Secrets to a likeable character.

When I see the rule scattered across the blogosphere not to create an unlikeable character,

I pause.

Is this one of those rules that can be misleading to a newer writer? (Because there were plenty that threw me when I was starting off.) An unlikeable character to me is someone I don’t care about. Not someone who is mean.

A likeable character:

  • Does not always mean sweet, innocent, or moral. (Boring!)
  • Does not mean everyone in the story must like them. (No conflict!)
  • Does not mean they have to make morally right decisions.
  • Does not mean they are polite and respectful to their parents.
  • In fact, they could even be kind of obnoxious and mean to their peers. (Ramona, anyone?)
  • And seriously, it doesn’t mean they have to be the outcast. (Though I suppose that’s the easy way to manipulate your reader into liking them.)
  • It doesn’t mean they have to be the one being bullied and mistreated.

In fact, when done well, some of my favorite characters started off kind of like the bad guy. (I heart villains!)

Secrets to creating a likeable character:

  • Create a thought life that connects the reader to the character. Major subtext needed.
  • Make the reader care about the character even if he’s still rough around the edges.
  • Show a home life or life outside of his/her peers that explains why a character is acting unlikeable. (Get straight to the heart.)
  • When no one is looking, show the soft side. Have him a save a cat or something like that.
  • Show all the areas where this character could grow.
  • Show the why behind the character’s unlikeable actions.
  • Give him a goal that will force this unlikeable character to change.
  • The most unlikeable character to me is the boring character. But show some juicy internal conflict and I’m all yours!

Any other tips? Any unlikeable likeable characters come to mind?


32 Responses to Secrets to a likeable character.

  1. Katie Ganshert January 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    I’m bookmarking this one, Laura! Very good stuff!

  2. V.V. Denman January 31, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    This is extremely useful information for me right now. I’m working up character sketches today. Thanks!

  3. Jennifer Shirk January 31, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Susan Elizabeth Phillips usually writes an unlikeable characters in the beginning–but you understand why they are the way they are because their motivations are clear. Then she slowly shows them changing and then by the end you are totally rooting for them.
    I think if the reader understands upfront why a character is acting a certain way then the reader will hang on for the rest of the story to see what happens and to see if that character changes.

    • Laura January 31, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      Jennifer – Personally, I really like the “Unlikeable” character if he/she is done right.

      V.V. – Thanks. I’m constantly thinking about characters!

      Katie – Thanks!

  4. Anna January 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    Great post! I don’t mind if a character isn’t likeable as long as there’s something there I can relate to. I have to say, though, that characters who just won’t stop talking and have to tell you their opinions on everything really turn me off!

  5. Kelly Polark January 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Great post, Laura! I disliked Snape as a character at first in HP but he was so complex that you couldn’t help but feeling for him, especially after hearing about how he was treated at school.

  6. Laura January 31, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    Anna – yeah, there are certain character qualities that will turn me off too. I can see how being opinionated would get annoying!

    Kelly – I love Snape. I thought he was so well developed.

  7. Angela Felsted January 31, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Internal conflict is the name of the game I guess. Easier said then done, I need to work on this one.

  8. Stina Lindenblatt January 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    It’s not so much that they have to be likeable. They have to be sympathetic. I’ve read some great books in which the mc wasn’t nice, but you don’t know that until the story unfolds and you see the real her. But there was something about her in the first few chapters that is relatable. Fortunately by the end of the book, she’s changed as a person and is now likeable.

    Great post as always, Laura!

  9. christine danek January 31, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    This is very true, but sometimes hard to accomplish. I heart villians, too. I sometimes find writing the villian is easier than writing the good guy.

  10. Laura January 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    Angela – Internal conflict is always hard to get right. At least for me!

    Stina – I agree, Stina – likeable is about rooting for them, not how they act!

    Christine – Me too! Writing a likeable unlikeable character is extremely hard!

  11. Lydia K January 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Agreed. Great post as always. I especially like the part about showing where they can grow. That’s so important!

  12. Patti January 31, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    I liked what Stina said, it’s about sympathetic, because if you don’t care about the character, you’re not going to invest your time to read about them.

