How Do You Make a Character Likable?

We all know that stories are subjective -- you might love a book that someone else hates, and vice versa. However, everyone loves a likable character. No matter what type of book you're writing, there are a few things you can do to make readers love your protagonist -- and make your book better as a result.

1. Be sure to convey emotion

Have you ever cried at a sad scene in a movie? If so, it's most likely because the characters' emotions were conveyed so expertly that you started to feel their grief too. Aim to do the same thing in your writing by focusing on the emotional side of things -- not just rattling off what emotion a character is feeling, but showing the physical manifestations of those feelings (sweaty palms for fear, squeezing chest for sadness, etc). A great resource for this is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

2. Draw readers in

In addition to the previous point, there are some technical things you can do to make the reader feel closer to your character, which will in turn make them like your character more. The two most commonly-cited methods for writing immersively are eliminating filter words ("I saw," "I felt," "I thought") and writing in active voice whenever possible. I won't go into detail about those here, since they've been covered extensively elsewhere, but some of my favorite posts on the subject can be found here and here.

3. Give your character some flaws

It's tempting to think that making a character likable means giving them no flaws, but in reality, it's quite the opposite. Real people have weaknesses, and making your protagonist perfect will only make them less relatable. I have a whole post on what makes a good character flaw, but essentially you want to give your character natural human weaknesses that actively hold them back throughout the story.

4. Justify your character's more questionable actions

If your character has flaws (which they should), then they're going to do stuff that's a bit shady sometimes. You might even be writing an antihero, in which case they're going to be doing a LOT of questionable stuff. However, your character can still come across as likable if they can justify their actions, or if they regret their actions later.

For example, "I said that mean thing to Cindy because she's annoying and talks too much" sounds like a jerk move. However, it's a bit more understandable like this: "I said that mean thing to Cindy because I was having a bad day and I just wanted to be left alone. Gosh, she didn't deserve that at all. I feel awful now."

5. Give your character clear motivation and agency

If your protagonist just sort of floats along, being pushed around by whatever the plot throws at them, it's not a very interesting ride for the reader. Interesting characters have a particular goal in mind, and they take active steps to achieve that goal. 

Readers should feel like they're friends with your character

While good books are very much a matter of personal preference, good writing tends to be more of an objective matter. If you can make readers want to spend time with your characters, then you've already won half the battle!

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