There’s no shortage of blog posts about what makes characters likable to readers. I’ve written about the issue myself. Theories abound with different approaches we can take as writers to create likable characters.
But with every one of those posts, some will rightly bring up the fact that not all protagonists are likable. Depending on the genre or story, the protagonist might be anywhere from prickly to a full-on antihero.
Yet readers still read and enjoy those stories. Why?
It’s because likability is not the end-all-be-all for creating compelling characters that readers want to find out more about. Yes, likability is important for many stories and genres, but we can also create compelling stories and characters without that trait.
So let’s instead take a look at what options we have for creating characters that compel readers to keep turning pages…
Elements that Make a Character Compelling
Characters are a mixture of elements, and several elements other than likability can make a reader compelled to keep reading. What elements make readers want to follow these characters on the story journey? What makes them readable?
Compelling characters might be:
Yeah, yeah, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. *smile* As I mentioned in a previous post, likable characters:
- have “good,” unselfish goals,
- aren’t annoying,
- treat others well, and
- have “good” motivations.
In addition, the subtext behind their reactions isn’t undermining their “goodness.” A likable character might be someone we’d choose to be friends with in real life. They might “save a cat” or do some other good deed. We might see them being a good friend or taking care of others. It’s easy for readers to root for these characters.
Many antiheroes are compelling to read about because they’re strong in this category. Interesting characters might have:
- a compelling voice,
- an interesting job,
- an admirable skill or knowledge (including being funny),
- a strong character growth arc, or
- an interesting situation or premise, etc.
Think of those characters with very little development that we read about in plot-heavy thrillers just because their situation or the premise catches our attention. But also think about characters with loads of development who pass through a strong character arc.
It can be interesting to read about a spy trying to stop a terrorist. Just as it can be interesting to read about a normal character who experiences an inspirational amount of growth.
Some characters are so relatable to readers they become compelling. They might:
- experience the same situations we do,
- struggle with the same setbacks we do,
- share our same flaws,
- make us laugh, or
- have similar goals or needs, etc.
Regardless, we understand where these characters are coming from. We might turn the pages to be inspired in a “if they can succeed, maybe I can too” way. Or maybe we root for them because we think we deserve success, so they must deserve success too, and we want to be there when it happens to get a vicarious thrill.
Sympathetic characters are often victims of undeserved misfortune. They’ve suffered from being:
- mistreated by someone more powerful,
- unable to get a break,
- in the wrong place at the wrong time,
- humiliated, abandoned, or betrayed,
- in danger of losing relationships, jobs, home, or life, or
- powerless to stop something.
These characters deserve better than their situation. Whatever bad thing happened to them was not their fault. It’s an injustice in their life, and readers long to see the wrongs put right.
Note: Sometimes these characters don’t think they deserve better. They might suffer from low self-esteem or guilt and and self-blame. This technique can make a character even more sympathetic—as we see the damage for how they’ve been wronged—but if overdone, it could also make a character seem pathetic. Use with caution.
Mix and Match Elements
The best characters will often have a mix of multiple elements. They suffer from a backstory wound that makes them sympathetic, but they also have flaws that make them relatable and character traits that make them interesting and/or likable.
For example, an antihero might have a unique skill or knowledge that we admire despite ourselves (interesting). They might make us laugh (relatable). And they might have a tortured backstory to explain those antihero traits (sympathetic).
Or a thin character in a plot-heavy story might be essentially “good” (likable), have a special skill and be in an unusual job and/or situation (interesting), and want to fight an injustice (sympathy).
So if we get feedback that readers don’t like our character, rather than file down their prickly edges until we don’t recognize them anymore, we might instead be able to increase the mix for these other elements.
Disclaimer #1: Know Our Genre’s Expectations for Characters
Some genres allow for less of one element as long as another element is really strong. Some genres are more flexible about which elements are important or required. We need to read widely to know the expectations of our genre (and subgenre).
For example, many assume that a genre like romance requires likable characters, and some romance subgenres do have that requirement. After all, romance is all about rooting for these characters to get together, and we wouldn’t care about an unlikable character’s success and happiness in love.
However, in some romance subgenres, the likability of the hero is less of an issue. Hundreds of billionaire or gritty romances include heroes who are jerks—but they make up for it with the other elements. They’re usually super-competent in interesting ways and are often tortured by sympathetic backstory wounds, and most importantly, many of them become likable (at least to the heroine) as part of their character arc.
Disclaimer #2: The Most Compelling Character Doesn’t Have to Be the Protagonist
We can probably all point to examples like The Great Gatsby for stories where readers have debates over which character is the true protagonist: Nick Carraway, the narrator, or Jay Gatsby, the compelling core of the story. My friend Serena Yung shared another example last week when she told me about a book she was reading that was heavy on plot and light on character development—all except for the villain.
The villain was more fleshed out than any of the “good guys,” so she actually ended up enjoying that character the most. Despite that whole “villain” thing. And despite the fact that the character was actually a computer.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this computer character was why the author had wanted to write the premise to begin with. Or maybe the computer character was the “story seed” that had first given them the idea for the story.
The #1 Tip: Ensure the Compelling Elements in Our Head Make It to the Page
We often have to be careful about how we portray our characters. We may love one of our characters, but we might struggle with how to show on the page what makes them awesome in our mind.
That strong character might come across as too arrogant or unrelatable. That sarcastic character might seem bitter or mean. Or that emotionally hurt character might sound whiny or pathetic.
So no matter how we want our characters to come across, we need feedback from critique partners, beta readers, and/or editors to ensure that the character on the page matches the character in our mind. If readers don’t get the right impression, chances are good we’ve missed showing a critical element that makes us understand them. Without, showing that element, readers will be in the dark about what makes the character cool.
We can review the list of elements above to see which apply to the character in our mind and then ensure that we’ve shown that element on the page. Or check to make sure a word or phrase doesn’t undermine the impression we want. We can tell readers all we want that a character is a good guy, but if the subtext shows the reader something else, the impression isn’t going to match what we intended.
It’s easy to use a word or phrase that leaves an unintended impression on readers. Or to forget to show the aspects that make them or their thoughts or actions sympathetic. Honestly, sometimes it’s a wonder we manage to make our ideas translate into others’ heads at all. But with a mix of the right elements, we might get close enough so readers are compelled to keep reading. *smile*
Have you struggled to write likable characters? Did you change the character, or did you try to make the character compelling in other ways? Do you think strengthening these other elements might help? Can you think of other elements that might make a character compelling or readable?Pin It