Writing Likable Characters

We all want our readers to be invested in our stories. When a reader invests in your story, they are investing in a continued journey with you as a writer. Besides having someone thoroughly enjoy the work that you put so much effort into, having an invested reader can lead to great opportunities such as representation and publication if you’re seeking a more traditional means of publishing, or a loyal fan-base and more clout on social media if you’ve chosen to go with self-publication. Either way, only good things can come for you and your book if you have invested readers. 

But what is the key to success to capturing the hearts of readers? One of the easiest ways to get a reader completely on board with your book is to create likable and relatable characters. Think of all the books that you personally like – how many of them can you honestly say you like them for reasons other than the characters? Sure, the Harry Potter series is cool and JK Rowling outdid herself when she created the wizarding world, but if you stripped all the magic away, you’d be left with only the characters. And that was truly the heart of the books. It was Harry, Hermoine, and Ron that stole our hearts and made us want to keep reading. You can try to counter argue, but deep down you know it’s true. Take any story of any genre and strip away the fantastical settings, the plot twists, the romances, etc. and you’ll see that it’s the characters that are always at the heart of all our beloved books. 

But what is it about certain main characters that resonate with us and make us feel invested in their stories? All these beloved main characters and side characters that we love to discuss at length with friends, cosplay at events, or make fanart for; the one thing that they all have in common is their likability and relatability. So how do you go about creating characters that people like and want to follow?

Here are some tips:

Vulnerability– giving your character a vulnerability is one of the easiest ways to get your character to resonate with readers. This vulnerability can either be a physical one like a handicap or an emotional one. Either way, seeing a character struggle with their own weaknesses, hopes, limitations, or fears is always a way to get readers to see themselves in a character. 

Backstory– kind of lining up a bit with the vulnerability point is backstory. Introducing a why for the character’s actions or thoughts is always a way to make them seem relatable. And looking to their backstory is a good place to start. This is particularly helpful if you want to write an antagonist that is well-rounded and not just a straight up A-hole. Sometimes some of the best villains have some of the saddest or complicated backstories. Take the most recent Joker film. This is a perfect example of a well-rounded villain. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a bad guy, but getting to see his origins definitely helps us better understand his motivations. And in doing so we end up feeling bad for him – something that ends up making him more relatable in our eyes.  

Failure– letting your main character fail isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can definitely help the relatability of a character. We’ve all faced failure within our own lives. We all love an underdog story with the odds stacked against them. Let your character fail and make a courageous comeback. Their resilience will speak volumes with readers because we’ve all been there. 

Morals– most for the heroes of our stories making them be nice helps a bit. We want to think of characters as being generally nice. Characters that show kindness, generosity, or selflessness are generally seen as “good” and you want your characters to be good. No one likes a character that will kick a puppy and laugh. Of course, steer clear of making them a goodie-two-shoes. Some character flaws do make them more “human.” Also, don’t be afraid of giving your villains some morals too. Just because you have a supervillain who wants to destroy the world doesn’t mean that they can’t have a moment of selflessness. How many times do we end up liking villains after they end up redeeming themselves by showing a selfless side to them? Think Shadow Weaver’s sacrifice of herself to save Adora and Catra in Netflix’s She-ra. Personally, I shed a tear at that.

Humor– whether they’re self-deprecating, snarky, or just plain silly, giving your characters some sort of sense of humor makes them relatable to readers. We all love to laugh. It’s the next universal language besides love. So, it only stands to reason that readers would gravitate towards characters that have a funny side to them. And so long as their humor is true to the character’s personality, it will resonate with audiences.

Self-Awareness– let’s face it, flawed characters are the best characters. But the key to a good flawed character is that they’ve got enough self-awareness to be able to say sorry once in a while for their shortcomings. Giving your characters, particularly your heroes and heroines, a moment of “yeah I know I’m an A-hole sometimes but I’m trying” can definitely help readers cut them some slack for some of their more morally questionable actions. 

Fear and Pain– having a character be motivated by their fear or their pain can definitely make them relatable to readers. How many of us in our everyday lives are motivated to action by pain and fear? That 20-page college paper we’ve all written the night before it’s due was definitely written on pure motivation from fear of failure and a painful lack of sleep. Having characters move through plot points based off their fear and pain will definitely make them relatable. After all, nothing is more human in this life than feeling pain and fear, which is why our characters must feel these things too. 

