
It's fair to say that we want readers to like our characters, although 'like' can mean a few different things. For instance, Jake Gyllenhaal's character in "Nightcrawler", Lou, is incredibly repulsive as a person, and yet we still want to follow his story (i.e., we 'like' Lou in a certain way). Frodo, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the likeability spectrum. Most characters are somewhere in the middle, though, where they're ultimately good people (and people working on "our side"), yet they have abrasive personalities that would stop us from wanting to get a beer with them after work. Or maybe they're great people, but are constantly screwing up the big presentation others are working so hard on.
But how exactly do we get readers to love our characters as much as we do? Read on to find out!
Saving the cat
The term "save the cat" comes from screenwriter Blake Snyder and his book by the same name. It refers to a character performing a heroic act early in the story, which could – literally – be your main character saving a cat, because how could you not like a person who just saved a cat?! It's a great way to introduce a character and make them immediately likeable in the eyes of the reader. Whether it's rescuing a kitten from a tree or helping an old lady across the street, giving a character a heroic act to perform early on in the story can help readers form a positive opinion of them.
It's important to note that when we say 'heroic' in this context, we're overstating it a little. While you could certainly have your protagonist risking life and limb by sprinting across a battlefield under a hail of bullets, their act of heroism is usually going to be much lower-key. It'll be them making a tiny sacrifice just to be nice, such as giving away the spare change they were saving for the coffee they've been thinking about all day, or making themselves late to a big date by helping out the office intern.
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Beat them up or make them the underdog
This suggestion could be thought of as the cousin of 'save the cat'. In it, the main character has so much junk heaped onto them early in the story that you can't help but feel sorry for them (and, hence, want to see them succeed – and perhaps get some sweet revenge?).
In "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle", the office bullies ruin Harold's Friday by dumping a whole bunch of their work onto him (and not for the first time). It means he doesn't get to relax and just hang out with his buddy, not even when they go on an adventure to get dinner.
Or maybe they literally get beaten up and picked on by a bully. This happens in quite a few Spider-Man origin stories, where Flash pushes around Peter Parker before he gets his powers. We love this, because we know Peter will one day soon be able to shoot webs and put the bully in his place!
We also like to see the lost puppy rescued! Think about why 'saving the cat' works: because we feel sympathy for the helpless cat and just want to see it rescued! The same thing works for our characters.
Showing a character's vulnerability is an effective way to make them likeable, especially when it's unexpected. This can be done in a number of ways, from having them share their innermost thoughts and feelings to showing them in a vulnerable moment.
For example, imagine we follow a gruff homicide detective that's seen it all and chews out the rookie cop that couldn't hold down his lunch at the bloody murder scene. Not very sympathetic. But imagine that upon seeing the body and reflecting that the dead young woman looks exactly like his own deceased sister that he sheds a tear? It lets our readers know that the character has some depth and isn't a heartless machine. And perhaps they'll start wondering what else is hidden inside.
Adding a humorous side
Giving the main character a humorous personality is a great way to make them likeable. This can be done through witty dialogue, physical comedy, or even well-timed puns. This can be especially useful for side characters, and is an easy way to make them stand out and be memorable.
Just like with showing vulnerability, cracking a joke will show your readers that the character has something else going on deeper inside of them, especially if it contrasts with a more serious side of them that we've already seen. Plus, you know, who doesn't like a clown?
Give your characters goals and passions
This one relates especially to what we said in the introduction about Jake Gyllenhaal's character in Nightcrawler: that Lou is not at all a likeable person, but we still like the character in the sense that we want to keep following his story. A major part of that is the fact that Lou has an intense drive to succeed that's hard to ignore. (Contrast this to any couch-bound character in your average stoner comedy.)
And it's a similar situation for Terrence Howard's character in "Hustle & Flow". Djay is an exploitative pimp and drug dealer, yet he has a strong drive to improve his station in life that ultimately leads him to producing a rap album. Just like with Lou, Djay isn't a very likable person in a traditional sense, but we love his drive and passion, and we want to follow his story and see him succeed.
Making them relatable
We all like people that we can see ourselves in, and this can come in several flavours.
The first is to have relatable goals and desires (which melds well with the previous suggestion). Lots of people struggle to pay off their debts or worry about sending the kids to college. Or maybe they're trying to make it big in music or sport.
Or perhaps your characters are in a particular class or group of people. Are they from an immigrant family? Coal miners? From a country town or a big city? Did they grow up poor or in a single-parent household? All these people will have different but very specific mannerisms and vocabularies that will both help to give them authenticity but also to help many readers see themselves in your characters.
Putting it all together and giving characters depth
This is less of a specific suggestion and more of a reminder to give your characters depth. Because even if you use all of the suggestions above, if the character doesn't feel like a real, fleshed-out person, your readers aren't going to connect with them at all.
The only robots we like are the ones that feel "real" because they have a (potentially simulated) personality, and your flesh and blood characters need the same thing!
So have your character show some vulnerability or sacrificing something small to save a cat. Demonstrate their goals and passions, and that we aren't going to be following around a character that's headed home to watch TV all night. Two or three small things put together will create a character far greater than the sum of their parts.
Create a backstory
This is something you can do all throughout your story (although, the vast majority of backstory will usually appear in the first half), and is the extension of the previous suggestion. Give your characters depth and likability by slowly building out their backstory. Let us see them save a cat, then show us a homelife that is difficult for them to bear, and the boss that is always piling on more and more grief. And show them tinkering in the basement and sweating away at their hobby that maybe, just maybe, will carry them away to their dreams.
Making characters likeable in stories is an important part of writing a successful story. This article has explored a variety of tips and techniques, from saving the cat to making them relatable, that can help make characters more likeable in stories. By following these tips and techniques, readers will find themselves more engaged with the characters in your stories.