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What makes a character likeable?
Real life can be slow, mundane, routine. We read to escape, and the characters we adore reflect that. They’re larger than life, unique, everything we want to be.
Whether you’re after a one-legged detective (like the eponymous Cormoron Strike), the epitome of evil (Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter) or everyone’s idea of a warrior-king (Aragon, Lord of the Rings), you need someone you can hate or someone you can root for.
Emotion is the foundation to a good character, and we always need something to hang our hat on. Each (wo)man believes themselves to be the hero of their own story. Nobody sets out to be objectively evil.
Nor is anyone truly absolutely good.
It’s about balance. A little light in the dark, a little dark in the light. Shades of grey (no, not fifty of them!) give life meaning.
Think for a moment about a killer I’m writing about. He’s a priest who believes that the word of god is paramount. So far, so normal. However, he also believes that you can only be bound by the rules if you know about them. Rather than following the traditional route of religion and trying to prosthelytize the unwashed masses, he takes a different tack: he kills those who are in the know instead. By killing every other priest and believer (and then himself), he would remove all knowledge of the rules from the world. With no knowledge of the rules, humanity could never knowingly violate those rules ever again. Humanity would therefore be saved for all eternity. A few lives now, in his mind, make a very fair bargain for the souls of every man, woman and child for the rest of eternity.
Is he insane? Yes, absolutely. But what he says makes sense – from a certain point of view.
The priest in question wouldn’t see himself as evil. He’d see himself as the harbinger of redemption. People often do the wrong things for the right reason (and the right things for the wrong reason). It’s a fundamental moral dilemma: do we are care about act or intention? Is doing evil for a good reason innately good, or is it tainted by act? If I do good, but do so selfishly, do I still do good?
Books let us explore these ideas, and the characters are the vehicle through which we do it.
So how do authors create a truly deep, meaningful character? Here are my top ten tips for budding authors.
- Give them a name that you won’t forget. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but James Bond wouldn’t be half as cool if he were Colin Johnson, would he?
- Make him or her quirky. We need one unique physical feature to keep someone memorable. Perhaps that’s a big nose, a gammy leg, or eyes of two colours rather than one.
- Make us care. Give us a reason to like your character. Think about Aladdin. He would be ethically dubious – he’s a thief after all – if he didn’t steal just food in the Disney version. When we see him give the stolen food to the street urchins, we’re on his side. He’s a thief, but he’s nice. We can root for him. If he’d just been a guy in a hoodie nicking a plasma TV from best buy, we wouldn’t like him at all.
- Start in a place of normalcy. The best characters start somewhere normal, just like us. Think Peter Parker before the spider or Harry Potter before the Hogwarts invite. We can relate to that. Normal characters can be just like us, but then go on to do great things. It gives us hope we can too.
- Make your characters decide to go on the journey. The best characters drive the action, they’re not driven by it. A character who sees the helpless odds and faces them anyway is innately more interesting than a character sucked in against his or her will. Think Neo from the Matrix. Have your characters got a Red Pill/Blue Pill moment?
- Don’t make them too strong. The so called “Mary Sue” characters who are just too perfect grate. Nobody likes the kid who was good at everything. Don’t be that guy.
- Throw the book at them. If they look like they’re about so succeed, put obstacles in their way. We like seeing characters face adversity. It lets us explore danger in the safest possible way. We live vicariously through the characters we read about, and we want to see them win, but only after they’ve faced down every challenge that the author has to throw at them.
- If they’re about to lose, snatch a win from the jaws of defeat. We all love to root for the underdog whether that’s in sports or fiction.
- Don’t resolve everything. Life doesn’t let us achieve total zen. If we reach our goals, we celebrate, and then we move the goalposts. Characters always want something. Leave them something to strive for, and something to defeat.
- Have fun. The best characters are the quirkiest. They’re drawn from facets of friends and family. Your protagonist might have Uncle John’s hair, your best friend’s habit of saying “like” and “innit”, and the patience of a Buddhist monk.
If a character fits these rules, they’re practically guaranteed to be unique and compelling. Don’t just write a character, write a larger-than-life character that readers just can’t get enough of. Live a thousand lives, one book at a time.
Who’s your favourite character and why? Do they fit my ten golden rules? If they don’t, would they be better if they did? Let us know in the comments.