Killing Characters

This seems to always be a divisive subject amongst writers. Some writers wouldn’t dream of killing off one of their characters, while other writers are more than happy to recreate their own versions of the infamous Red Wedding from Game of Thrones within their own works. Within the realm of fiction, character deaths can extend beyond just those of the villains. Side characters and even some main characters can be subject to meeting an untimely death. These are the characters that readers will mourn, especially if they happen to be a fan favorite. As writers, we know that not every character’s story can end in happily ever after. But killing characters can be a delicate art. You don’t want the death to be pointless, you want it to mean something. Below are somethings to keep in mind when you’re contemplating a potential character death. 

Positive Reasons to Kill a Character:

1) Kick off the inciting action or to reveal a hidden secret. Sometimes our main character needs to experience the death of another character in order to get them to begin the proverbial hero’s quest. But at the same time, you don’t want the death to come across as cheap writing or cliched. You want this to be meaningful to the plot. In order for the death to be meaningful to the story’s plot, ask yourself if this inciting action can be kicked off any other way? Or can this hidden secret that is integral to the plot, can that be discovered any other way? If not, then you can proceed with the character’s death.

2) To motivate other characters. Again, death can be a great motivator to both heroes and villains. But you don’t want it to be the sole purpose of their motivation, meaning don’t kill a character just to get your hero or villain started on the path of their character arc and development.

3) To highlight a universal truth within your story’s universe. Sometimes some character deaths have to be sacrificial for the greater good of the story. If death is the only way to highlight a universal truth in your story, then do it. Or if you’re writing a series and you get to a point where there is no other way to illustrate a continuing theme then use a character death. 

4) It’s the only logical way of ending a character arc. There are plenty of ways for your character to come full circle and grow. Death doesn’t always have to be the answer. However, there are times when it is the only answer. As the writer of the story, you will know if this is the only way of wrapping up a character’s arc. 

Negative Reasons to Kill a Character:

1) Solely for the purpose of shocking your audience. No, no, no. You will only make your fan base angry. Don’t alienate your fan base.

2) To start some drama. If you’re killing a character just to spice things up within your story, then you really need to re-evaluate your plot. There are definitely tons of other ways to shake things up without having to kill a character. My personal rule is if you feel your story needs something shocking like a death to save it, then you really need to start from scratch again. 

3) Just for the character development of someone else.Yes, sometimes either a hero’s backstory or even a villain’s backstory will include the death of someone close to them in order to get them started on their respective paths. However, killing a character just for the purpose of further developing another character is not necessary. You can achieve the same effect with a less tragic accident. For example, if your story is about two brothers who haven’t spoken in 10 years, you don’t need to reconcile them by having them lose their mom in a firey car crash. Simply having her hospitalized with a broken leg would be enough to get them back in town and have to face one another and eventually reconcile. You still achieve the character development but without the character death. 

4) You’re unsure how to further the character’s storyline. This more applies to minor characters who sometimes serve their purpose in a story, but then we, as writers, don’t know what to do with them. While the topic of what to do with minor characters after they’ve served their purpose is always up for debate, killing them off isn’t advised. It serves no purpose and if they happen to be a well-received minor character, this can end up angering the fandom. 

5) You don’t like them. We’ve all had characters that we don’t like in our stories. And I’m not necessarily talking about villains. Sometimes as writers we create minor characters or even major characters that, as we get into the writing process, come to find we don’t actually like writing them. Either they’re too boring, we’ve gotten sick of writing them, or we simply can’t connect with them. The easiest solution to this is to remove them all together from the story. Make it such that they’ve never existed within our story’s universe. Sometimes I have found that these characters I don’t like are simply in the wrong story and once I find where they fit, they work much better. I’ve also found that if a character is easily removable from the story, then they were irrelevant to it anyways. Of course, problematic characters aren’t always easily removable like this. Sometimes a character needs to be in a story but we, the writers, just can’t stand their story anymore. Don’t kill them off, find another less dramatic way of writing them out.

