Let’s make it clear from the start that I’m not saying that ALL your characters should be likeable. Of course not. We all need characters that we love to hate! But when it comes to the main character – think carefully before you present this person to your readers. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to refer to the main character as “the hero”. Used here, this is a generic term which applies to females as well.
1. Make Your Main Character Someone With Whom YOU Would Like to Spend Time.
Let’s face it: if this character is someone YOU’D go out of your way to avoid, how can you expect readers to spend hours of their time ‘becoming’ him or her? For that is exactly what happens in a novel – if it’s well-written, the reader forgets that she is reading and becomes totally absorbed in the story world. She knows what the main character is thinking, what he is feeling, what he sees, what he hears, what he touches, tastes, smells and senses.
When you’re deep inside someone else’s point of view, you are looking at the world through that person’s perspective.
- How would you like to be trapped for hours, days or weeks (depending on how long it takes to read the book) in the skin of someone you don’t like?
- How would you like to ‘become’ someone who is mean and sarcastic, alienating everyone?
- How would you like to ‘become’ someone who experiences violent rages and takes pleasure in cruelty?
It’s one thing showing what the hero of the story does when he encounters these people and has to deal with them. It’s quite another to be forced to spend the entire book inside the skin of someone you wouldn’t spend five minutes with in your own world. If readers don’t like the main character, they will stop reading. And who could blame them?
2. Give Your Main Character Challenges – But Give Them Enough Backbone To Deal With Them
You don’t have to make your character bland and boring, or a goody-two-shoes. It’s quite okay to give your character a few flaws – in fact, it’s desirable. Readers get bored with too-perfect characters. (Understandably. Most of us are not perfect ourselves. We prefer characters who are more lifelike!)
However, when you are choosing flaws, be careful about the ones you choose and how you handle them. An example: Let’s say your character has a quick temper. She knows this. She knows it’s a flaw. Most of the time, she battles to control her temper – and most of the time, she wins. But occasionally – probably, rarely – she lets fly and hurts someone with her words or actions. She is consumed with guilt and regret – and wonders if she’ll ever overcome this tendency. She is worried because she has experienced first-hand what it’s like living with someone who has a bad temper, and makes no effort to control it. She has spent too many years on tenterhooks, wondering if it’s safe to go home. This is okay. It’s a believable character flaw, given her background. It’s also something that can largely be controlled. We admire her for her stance, and when she does allow her temper to get the better of her, we suffer with her as she tries to make amends.
We would NOT be sympathetic, however, if she lost her temper regularly and thought she could make up for it by simply apologising. That does not show control. That does not show a sincere desire to change. And above all – we don’t like to be around people who are constantly bad-tempered. We don’t like them, and it’s no fun. Readers feel just the same way.
3. What Makes Us Want Characters to Win Through?
Again, you simply have to turn to real life to find guidelines for creating characters that readers will eagerly get to know. We cheer for people who:
- keep trying, no matter what life throws at them
- put others before themselves
- face up to bullies
- give up something dear to them to work toward what they want or need
- stand up for others who are weaker, or too young/too old to speak for themselves
- have overcome one obstacle after another to achieve a goal
- persist in their efforts to right a wrong
We become irritated with (or actively detest) people who:
- are bullies
- are patronising
- pick on those weaker than themselves
- use violence to get their own way
- gain pleasure from ruining the lives of others
- constantly moan about their lot in life without doing anything constructive to improve it
- are constantly depressed, negative, or sorry for themselves
- always jump to the wrong conclusion and don’t allow others to explain themselves
- gossip and spread rumours that are damaging to others
I know that both these lists could be a lot longer. I’m sure you can add to them – and it would probably be a good exercise for you to do so. I have read plot outlines where the heroine spends most of the book suffering from extreme depression. Like most people afflicted with this malady, the heroine is incapable of helping herself – life just seems too grim. While this person could have a place as a character in a book, she would not make a good MAIN character – because the reader has to spend too much time in her skin. Too depressing! If you want to tell the story of someone like this, tell it from someone else’s point of view (someone we like). Other plot outlines have told me about:
- bullies who repent near the end of the book and try to mend their ways. (Nope – I still don’t want to spend 200 pages going through this bully’s journey.)
- characters who are mentally ill and exist in a kind of fantasy world for most of the book. (Ditto. I like being sane. Show me what it feels like to be insane in small doses, please – short scenes! The rest of the time I want to be in the mind of a sane person.)
- characters who are sad because of a great loss – and stay that way for most of the book. (We feel sorry for people who have suffered a loss – but it still becomes wearing to be around them for long. We cheer for people who make huge efforts to overcome such a loss – and especially if they go on to make it somehow meaningful.)
- a character who is an habitual liar and who irritates others around her so much that she is essentially friendless. (What is there to make me warm to a person like this? Sure, she’s an unfortunate soul – but it’s not my job to make her feel better; she needs to take her life in hand and overcome obstacles with good cheer if she wants me to stick with her throughout an entire novel.)
Before you sit down to spend months – even years – writing a book about someone that nobody wants to spend time with, stop and think. Start by making a list of attributes YOU like in a person. Then think about the characters that have annoyed you in published novels, as well as characters that you liked. Especially try to remember those characters that left a real mark on you – ones that you desperately wanted to ‘win’, and that you thought about long after the book was closed.
NOW it’s time to create your characters. Likeable characters, that will reward your readers for spending time with them – and that will inspire an editor to say ‘yes, we’d like to publish your book!’