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. 

When You’re Stuck On A Scene

As writers we all experience writer’s block. But nothing is more frustrating than when we are in the middle of an important scene and then, BOOM! The writer’s block strikes. And suddenly we find ourselves gently banging our heads against the desk, wondering when it will back. Getting stuck on a scene is not fun. I’ve come up with a couple ways of breaking through the writer’s block barrier:

Tip 1

Try writing the scene from the perspective of another character. Sometimes getting into the head of another character can give you a fresh perspective on your scene. 

Tip 2

Make a music playlist for the scene. Nothing helps get creativity flowing quite like music. If you use music to set the scene it might help you get through the writer’s block. I usually like to make a writing playlist ahead of time, specifically to try and get ahead of any potential writer’s block.

Tip 3

If you are artfully inclined, try sketching out the scene. Alternatively, if you’re like me and your artistic expression doesn’t range beyond stick figures then you can try making a mood board on Pinterest. Sometimes seeing a visual representation of our scene helps to get the creative juices flowing again. Alternatively, doing something creative can get us back into the writing frame of mind. 

Tip 4

Circle back to it and instead write the next scene. Just because you’re stuck on one scene in particular, that doesn’t mean that you can’t keep moving forward. Plus, this might help to get the flow going again.

Tip 5

Try writing in a different style or POV. 

Tip 6

Write the dialogue only. I really find this one particularly helpful. Sometimes we get stuck on a scene because we’re trying to set the scene with descriptions etc. But if we get the dialogue and character interactions down, we can then circle back and layer on the other elements afterwards.

Tip 7

If all else fails, get up and go for a walk, come back, make a hot cup of something, and then try again. This is my go-to solution when nothing else is working. 

What writer’s block solutions do you like to try when you’re stuck on a scene?

First Five Pages Checklist

The first five pages of your book are so important. As aspiring authors, we are well aware of their significance. And we place so much time and emphasis on getting them right. While we probably have a fair idea of what to do and not do in our first five pages, here is a quick recap of things to keep in mind when looking at the start of your novel.

Important questions to ask yourself:

Does the first line engage your reader?

Is your main character properly introduced?

Has the POV and narration style been made clear to the reader?

Does your reader get a good feel for the world – i.e. have you set the status quo?

Have you established your main character’s deepest desire?

Is there an inciting incident?

The most important thing to avoid at the beginning of your novel:

The information dump. 

Your reader is only starting to get to know your main character and within these pages, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with backstory or world building information so early on. Remember, you’ve got a minimum of 80,000 words to work with, you can take your time introducing the important background information. 

Writing Flashbacks

There are many ways that we can provide our audience with the information they need to follow along in a story. Many of us will use dialogue secondary characters to expose important tidbits of information that are integral to the plot.

However, sometimes another technique that can be used are flashbacks. These are moments within a story that take you back to specific moments within a character’s life. Flashbacks are not to be confused with simple memories. Memories can be summed up in a few sentences like “Alice held the melting ice cream cone in her hand, thinking back to the breakup. She hadn’t touched mint chocolate chip since.” Instead, flashbacks are a whole scene set in the past that takes your reader to that exact moment. And, flashbacks usually tend to expose something important. 

I had a professor in college once who described flashbacks as sort of like an “aha” moment for the reader. They are supposed to make something click in the story, whether it’s a key plot point or a breakthrough in character development. 

Since flashbacks are usually set in the past, they can be a little tricky to write as they can be jarring for the reader if not done correctly. That is why some writers tend to stay away from them. Personally, I love a good flashback. I think they’re great for giving readers very in-depth insight into a character’s origins. But flashbacks should be used sparingly – don’t include one in every single chapter or else you’ll end up with some very confused readers. 

The rule of thumb that I tend to follow for setting up a flashback is essentially what my college professor told me. She said keep them short and sweet. They don’t have to be any longer than a paragraph. And don’t use dreams as a way of setting up a flashback. It’s too cliché. Instead, she taught me to think of all flashbacks as being a doorway for your reader. While your character might be your reader’s guide, you still need something that will take your reader through that doorway. This has to be a trigger for your character to then open up that door. For example, that trigger could be the smell of lavender if your flashback is set in lavender field in the south of France. Or, perhaps a stack of dishes crashing to the floor in a busy restaurant can trigger your character to flashback to a traumatic moment in their past. Either way, it has to be something that will pull them into the flashback and then pull them out. 

So, if your character is an old woman harboring a secret about her eldest child not being her husband’s child but rather the product of an affair with a French lavender farmer, then you have two options. You can either expose it through dialogue or some other means like a found letter, etc., or you can reveal it during a flashback. If you decide that a flashback is how you want to expose the secret then you need a doorway. If the old woman smells the fresh lavender in her garden and thinks back to that wild summer in Provence, then she needs to come out of that flashback through the scent of lavender. If your character is escaping an abusive relationship and the sound of shattering plates takes them back to a really dark moment in their past, then those shattered plates need to bring them back to the present – that can be the scraping of the dishes being swept up or something like that. 

Flashbacks can seem intimidating to write, but they do add something unique to your writing. Are you pro flashbacks? Let me know!

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.