Creating Likable Characters

I watched two movies recently. One featured an ambitious, cutthroat business woman. The other, a happy-go-lucky kind of liar.

Both of these characters had flaws that propelled the story.

I liked heroine A, but not heroine B. Why was heroine A more likable than heroine B?

With heroine A, the watcher is shown almost right away a brief glimpse beneath her hardened shell. Brief, but it makes all the difference.

Heroine B is presented as a "nice" person, but I don't think that made her likable. I think for her to have been more likable the watcher needed to see something early on that showed heroine B actually cared for people around her and just didn't use them for her own purposes all the time.

My conclusion? A likable character may have horrible flaws, but they must also present some form of virtue, and right away, so that we, the reader, can see that this character has potential. And that they're worth rooting for.

Do you have a formula for making likable characters? Is there anything that would make a character unlikable to you, no matter what other virtue he or she might possess?


Kicking, or any abuse of any animal is a "Burn this baby" signal to me every time. They could save a thousand human lives, but one nasty turn to a helpless animal turns me totally off.

You're so right, though, you've got to get empathy right away to have a less-than-stellar hero/heroine keep you interested.
It can be hard to consciously make a character endearing - so I try not to think about it too hard (or over do it), and just let them unfold on paper.

You've given me something to think about.
Unknown said…
I don't think I've met a character I didn't like yet. Usually every character has at least on redeeming quality about them, even the bad guys. I'd have to think about this a bit harder....
Elle Scott said…
Thanks so much for this post because I've been doing a lot of thinking about this for a while. My main character is nice, but I'm not sure she's likable. You're right; there is more to making a character likable than just making him/her nice.

I hate characters who are too self-absorbed. That is a turn-off for me.
Definitely anyone who abuses animals or children would make any character, regardless of other good qualities, unlikeable for me.

I try to make my characters have a good balance of flaws and likeable characteristics, much like any of us out here in the real world!
Rita Gerlach said…
Charles Dickens, the master of characterization, gives us such great examples of the heroic and the villain. Okay, those are polar opposites. But isn't that what readers are looking for...the battle between good and evil?

The heroic must have flaws in order to be believable. Mine struggle with particular issues that cause a flaw in their character. In Surrender the Wind, Seth struggles with the rejection of his British loyalist grandfather. It has hardened him, angered him, to the point he'd rather seclude himself from the world than face it.

The antagonist Edward Darden is evil in his selfishness, in his obsession with having a woman who has rejected him. Yet he saves her from. . .well I cannot tell you if you are reading the book.

I have a secondary character that has been called 'odious' by my editor. He is has a noble job, but he as gluttonous as they come and puffed up with pride.

I don't use a formula for developing my characters. What makes a character unlikeable to me are things like gluttony, selfishness, cruelty, abusiveness, drunkenness, lust, and a total disregard for God with no fear of consequence.
I agree with Eileen: They cannot have disregard for animals or children, or be chauvanistic. In the fifties and sixties it was male cauvanism; now it's turned the other direction, to where men are depicted as wimpy and brainless, and the gals have all the savvy. I love strong mc's, regardless of their gender.
Great question, Jessie!
Angie Ledbetter said…
Basing characters on real people (with lots of changes and additions, of course) makes for loveable people. :)
Katie Ganshert said…
ooo! If you find a formula, please share! :) I think you hit the nail on the a glimpse into something redeemable and the readers will like the character.

I also make sure the WHY behind my character's actions, even if they are nasty actions, are clear.
Oh, let me guess....The Proposal and Shopaholic? Was I close?

I think all characters must have redeemable qualities. Donald Maass says even the most evil of villans need a soft side peek through. No cardboard characters...they need to be 3 dimensional.
Terri Tiffany said…
I think my MC is likeable because she is real in that she is insecure about some things and isn't afraid to show others some of her flaws.
Jessica Nelson said…
Wow, I love all of your comments! Thank you so much for sharing great advice and what makes characters unlikable to you.

I've had a busy morning and am now heading to gym *groan* so I can't answer each comment individually. Great comments though. I really agree with them, esp. about characters being harsh to animals/children.

Sherrinda, you stinker!!! You're exactly right. :-)
Warren Baldwin said…
Good comparison b/n different characters. Yes, a character with some hard edges and character flaws can be quite likeable, and their story compelling. Think of David in the Bible. He was a man of tremendous accomplishments, but can we forget his tremendous flaws, either?
Genny said…
This is such a great point. The reader has to be able to cheer the character on, I think. This has been a constant balance for me with the main character of my middle grade novel. Almost done working through it, though. :)
Katie Salidas said…
No formula here, I just try to make them real. Real people have flaws and good qualities. I guess finding some balance between them makes for a likeable character.
jdsanc said…
I have to write about likeable characters because, well, that's what in my head. But I love to read about unlikeable ones. How weird is that? I mean, take for instance most of SKing's books. I can't put them down.
Great post!
anita said…
I don't have a formula per say, but I do want my characters to be flawed and yet have some redeeming quality. I think it takes both of those to make them sympathetic to the readers. If they're too perfect or have nothing positive in their personality, they'll be harder to like.

Oh, and the one thing that would poison a character in my eyes is if they were physically cruel to kids or animals. Hurting those who are innocent is something I couldn't overlook.
Hi Jess -

As a SOTP writer, characters reveal themselves as they deal with situations. I'm an observer of people, so I'm sure some of that enters into the picture.

