Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 6, 2013

Likeable Characters

First of all, we at Writers in the Storm must let you know that we continue to be blown away by your  first lines. Your responses rained tantalizing hooks across pages of comments. Today we are pleased to welcome back Shannon Donnelly with another one of her fantastic writing lessons to help you turn those great first lines into solid, sellable stories with likeable characters from the beginning.

by Shannon Donnelly

shannondonnelly_nm1If you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like—or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like. This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.

My own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers, who just didn’t cotton to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re not going to sell that book. That’s the voice of experience talking.

And, as a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. I want to spend time with folks I like.
Which brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people—or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

  • Mad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why sports figures at the top of their game—we like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.
  • Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child. She may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good things. The guy who rescues a stray dog. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him.
  • Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this).
  • Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preservere, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times).
  • Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice.
  • Quirks – Every character needs some flaws—no one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome–such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective.
  • Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation—they need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits—that would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. And keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree.

Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the characters too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And if you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Above all remember that you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things.

How have you made your characters likeable? Are you struggling trying to find a likeable attribute?

The Carcrods Ruby CoverShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Riding in on a Burning Tire, the second book in the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series is just out from Cool Gus Publishing. And her latest Regency romance, The Cardros Ruby, a RWA Golden Heart finalist, is out this May.

47 comments on “Likeable Characters”

  1. Timely article for me, Shannon. My heroines are tough and spunky, but I've had comments from my critters that the one in my next book rubs them the wrong way from page one. I do give them reasons why, but they're not convinced until the Heroine decides to stay in town to keep her half brother from going into foster care (even though she's not happy about it.)

    I'm just hoping that the reader hangs in for 10 pages or so, because I don't want to lighten her up!

    The best explanation I ever found about this was in Blake Snyder's, Save The Cat. Wonderful craft book - one of my top 3 craft books!

    Thanks as always, for your wisdom!

    1. It's so hard to get readers to hang on-- the only one I've really seen pull this off is Susan Elizabeth Philips in "Ain't She Sweet" and even she got reader hate response!

      And, yes, Blake's book is great.

  2. Gotta love this post, Shannon. I thought I was doing a great job of writing a funny story about a hapless gal who can't seem to get it right. In the end she was received as a spineless whimp and the humor thought of as cheap one liners. Yikes. I've worked hard on this gal and cut the stand up comedy thing and she is truly better for the hard work. Thanks ... a great way to start a new week 🙂

    1. And there's the perfect reason we should all have trusted readers - they'll be honest about how the character comes across. I had a vision for one of my characters and thought I was doing a brilliant job showing it. Obviously not so much. My CPs were unanimous in their take on her. And beat me into submission. 😉

  3. I once heard this one-sentence description of character and plot: A likeable character battles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.
    I generally follow this guideline when writing. It appears to fit right in with your excellent article on character. My biggest problem is finding something to take a bit of the edge off my "real world" villains. Generally settle for a couple of small scenes of the antagonist performing a small service for someone or some thing that is generated by a memory from childhood.
    I really enjoyed your article.

  4. Great post! I've been stuck in rewrites over this very issue. Some CPs love my heroine's spunk and wit, others say she's just not likable enough—even though she's got all of the above except the mad skills. The CPs say they need to see all those things on the first page. Eek. Thanks for giving me more to think about!

    1. Listen to your instincts. (Don't you love how helpful I am?! 😉 )
      What one person sees as a fun trait in someone will grate on another's nerves. You'll never write a character that appeals to everyone.

    2. Yeah, spunk can quickly become irritating. That's a touchy one. And read Dick Francis -- he is so good at amazing first pages!

  5. Very helpful post. Thanks. I think readers also like characters that are complicated or have a secret. People that make me curious are engaging. That's not quite "likable" but it does keep me reading! 🙂

    1. That's a great point, Lorna. I don't have to like the person/character but if I'm intrigued or at least interested in why they're a certain way, I'll keep reading.

