Let’s talk about likable characters. One of the most important traits the main character must have is likability. And I’m not talking about being a lovey-dovey, saccharinely ‘nice’ person. A main character has to evoke empathetic or sympathetic feelings. Whether they are the good guy or the bad guy, they have to be easy to like.
That’s one of the things I like about Danny King’s The Hitman Diaries. In the book, Ian Bridges is on a quest to find ‘Ms. Right.’ Never mind that he is a professional hitman who racks up an impressive body count in the first chapter alone. Or that he is haunted by the memories of a mother he could never please. Or that he is a loner and intimidating. Ian is a man in search of love and while you understand what kind of man he is when you start reading the book, it’s not long before you start empathizing with his desire to find someone he can share his life with. At that point, you actually like him and begin to root for him to get his ‘happily-ever-after.’
Contrast this to the 1999 film, The Thomas Crown Affair, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. While Pierce Brosnan’s titular character is relateable as a Peter Pan type of a man who doesn’t know what to do with his life, time or money and is constantly looking for that next big thrill, Rene Russo’s character is less so. She is singularly focused on her job, which she does admirably as a woman in a man’s world; however, when it comes to her personality, she is not likable at all: she is conniving and a liar, but her biggest fault to me is her selfishness: in the end, she betrays the man she cares about because she refuses to hear the truth from him. He had been willing to prove his love, then run off with her, but she instead turns him over to the police. He escapes and when the truth she had been unwilling to hear earlier is revealed, she runs off to the predetermined location, expecting to see him there waiting for her. He isn’t there. BUT he does meet her later, after letting her believe she had lost him forever. Her reaction? She threatens him, before kissing him. Even if Mr. Crown was immature and non-committal, he deserved better than that.
Obviously, I’m not a fan of the film and I cringe every time my husband watches it. But when you have a likable character, you have a story that readers won’t be able to put down. So how do you do that?
- Give your character an interesting backstory. When we understand why they are they are, we care more about them.
- Make your character vulnerable. A character who is vulnerable, damaged, or hurt physically or emotionally elicits more sympathy from the reader.
- Give your character goals. A character who strives towards something gives us something to root for.
- Show your character’s development. How can you show your character growing into a better person over the course of the story?
- Make your character self-aware. A character that is aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses are relateable.