Your characters are the most important part of your story, more so even than the plot (though that’s important to!). So you need readers to like your hero. If the reader finds him repulsive, well…she’s not going to stick around to find out what happens to someone she doesn’t care about!
Have you ever read a book where the main character was unlikable? You really really wanted to get into the book, the plot was interesting and so were some of the other characters, but the hero was just…ugh. Is there anything more frustrating?
So how do you keep readers from hating your hero? Well, besides making him unique and fully developed, you need to make him likable.
It baffles me how many books I’ve picked up with unlikable characters. A while ago I tried to read Poison by Bridget Zinn. I really really wanted to like the book because I love Fantasy. But I couldn’t get into it because I found the main character, Kyra, very unlikable.
She hated children and animals (including the little piglet in the story), wasn’t very nice to Fred (the love interest and character I did like), and she was trying to poison her best friend to save the kingdom.
The whole time I was reading I kept asking myself, why am I supposed to like this character?
I’m sure Kyra had her reasons, but the problem was we didn’t learn them soon enough. And I didn’t stick around to find out why she thought she had to kill her best friend to save the kingdom–the book went back to the library unfinished.
The thing is, you need to keep in mind how a story functions. A story is basically about a character who wants something, and their journey to get it. You want the reader to like the character and cheer him on towards his goal. That’s what keeps the reader hooked–wondering if the character she loves will manage to succeed in his goal. But if the reader finds the character unlikable, she won’t care whether or not he succeeds.
Now, I have a bone to pick with my fellow writers about female characters. I have a really hard time finding female characters I like, because I find so many of them unlikable. Why? It seems that authors try so hard to make their female characters strong, that they end up making them come across as heartless jerks instead. Ironically, in trying to make the character likable by making them a tough bad ass, they actually end up being unlikable.
Now, this does not mean that your hero has to be perfect! (That’s something you don’t want). Your hero should have flaws, but still have traits that make him, well, the hero. Heck, your character can even be a grumpy pessimist and still be heroic. “Wait,” you say, “I thought I’m supposed to make him likable! How can a reader like a grumpy pessimist?”
That’s the interesting thing–by giving a character certain redeemable qualities, you can make the reader like him even if he’s not the friendliest sort.
Take Katniss from The Hunger Games for example. She’s not very sociable, hates her sister’s pet cat, and can be prickly. But we love her. Why? Because we see good qualities in Katniss. She loves her sister and volunteered to take her place in the games. She also cares for people–Gale, Peeta, Rue, Cinna, and even Effie. These are traits we can admire, and they balance out the qualities that otherwise might make Katniss unlikable.
Readers need the hero to be likable in some way. No one wants to read about a total jerk. Early on, you need to show us that your main character possesses heroic qualities, that there is something good about him.
Here are some techniques for creating a likable character your readers will pull for.
1. Create sympathy. Give us something that will pull at our heartstrings and put us on your hero’s side. Is he an orphan? Is he living in poverty? Was his brother murdered? Was he unjustly accused of something he didn’t do? A sympathetic quality can work wonders.
2. Let us empathize. Give him qualities that we share and can understand so we can be like, oh I feel you, or damn, I’ve been there. This allows us to make a connection with the hero and helps us bond with him. For example, think of Ron Weasley and Harry Potter–they hated doing homework and were always trying to find shortcuts or ways to avoid it. It was funny and we could feel their pain because we’ve all been there!
3. Give them positive traits–and show them in action. Make sure you give your hero positive traits to balance out his flaws, like honesty, compassion, loyalty, bravery, etc. But it’s not enough to just tell us that your character is good and brave. You need to show his good qualities in action. Maybe he stands up to a bully or saves a puppy from getting hit by a car. Let us see that he isn’t all talk!
4. Give them likable traits. Similar to the above, but not quite the same. I’m talking about things like charm, wit, humor, passion, skills, and quirks. You know, the kinds of things that make a character interesting, irresistible, and fun. The kinds of things you would look for in friends you want to hang out with.
5. Let us know who admires or looks up to them. Who admires your hero and why? Let us know and we will be more likely to admire him too. For example, in The Hunger Games, Prim looks up to Katniss, and the way Katniss cares for her makes us like her more.
6. Reveal the cause of their flaws. If you give reasons for your hero’s flaws it will make readers more understanding of them, and more likely to be forgiving or sympathetic. Why can’t your hero trust or open up? Why does he lie? Why is he so pessimistic? You don’t have to have a reason for every flaw, but for bigger or more serious flaws it can be helpful.
So now that we’ve covered the dos, how about a few don’ts? Here are some things that can make your hero unlikable:
- always whining/complaining
- heartless, doesn’t empathize with others
- constantly argues/fights with others
- treats others poorly
- always seems to be a helpless victim
Create a hero who is liked by others in your story and who you would want to be friends with, and your readers will like him too. Or, if you decide to go with a hero who’s rougher around the edges, make sure to give him a redeemable quality early on so the reader will root for him!
Have you ever accidentally created an unlikable hero? What makes a character unlikable for you as a reader?