How to Write Side Characters

When written correctly, side characters can actually be some pretty interesting people. Plus, they add a lot to the story. Yes, we all have to put effort into making our protagonists and antagonists multi-dimensional characters, but that doesn’t mean we’re allowed to forget about our side characters. While they might be minor characters in the grand scheme of things, they’re still vital to the telling of the story as they serve many functions such as revealing key details, motivating the protagonist or foiling the protagonist, and sometimes helping to outline certain plots in the story. These secondary characters can either interact with the protagonist through dialogue or through a memory that the main character has of them. 

Whichever way you choose to have your main character interact with your side character(s), it’s important to remember the main function of the side character: to help progress the story forward somehow. 

With that in mind, here are some tips to making sure your side characters are not one-sided.

Don’t get stuck on the little details:

Yes, writing a rich backstory is important to understanding your side character. But not everything has to be in your story. Just include the parts of the character’s backstory that are relevant to the plot and that move it forward. Don’t get stuck on the little details that don’t matter. It’ll only end up confusing your reader. A good tip to bear in mind is to ask yourself “does this add to the main story or distract from it?”

Don’t make them solely good or solely bad:

The best way to add dimension to your characters is to avoid making them one-sided. If they’re completely good or evil they’ll read completely flat. What I like to do for all my characters, including the side characters, is to give them three good virtues and three negative ones and work from there. The way I see it, if you mix black and white you get grey – and grey is where things get interesting. 

Don’t create too many characters:

Creating characters is fun. That is why it’s so easy to get swept up in the desire to write more and more characters, leading to your story to become very convoluted. If you ever read War and Peace, you know just how long that list of characters is. And if you read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you probably had to refresh your memory a couple times while reading as you tried to keep up with all the characters. While Tolstoy somehow made it work in 587,287 words, most of us are probably working with a much smaller word count goal. Therefore we shouldn’t make it too confusing for our readers to keep up with our cast of characters. 

The side characters are there to develop the main character(s):

No matter if you have one side character or five, they all share the same exact purpose: to develop the main character. Side characters can be used to expose key plot points without you necessarily going into exposition mode and “telling” what is happening, but rather “showing” it through the characters. A side character should never be just background noise, each side character should be an active participant in the story and either support your main character or provide an obstacle for them (without necessarily being the antagonist). 

Use them to help bring the world to life:

This is particularly helpful if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi. Secondary characters can be tools used to help bring the world you built to life. Physical descriptions, personal experiences, these are all ways that the side characters can help to better illustrate the world you’ve created. 

Try to keep them in one space:

In order to make it easier for your readers to keep up with your secondary characters, it’s a good idea to tie them to one location whenever possible. That means that your side character exists in one spot, like the bar, school, the library, etc. and they never venture beyond this point. But remember, even if they only exist as the woman in the coffee shop, they still need to serve a purpose to moving the story forward. It’s easier for your reader to learn character names etc. when they are in one location. But if you do move a secondary character around, do it with purpose. 

Give them a reason for being in a scene:

Speaking of purpose, you should make sure that your secondary character has a purpose for being in a scene. Like I said in the previous point, your side characters should really be kept to one location if it can be helped. But if you do end up moving them around, make sure that there is a reason for them to be in a different scene with your main character. If there is no good reason for your side character to be in the scene then it’ll just read as awkward and confusing. 

Do’s and Don’ts of World-building

If you’re writing either a fantasy story or a sci-fi one, there is no getting around the world-building. It’s pretty much essential to your genre. World-building occurs when your story’s world deviates from the “rules” of present world that we occupy. So even if your story isn’t set in an entirely different planet, but it’s got a little dusting of magic thrown in, guess what? You’ve entered the realm of world-building. And that requires us to begin looking for and providing explanations for why our fantasy world functions the way it does. 

When it comes to the art of world-building, there are certain things we need to keep in mind. Even though world-building does break the rules of our present space, there still is a certain way of creating your fantasy or sci-fi world so that it reads coherently and doesn’t come off as a big hot mess to your readers. 

