Should your characters be likable or relatable?

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Image: RoseofTimothywoods

Image: RoseofTimothywoods

You’ve heard about making your protagonists relatable. And you’ve heard about making them likable. Are they the same thing? If not, which is more important?

The difference between likeability and relatability

You relate to a character who is similar to you in some way. This doesn’t mean you have to have the same occupation, background, or religion (though that can help) – it means you share some of the same struggles, weaknesses, or desires. A “deep down, we all just want to be loved,” kind of a thing.

You like a character you can admire. Maybe they have qualities you wish you had or that you aspire to. Or maybe they’re just fun to be around. They could be funny or quirky or extremely loyal.

It’s like the difference between empathy and sympathy – in one, you can actually feel the other person’s pain as if it were your own. In the other, you can only imagine the other person’s pain, but you still root for them.

Relatability can create stronger emotions for the reader. Rather than simply watching your hero go through things, the reader is going through things with the hero.

Likability can create more pleasant emotions for the reader. A hero who is fun to be around, or who earns the reader’s love, can become like a best friend or brother – someone the reader doesn’t want to leave.

Which should you aim for?

They aren’t mutually exclusive: relating to a character can lead to liking him, and vice versa. They aren’t mutually dependent, either: you can like a character who’s very different from you, or you can hate a character who represents all the worst parts of yourself.

Whether you aim for likeability or relatability or both depends on the tone of the story and the traits you already know the character has.

But generally, you should try for a little of both.

How to write likable characters

I talked about this awhile back – right here. There are some relatability tips in there, too.

How to write relatable characters

Again, relatability is more about feelings (pain points and dreams) than about facts (age, sex, religion). The best path to relatability is not to avoid extremes so as not to alienate anyone (you’ll just end up with a nondescript Lego brick), but to tell the truth. Give your hero your own deepest, most powerful feelings, good and bad. Describe in detail how they affect you/him physically, and the thoughts they scream through your head. Nine times out of ten, the response will be “You, too? I thought I was the only one.”

Who’s your favorite likable character? What character do you most relate to? Why?

* Thanks to David for suggesting this topic.

 

 

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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10 Comments

  1. maybe relateability makes them likeable?

  2. *prods comment system* is it working now?

    Reliability seems to be easier to conjure than likability. I notice so many characters that I am supposed to like, and don’t. Part of that is taste, but it does make me wonder, when I think about my own writing. Who should be likable, and are they? In what way? Who do I expect to like them, and who won’t (because there is always someone who won’t)?

    • It’s working! I just nixed some of the commenting restrictions.

      I agree – I think likability is harder. I seem to find that most of my most likable characters are happy accidents – I discovered, rather than created them. And the ones I attempt to make likable fall flat. And yeah, obviously we can’t please everybody – but I think if we can work in a few traits WE really like in a character, most people will tend to agree with us.

      • Oh, good! For some reason you still aren’t showing up in my subscriptions, though it says I subscribe. I get e-mails, at least.

        Maybe the key is not trying to make characters likable, then. hmm…

        • I think the WP.com reader just doesn’t work with WP.org sites. So it probably transferred your subscription over to email only.

      • My suggestion is if you want to make your characters come off as likeable, give them likeable qualities, such as a good motivation or something like that, but give them flaws, unlikeable qualities too, or else they will become a boring object of perfection. Aim to make them more interesting rather than likeable, because in the end thats what makes a character likeable; how interesting they are, despite their likeable or unlikeable traits.

  3. Some characters in fiction aren’t meant to even come off as likeable or relatable in anyway, but to be interesting or entertaining. For example, there is a cartoon series called Gokudo. In it the main character is a completely unrelatable douche with almost no likeable qualities. I liked him because of his unlikeability, which was interesting, and in turn came off as likeable.

    • Oh, certainly, a lot of jerks are extremely likable characters – look at Dr. House, or Sherlock Holmes. Typically, there’s something that makes them likable, though. They are quite brilliant, or funny, or they aren’t afraid to say things the rest of us wish we had the guts to say.

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