    2. I actually think you always need to give every character a secret -- for some reason it does change how you write that character.

    1. I've written short stories as well as novels -- structure is structure (you still do the same things). In a short story, you often need to tell more to shorten up the text. If you're doing a character study short story that's a slightly different animal.

    1. Great minds! 🙂
      I really like your advice to make a character that arouses sympathy. It doesn't have to be huge, just enough to make us want to know more about him/her.

    2. You know I can't watch the Lecter movies -- just can't. But I love Dexter! What a great character (and he's shown at being very good at what he does).

  6. This is something I've thought a lot about. In the manuscript I just finished, I wanted to show the growth of the characters, so they had rough edges at the start. I made a point of showing the hero sacrificing himself for someone else early on, to counteract his sarcasm and standoffish initial impression. My heroine was too passive in the first draft, so I rewrote some scenes to hint at underlying spunk. As the story progresses, he loosens up and she learns courage. One of my most important goals is to show that the relationship between the characters makes them both better people--but that means they have to be less likeable in the beginning. Achieving that delicate balance between imperfection and likeability is difficult. I hate characters who are too perfect or saccharine.

    1. Good point, Kaye. And I'm with you, I don't care for perfect. Then again, I need to know why I should care about a flawed or selfish or just plain abrasive character. I recently read a book that was beautifully written except that I couldn't stand the main character - could not, for the life of me, figure out why I should care what happens to this person. I found myself actually tuning out to some extent and reading the book for craft rather than story.

    2. Rough edges are important--I love Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels because the hero is such a jerk. But she does a brilliant prologue so you understand why he is the way he is. That's a great book to study.

  7. Great post, Shannon. I espcecially like the part where you tell us to "show" that he/she is likable. Don't just tell us. I've come a long way since I first took your Show, Don't Tell class. Invaluable. Now I struggle to give my characters quirks, something to make them not so perfect. Always something to learn to do or do better in this business. Good luck with your next release. Beautiful cover.

  8. Great post, Shannon. The "show that he/she is likeable" is what stands out to me. I think you can have a character who is abrasive even at the beginning as long you give the reader a teeny tiny hint of why.

  9. As a reader, I enjoy a character with flaws and who may be a bit hard to like at first. As long as she is not wimpy. I can't get behind a hero or heroine who whines but does nothing about her problems.

  10. Great post, SD! I always found it amazing that Agatha Christie didn't like Miss Marple, and she absolutely abhorred Poirot. How could she continue writing their stories every year? The money. She considered herself a working writer, and once she found characters people wanted, she adhered to them, regardless. I don't think I could do it because I agree with you, I've got to like my characters even my villains in a funny way. 🙂

  11. Appreciate the hat tip to Dick Francis. He mastered so many storytelling basics. His ability to build enormous amounts of information into the stories without infodumps, and a series of over 40 instantly likable characters. Sid Halley and Kit Fielding are welcome at my fire any time.

    A likable villain is a marvelous balance, and makes me enjoy a book even more. It's totally lacking in my WIP. One more item on the rewrite checklist.

  12. This was a wonderful post to read and so true! I think every author should use this guideline when creating their main character! It is all about the reader wanting to spend time with the character, caring for the character and hoping for a happy outcome! I recently read a book by author Max Zimmer, "Journey" (http://maxzimmer.com/journey/) and I cannot speak highly enough about the book's main character, Shake Tauffler. Shake is a kid who responds to bigotry, abuse, repression, hypocrisy, and death with courage, humor, heartbreak, pain, and always wonder. His ten-year story of growing up Mormon in America takes you to another world and the details he offers about the often misunderstood Mormon religion are beyond insightful. Shake discovers both the good and the bad of the Mormon church and Utah society as he struggles to define himself in terms of his passion for the instrument God has given him. He is a jazz musician at heart and "Journey" follows this lovable young man on his search for clarity and his sexual, musical, and moral awakening. A fascinating read you never want to end and a character that has 7/7 traits that you mention in your list! I hope you give it a read!

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