Keep them reading. That’s our mission, right? And there’s nothing that can hook any reader faster and stronger than a protagonist they can relate to, like, and therefore care about. This is one half of the D in AIDA:
So what makes a character likeable?
I took inventory of the most likeable attributes of some of my favorite characters. I also borrowed some of the best advice from the Internet, and compiled it all here for your reading pleasure! Not all of this will apply to every character, but pick the right handful of traits for your hero, work two or three of them into your first page, and you’ll be well ahead of the average aspiring novelist.
Stuff that makes us connect with them
- They enjoy things – especially the simple things. People who don’t enjoy anything are whiny. People who like things are fun to be around, both in real life and in books
- They have flaws, but not unforgivable ones – flaws they must realize and overcome (Donald Maass writes about flaws and strengths here)
- When they make bad choices, there are consequences – otherwise it’s a Mary Sue
- They express universal truths – this doesn’t have to be deeply philosophical, just a little detail that everyone notices but nobody has put into words yet. Like how hard is it to drive in high heels (okay, maybe that one’s semiversal).
- They want something deeply for personal reasons – this is the most important trait. They are in love. They are slaves. They’ve never met their real father. Etc. Even if your protagonist is a villain trying to take over the universe, he should have a personal reason for doing it (e.g., so that no one can ever hurt him again). We should feel this on the first page.
Stuff that’s just plain likeable
- They have pets – especially if the pet is stupid, ugly, or smelly
- They have the chance to be mean but aren’t – even characters who are jerks most of the time, but nice to one person (who must be weak or an underdog), or are nice when it matters most, are lovable (Blake Snyder calls this “saving the cat“)
- They don’t realize how awesome they are – other characters like them better than they like themselves (this doesn’t mean they need to be totally insecure – just a little)
Stuff that makes us root for them
- They are unlucky – Stanley Yelnats from Holes is unlucky but perpetually hopeful anyway, and it makes us love him
- They defend the innocent – and/or stand up for the underdogs
- They want to run away from danger, but don’t – the definition of courage
- They are loyal – even a character who lies, cheats, and steals, but still sticks up for his friends, is likable
Book Country advises:
- We don’t have to like what they do: we have to understand why they do it
- Never let coincidence help a good character
Elise Broach adds:
- They should be in love or in trouble (or both) on the first page
- Avoid whiny, passive or cruel
- Shoot for: spunk, persistence, courage, kindness, ingenuity, loyalty, humour
- But be careful with spunk/sass – now getting overused
- Create memorable entrances – what would you notice about them meeting them the first time? Their charm, or clumsiness? Their laugh, or their uneasy silence?
- Use props – what your character carries with him everywhere, or keeps in an honored place in his bedroom, can tell you a lot about him
QUESTION FOR THE COMMENTS: What protagonists do you connect with most? What makes you like them?
Stay tuned: next week, we’ll talk about more stuff you need to include in the first pages.