Susan :)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Warren,
Very true about David. I think a compelling story helps too.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Genny,
I've had to learn to balance it too. LOL In the past my characters have gone to the extreme, but I'm working on that now.
Congrats on being almost finished!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Katie,
Real is good. :-) Some real people are incredibly unlikable though! LOL I'm sure your characters are great, based on your character interviews.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi JD,
Interesting point. I think that's fodder for another post. LOL!
Thanks for stopping by my blog!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Anita,
All of your characters have been very likable, in my opinion. You do a good job balancing them as well as giving them believable motivations.
Thanks for stopping by. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Susan.
True. I'm like you. Sometimes I don't know what's motivating my characters until later on in the story, then I try to go back and hint at it.
Dara said…
Hmm, for me it's abuse of animals and children too.

Oh and what I call "femi-Nazis." The type of woman who is so feminist and woman's lib she wants to be a man :P. I'm all for equal rights but for crying out loud, just be happy being a woman and stop trying to put the men in the "lowly" role.

And I really hate it when there are characters who make it look like a woman who's chosen to stay home and raise a family is made to look like some brainwashed twit simply because she chose a family over a career. So that probably goes along the same lines as the "femi-Nazi" thing.
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL Dara! You're making me laugh. I stay home so I don't think I'd appreciate that view either. LOL
Danyelle L. said…
The point of no return for me is someone who harms children or animals.

I like what you said. I think for a character to be likeable, they need to be well-rounded, painted in shades of gray rather than black or white. I think it also helps if we can relate to the character in some way.
Jessica Nelson said…
Good point Danyelle.
I couldn't relate to either character, but heroine A I felt bad for. Heroine B I didn't. Makes a big difference, I think. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
Heather Sunseri said…
Great post, and lots of interesting comments. Hi, Jessica. Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier.

I agree with the statement above that characters should be likeable, and by likeable, I mean redeemable. Even in the most flawed characters we should see redeeming qualities during the story. And to be interesting, characters should definitely be flawed. I love it when a writer produces a truly unlikeable character but then turns around and gives us some big reason to cheer them on.
This question is one that I keep on returning to again and again. I think you are right though that to see a glimpse of something good, beneath a hard exterior can help us like an otherwise unlikeable character. Also, knowing what motivates a character to behave the way they do can also give us insights into their bad behaviors.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Heather,
Nice of you to come by too. :-)
I completely agree. Makes me think of Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. LOL Not very likeable at first, but boy did he make the movie interesting. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
You worded it well, Kate. It's tough to do, a delicate operation almost, but well worth it when done right. I think, at least. :-)
Krista Phillips said…
I so agree with this!!! I blogged about the same thing last week, it's the story BEHIND the actions that make us decide whether we like the person or not, BUT... there are some things that aren't redeemable, or are very very difficult to redeem. LIke someone noted, animal cruelty. Or Child abuser...
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Krista,
I missed that post. I'll have to go check it out. At least I think I missed it...

Anyways, interesting points about some things not being redeemable. That would make an interesting post.
Nancy J. Parra said…
Hi Jessica-

Great post and so very true- a reader needs a reason to like them right off- even if it's only a hint that they can change and grow.

Kara said…
Okay I get this from my husband because he refuses to watch or read anything in which one spouse has an affair and is the hero or heroine of the book. I'm all about forgiveness, but this particular flaw really turns me off.
Stephanie Faris said…
Maybe there's an overall message in that...maybe we're all more likable as people because of our flaws. And we relate to that in the books we read.

And I like your title by the way. "The Bridegroom's Revenge" is catchy.
Jessica Nelson said…
Thanks for commenting Nancy. I think that's a large part, us wanting to see the room for growth.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Kara,
You're not alone. I find it very, very hard to be sympathetic to a character who's had an affair. I'm not even sure I'd read a romance novel where the hero or heroine has cheated. It's just hard for me to like that character. (and I wouldn't say I'm that way in real life, but with entertainment...yeah.)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Stephanie,
Thank you! :-) I love that title too, though I might have to change it since it doesn't quite fit with most inspy romances. LOL!
Thanks for stopping by. :-)
Karen Hossink said…
See? This is what I mean about you novelists working so hard all the time. Even when you go to the movies you are thinking about writing, and analyzing character development.
Do you ever rest???

hmm...maybe i'll try to come up with a formula! ha! not likely. :) i'm not big on reading stories about affairs and cheating on spouses. just a turn-off for me.
Deb Shucka said…
For any character to be real, they have to reveal both their light and their shadows. I hate characters who bore me, or who don't grow in any way - whether it's for the good or the bad.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Karen,
Yes, that's us. Always thinking. YOu know movies are a write-off, right? LOL! Just doing business there.
Jessica Nelson said…
Same for me Jeannie.
Jessica Nelson said…
Interesting point about a character getting worse rather than better. Someone who starts out as a protagonist and then shifts to antagonist. That made me think, and would be interesting to read, as long as there was a "real" protag to root for. LOL
Victoria Dixon said…
Turn ons: Intelligence (strategical intelligence, not book-learning), humor, courage/bravery.
Turn offs: Cruelty, callousness, mockery CAN be. It depends on if the author suggests that character will be put in his place. Of course, these aren't necessarily things that will make me put the book down. If they're the villain's traits, you've got a great villain. Especially so if they're also intelligent and challenging to the hero/ine.

Great topics, btw.
denise petrovich said…
Hi honey, good question. It is hard to know, sometimes you think you dislike a character because they are all about them etc... and then they start growing. It doesn't have to be early on in the book. I feel once the revelation of that person growing is shown they become a character you start to want to root for. Love Mom

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