So, if you’re grappling with how to create an alternate reality in which your world is set, here are some common mistakes you might want to avoid making:

Spending too much time world-building: There is such a thing as spending too much time building your world. While you do need to build up your world and explain the whys and hows, what you don’t want is to get so wrapped up in creating the world that your book reads more like a history lesson than a story. The way I like to do things is I like to create the entire world separate of the story – complete with a history and a language if there is one – and then just pick and drop in the bits that are relevant to the story. I don’t know how many are familiar with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, but it’s the theory of omission. There is only 5% of the story on the surface while the rest of it is underwater. And if the writing is clear and concise, then the reader can infer the other 95% of the story. It kind of works like a show, don’t tell sort of idea. But basically, I like to look at world-building with almost the same lens as the Iceberg Theory. If you know the world well enough yourself, you really only need to show the reader the relevant parts while the rest is left underwater. That is why I’ll list out everything about my world ahead of time, but just include what is relevant to the plot. 

Including things that are never used: This sort of touches back to my first point. It’s okay to build an entire family tree for yourself, but unless it’s a vital part of the plot, don’t include it in the book. Same with language. Unless there is a major plot point around an alien language there is no need to include an alphabet or launch into an explanation of the grammatical rules surrounding a certain language. A simple clue that there is another language in the world – like referring to a “common tongue” or a character noting that another character has the accent of a certain tribe – is more than inclusion enough. Don’t over explain something, especially if it’s a part of the world that doesn’t warrant an explanation in the first place. 

Not planning ahead: While there is no time like the present, getting a little ahead of yourself doesn’t hurt when you are world-building. Particularly if you’re creating a series. You want to have somewhat of a long-term grasp of your world. It helps to cut down on future plot holes. 

Lack of conflict: Let’s face it, perfect worlds are boring. Our current world is a festering cornucopia of social, political, and environmental problems the world over. But that is what makes our lives interesting – we all have our own personal struggles to overcome. We’re our own heroes or heroines in the stories of our lives, and we can thank the conflicts we face for that. Your fantasy or sci-fi world should also hold conflicts that affect or influence your characters. That is what is needed to start them on their heroes’ journey. Don’t create a perfect world, create a flawed one and watch the fun unfold. 

Creating a world that has been done before: Yes, we’re all prone to being inspired by other books or movies or TV shows that we’ve enjoyed. But the last thing you want to do is be charged with derivative copyright infringement for creating a carbon copy of a world that has already appeared in another work of fiction. Of course, just because someone has already written a book about a group of students attending a magical school, or someone else has a world in which cars fly, that doesn’t mean you can’t still write your own story. What it means is that if you’re going to have a world of flying cars, or a story about students attending a magic school, you need to put your own spin on it and make your world as uniquely you as possible. 

Breaking your own rules: Readers of sci-fi or fantasy are willing to suspend their belief. But they won’t forgive the writer for breaking their own rules. So, when you are creating your world, be sure to pay attention to the rules that you’re setting in place. If you are creating a world in which witches only discover their magic powers at the age of 14, but then suddenly you’ve got witches practicing magic and spells at 5 years old, your readers are going to be confused and upset by these plot holes. That is why as the writer and the “god” of your world, you need to pay attention to the rules that you have set forth. Don’t break your own rules. It creates a lot of plot holes and angry readers. 

Why You Should Keep Improving Your Skills #3

In life, everything is constantly changing. This applies to books and their current trending genres. One week, fairies are topping the charts, but the next, Greek goddesses have taken over. Depending what genre those examples delve in, the writing is different. Gone are the days when Tolkien’s style of writing was popular. Now, stories told from a First Person POV and leaning heavily towards romance are selling the best. Those two elements can be applied to any setting and genre, but only if you know how to execute it.

Reading in your genre is the best way to see what readers are looking for. As the saying goes, readers want to read the same exact thing, but with minor changes and some originality. Once they pick up a book by you, they expect the others to be similarly written.

If you’re expecting to sell a lot of books, it’s best to stick with the current writing styles of authors topping the charts. It’s a personal decision to attempt getting a book into all of the current trends. Sliding into even one of them will drastically boost your ratings and get the attention of new readers.

At this point, you may be getting a bit defensive at the fact you should improve your skills. There is a vast difference between style and skill. Style is the art of the storytelling. Your style may always be changing or you may have nailed it down earlier on. The skill is the execution of the writing and should always be improving.

In order to succeed, your writing skills will need to constantly be advanced. There’s not enough room for the famous “show, don’t tell” speech here, but you can find our previous articles for reference: Pitfalls to Avoid: Showing vs. Telling and Show, Don’t Tell.

Continued from
Why You Still Need an Editor After Multiple Books