How do you create likable characters?
First, let's discern the difference between a likable character and an interesting character. A likable character is someone you would like to have as a friend. An interesting character is someone you want to know more about because of their importance to the plot. Often, effective villains are not likable but are still interesting. First, let's focus on how to make a character likable.
It is widely accepted that there are certain characteristics among people that are appealing. These appealing qualities are things we as human beings respect and wish that we could have as well. These qualities are universal and here are the major ones:
Helping others at your own expense.
Facing horrible odds, but not giving up.
Always doing the right thing morally.
These are the most favored qualities. If a character has one of these, they will be extremely likable. Examples of such characters include:
Sam from The Lord of the Rings. He was voted by many fans to be their favorite character in the entire trilogy. Why? Because he helps others at his own expense. He does this by being a very good friend to Frod. Wouldn't you want a friend like Sam? I would. That's why he is likable.
Tyrion from Song of Ice and Fire.In a series filled with knights and sexy princesses the fan favorite is a misshapen dwarf. Why? Because he is funny. He is the only character in the series who constantly makes jokes and makes his friends laugh. Wouldn't you like a friend who can make you laugh? I would. That's why Tyrion is so awesome. He's also smart, but we'll get to that later.
Harry Potter from Harry Potter. In a series full of powerful wizards with long flowing beards the favorite character is a little boy who wouldn't know anything without Hermione. Why? Because even though he faces horrible odds, he never gives up. Harry Potter is the one kid in the entire book who faces Voldemort one on one and doesn't say..."Okay. I'm going over to the dark side." No, Harry Potter fights Voldemort even when he's sure the evil wizard will kill him. Wouldn't you want to be able to stare snake face in the eyes and say, "Do your worst." Harry Potter would say it. Now wouldn't you want someone like that as your friend? I would. Ron and Hermione also agree.
Eddard from A Song of Ice and Fire. I wanted to use another example but Eddard is the best. Why? Because he always does the right thing morally. The morally part is important, because characters who always follow the law are not always likable. But characters who follow universal morals, like I will not steal, I will not cheat, I will not kill...are likable. At first, Eddard is even more likable than Tyrion the dwarf, because his strong morals end up getting him into trouble. This makes you feel a lot of empathy towards him, because you remember all of those times when you were trying to do something good, but instead something bad happened. Wouldn't you want a friend who would always do the right thing? He'd never lie to you, unless it was for your own good. He would never steal from you. I'd like such a friend. That is why Eddard is awesome.
Those are my examples. In the last one I mentioned empathy, which is very important to understand if you want to write likable characters.
It is also important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Empathy is the ability to share an others emotions.
Sympathy is the ability to understand another emotions.
In other words, empathy is, "your mother died? Mine died too. I know it's horrible."
Sympathy is, "your mother died? Mine is alive. But you must feel horrible."
Let me say this.
People feel sympathy all the time--they often do so out of courtesy. It's not personal, and you can't relate to it. Empathy is much more rarer. For it is hard to find people who have gone through the same experiences as you. You can understand these people and relate to them. That is why as a writer you want to write scenes that produce empathy in the reader. How?
You put your characters through experiences--common experiences--and you make them behave in a realistic manner. The most common experiences are.
Losing something precious, to either yourself or another.
Making a bad mistake that ends up hurting someone, or causing them trouble.
Offending someone and then apologizing to them.
Losing a loved one of an older age like a grandfather or grandmother who passes away.
Succeeding at something that you really wanted to do, and others said you couldn't.
Being lied to and then feeling hurt.
Doing things because of peer pressure.
Those are the most common experiences that I know. Every living person I know has experienced all of these situations.
If you put your characters through the same situations, your readers are guaranteed to relate to them and care for them. You may have other things in your book like the death of someone in a car accident, which will also create empathy, but only in a few select readers. The car crash should only happen if it necessary to the plot. The situations mentioned above could be added to your novel if you want to make your characters more likable.
These situations can do wonders when it comes to making your characters likable, but only if they resolve each situation positively or learn something from it. Otherwise the reader will hate them.
It is important to note that the way these situations are handled by your characters often depends on the qualities they posses. Characters who posses the four likable qualities will handle the situations in likable manners. This means that the qualities are more important. For the situations act as really good outlets for these qualities but nothing more.
Now that we have looked at likability and empathy, let's let's look at how to make characters interesting.
As there are qualities that are likable, their are also qualities that are interesting. These are also universal and the most prominent ones are:
These qualities make characters interesting. Examples include:
Edward from Twilight. Edward is an interesting character to both Bella and the reader early on in the book. Why? Because he is mysterious. He acts like he has something important to hide, and he won't tell you what it is. Wouldn't you want to find out what he's hiding? Don't you like secrets? I do. That's why Edward is interesting.
Palpatine from Star Wars. In a series filled with nature defying, glow stick wielding jedi and sith, Palpatine is the most interesting. Why? Because he is intelligent. This guy manages to take over the Republic using nothing but smarts. Don't you wonder how he could have devised such a brilliant plan? Do you wonder about what else he might do? I'm wondering, and the jedi were wondering too. So long in fact that they all died before they figured it out. That's why Palpatine is interesting.