  13. Jill Kemerer January 31, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Writing the ellusive “likable” character can be tough. Your list helps so much–especially the point that the reader has to care about the MC.

  14. Karen Strong January 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    Another great post, Laura.

    I hate boring characters too. Especially the “goody-two shoes” kind. I like characters who make mistakes and do things that blur the lines.

  15. Sherrie Petersen January 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    I’ve heard people say that Artemis Fowl is an unlikeable character. I mean, he is a criminal mastermind who kidnapped a fairy and held her ransom, but I absolutely LOVE him!! He has his own convoluted reasons for his actions and throughout the series we get to see him grow and change. He’s not a perfect child, but he’s a fabulous character to read about!

  16. Kris January 31, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    I was going to say “Case in point: Snape” but someone beat me to it.

    Great post, Laura!

    • Laura January 31, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

      Some great examples here. Snape, Artemis Fowl! Thanks for commenting everyone!

  17. Creepy Query Girl January 31, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    There are the characters we love to hate. All they need is one redeeming quality. Kind of like snape from HP. He was god-aweful but at the end of the day ‘he did it for love’:) GP!

  18. Lisa Green January 31, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    So glad you pointed that out! Too me the most likable characters are those that have flaws. No one’s perfect. And your characters shouldn’t be either! GIve them room to grow. And, uh, I <3 bad guys too!!

  19. Elle Strauss January 31, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    It’s interesting how you say, make him like a cat…I’m reading a screenwriting book right now called Save The Cat! and that’s exactly his reasoning. If you want people to root for a less than perfect character you have to give them at least one redeeming quality.

    Great post!

    • Laura January 31, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

      Elle – That was a play on Blake’s book. I read it and loved it! 🙂

  20. Susan R. Mills January 31, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    It’s all about making sure the reader connects to the character in some way. A well-rounded character will have flaws galore, but also some redeeming qualities. You’ve summed it up very nicely here.

  21. Karen Lange January 31, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    Good stuff! I always want to bookmark these when you share them! 🙂

  22. Susan Kaye Quinn January 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    McKee made a brilliant distinction between sympathetic and empathetic characters. In short, we don’t have to like a character, we just have to be able to imagine some way, some how, that we could BE that character. A solid internal conflict would do that in a heartbeat (who hasn’t been internally conflicted?). Or a heartbreaking reason why they are the sorry pieces of humanity that they’ve become. Some touchstone that says, “that could be me…” 🙂

    Great post!

  23. Jen Daiker January 31, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    Jennifer Shirk makes a great point! S.E.P. likes to keep her books filled with unlikeable characters that you soon don’t realize you hated in the first place.

    One of the first things I learned while writing is you don’t always have to like your character but you do have to embrace the feeling you have for them.

    I think Stephen King (in his book On Writing) makes a great point with his story Carrie. He hated her but later learned to pity her. So while in writing the story you never truly relate to Carrie you just feel sorry for her. That was a book he never intended on finishing but his wife new it would be a great book so she pushed.

  24. Robert Guthrie February 1, 2011 at 3:16 am #

    Yup, save a cat. In tons of movies the main character will pet a dog, or do something nice for a kid, early on to establish likability. We might never see the cat, dog or kid again, but we like the main character. Mission accomplished.

  25. Paul February 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    Great post, Laura!! I’ve worked on this issue in my own writing b/c some of my characters do bad things!!

  26. Terri Tffany February 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    I really struggled with this liking your MC aspect at first.I liked my character but others found traits that bothered them enough that it made them dislike her. So I had to work at getting her sympathetic right off the start and then allow her to make some bad choices etc and seemed to work much better.

  27. patti February 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    This post is soooo right on and a mistake I made for years. I JUST finished a big-time novel that for me fell flat because…

    I didn’t like the spoiled, trying to be cute character.

    You give us great tips for getting it right.

    Blessings, dear one.

  28. Lara Dunning May 25, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    Great tips Laura. I particularly don’t like the whiny character. That will immediately make me stop reading the book.


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