Deb: Likable Characters

No doubt you’ve met some despicable lunks, in literature as
in life. So what’s all the fuss about likable characters?
Let’s assume you love your characters deeply and passionately,
even the evil and naughty ones (maybe you love those the most). But what if your
readers aren’t as taken by them? While characters must of course be themselves,
it’s worth noting the traits that readers seem drawn to. Likable characters
tend to be proactive and driven, though we also appreciate passive characters who
are given a chance to show their mettle. We like characters that are vulnerable
and redeemable. Charm doesn’t hurt.
Our interest in characters builds from the set up. “I remember reading once that if you want readers to
bond with your main character, put him in love or in trouble on the first
page,” says author Elise Broach. “The reason isn’t hard to fathom: it makes the
character vulnerable, and readers are instinctively drawn to, interested in,
and protective of vulnerable characters. A difficult situation with a high
emotional investment for the character sows the seeds of compassion and
affection in the reader.”Broach notes that this one trick of circumstance can
compensate for a bunch of off-putting personality traits.
Spunk, courage,
persistence, ingenuity, kindness, loyalty – these are among the traits that
make a character likable, she points out. Humor can offset a number of vices.
We’re also endeared to characters with weaknesses like poor judgment (in
moderation), as that helps build suspense.
What don’t readers like in
a character? Predictability, self-pity, preachiness, whining – we have a low
tolerance for characters that suffer from these flaws. The passive character can
be also be tricky, although a
uthor Robin Romm points out that some of
the best stories have passive protagonists, characters who have not yet acted
on their latent desires. A fierce protagonist can alarm or exhaust the reader,
Romm notes, and he may not be capable of the same revelations as a passive
character.  “The trick is that the
passive character doesn’t stay passive,” Romm says. The passive character
should be pushed toward moments of complicated crisis that make readers rethink
who she is.
Is a likable female character different from a likable male
character? Though it’s not especially literary, Shana Mlawski conducted ananalysis of Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Fav Fictional Characters list. Her
conclusions: “Most great female characters, the EW list seems to say, are
doers—not thinkers or losers or comedians or lovable ogres or what have
you.  Great male characters, meanwhile, range across the entirety of human
experience.” Perhaps, Mlawski posits, the problem lies with writers who don’t
know how to write nuanced female characters, and in particular with male
writers who are afraid they’ll be accused of misogyny if they push beyond the safe
strong female character mold. “Or is it that Hollywood’s
female characters have been focus-grouped to death, as A.O. Scott suggested
in his
(hilarious) review of Knight and Day
?” Mlawski asks. “Are writers
shackled by the market research that says that likable female characters
must be ‘tough but not aggressive,’ ‘sexy but not actually having sex,’ and ‘willing
to fall for a certain kind of guy without entirely losing their heads’?” 
“The perfect hero is the one who offers the most conflict in
the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and has a primal goal we can
all root for,” notes author Blake Snyder. Though he’s speaking of
screenwriting, it doesn’t hurt the literary writer to consider the questions he
poses on character:
  • Is
    your hero’s goal clearly stated in the set-up?
  • Do
    clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does she seek them out?
  • Is
    your hero active or passive?
  • Do
    other characters tell your character what to do, or does she tell them?
In the end, all we want is to create characters that readers
care about, characters they’ll stick with to the end and continue to think
about after they’ve finished reading.
Check This Out: You’re not a screenwriter, so why read Savethe Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need? Because Blake
Snyder will get you thinking about the stories readers and viewers like best.
And the point is for readers to get to know those characters you love, right?
Try This: In Naming the World, Eric Goodman suggests this
two-part exercise for creating nuanced characters. First, give your character
something you love – your mother’s smile, the loyal devotion of your family
dog, a treasured memory. Then let your character do something hateful, like
cheating or spreading a rumor. Once you’ve created your lovable, flawed
character, write a scene where she processes sensory input from multiple
sources, essentially occupying two spaces at one time. Let her be in one
conversation while overhearing another, or on a noisy train car while watching
her family from the window, waving goodbye.

1 thought on “Deb: Likable Characters”

  1. Hey… I just had lunch today with two most likable characters! Thanks for such an inclusive introduction to North Words. I'm so looking forward to studying with you and the rest of the faculty!

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