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.