The Dark One from the Wheel of Time. In a series filled with magical women and harry beasts, the entity known as The Dark One is one of the most interesting characters. Why? Because he is powerful. He can enter your dreams and make you wake up with scars. He can send armies of monsters after you with the intent to kill. If he knows where you are, he can teleport there and kill you. (I am referring to the earlier books.) Doesn't that make you wonder what the Dark One will do next? Why he'll do it? He has enough power to completely change the outcome of his novel. Aren't you afraid? I am, and so was Rand, Mat, and Perrin. That's why they had trouble sleeping. That's why the Dark One is interesting.
Cersei from A Song of Ice and Fire. In a series filled with funny, short men, and noble knights, Cersei manages to capture our interest. Why? Because she is beautiful. Or should I say, sexy as hell. However, beauty, in and of itself, is not an interesting quality. It is only interesting if it gives the character power. So technically, beauty fits into the power quality, however I put it on its own, because there are many characters whose power completely relies on beauty. Like Cersie. She manages to gain an entire councils allegiance by sleeping with half of its members. She nearly manages to seduce our beloved Eddard into giving up his morals and sleeping with her instead. Aren't you interested in who she'll seduce next? Aren't you interested in who she may have already seduced? I am and so was her husband.
Now that we've handled that, let's look at another way of making our characters both interesting and a little likable.
Characters who are or have been doing things that people wish they could are more interesting and likable.
For example, many fantasy readers wish they could use magic. They can't, so they like and are interested in characters who can. Though, they may feel extra hatred towards characters who use magic wrongly.
Wish fulfillment is a bit harder to give examples of then the other techniques, because there are many wishes. The ones you want to focus on are things that are awesome yet unattainable for most people. Like:
Being insanely rich.
Using magic, or other powers.
Having a rare job. Movie Star, Astronaut...etc.
These are the most common things I can think of. And my examples for all of them would be super heroes. Ever wanted to be as rich as Tony Stark/Iron Man? Ever wanted to swing around town like Spider man? Ever wanted to work as one of the X man? Ever wanted to have a bullet bounce off your eye like Superman? I have and so have the millions of fans who support these men in tights.
Now that we have discussed the qualities that make our characters likable and more interesting, let's look at some other things we can do.
Why do we hate our villains? Because everything they do is for themselves. Why do we love our heroes? Because they do things for others.
In the later Harry Potter books Harry decides to do whatever it takes to fight Voldemort and save the wizarding world. Even give up his life.
See how selfless that motivation is? That is an example of a character helping others, which is one of the four qualities of likability.
Now, to make the character interesting you want a motivation with serious implications. If Harry fails, thousands of people die. If you fail at cooking a pie, you might be hungry for an hour. See the difference. Harry's situation makes me interested in what he will do and whether he will succeed or not. Unless I'm hungry, I don't care about pie.
Another way to make a character interesting, not likable though, is to make them clearly important to the plot and other characters. Let's look at Harry again. He has a close group of friends that care for him, and these friends are also important characters. What happens to Harry will also effect them. This makes us interested in Potter, what he'll do, and what others will do to him.
Now that we have discussed how to make interesting and likable characters, let's discuss balancing.
If you have multiple characters in your book, you want them to be different. This means dividing up the likable and interesting qualities. Since you want your protagonists to be likable, you want to give each one at least one of the four likable qualities. If you have four characters, you might want to stick with one quality per character, or give them unique mixes of multiple qualities.
For example, one character can always do the right thing and always help others. Another character can always help others and be funny.
Once you have given your characters likable qualities, you still have the interesting qualities left. You can add one or two of these to each character, and add some to your villains. For example, you can have a funny character who is also smart, like Tyrion the dwarf.
When making characters likable and interesting, it is important to remember the issue of a Mary Sue.
A Mary Sue is created when a character has many strengths, and these strengths can be used by the character to overcome his or her problems. So you must be careful that the qualities you give to your characters do not help them achieve their goals. For example, do not make a character funny when his main conflict is winning a funny competition. Instead make him very selfless. A good likable quality but one that prevents him from being a Mary Sue in this case.
Be particularly wary of the interesting qualities, intelligence, power, beauty, because these can often turn your characters into Mary Sues.
Remember that your character can be awesome at as many things as you want and not be a Marry Sue, as long as they can't use their talents to overcome their problems. For example, it's okay to have a character who is a world champion boxer, professional violin player, and sexy as hell, if her main problem is winning a chess game.
Do you see how that works? Her qualities make her interesting and actually handle a lot of wish fulfillment, however since they do not help her she is not a Mary Sue--just an interesting character.
The best thing to try and do is to give each of your protagonists one likable quality, one interesting quality, and one wish fulfillment. Then you want to give them many empathy drawing situations and selfless motivations.
You would want to pick different things in each of the categories for each character. This will guarantee that they will be different yet all likable and interesting.
The best thing for your villains would be to give them no likable qualities and two or more interesting qualities to compensate. These will also make them more dangerous. You can still give your villains empathy drawing situations, but since they have no likable qualities, they will handle these situations in the wrong way. This is often a good tool for letting your readers relate a little to the villain and also see why he or she became bad. They went through bad situations and handled them in the wrong way. You can also give your villain wish fulfilling things to do. If the character is clearly a villain, this will increase the hatred towards them since they're misusing the great opportunities that they are offered.
Remember that simply giving your characters likable qualities is not enough. You have to show these qualities. You have to set up scenes that let your protagonists truly shine.
Then you'll have likable characters, and hey, maybe you'll be a likable writer as well.
(The method of creating likable characters discussed above is known as the Dmytry Method. No. I did not make up this name. Instead, users of this method, those who found it useful, decided to title it after me. I hope you find this method just as useful.)