When I start reading a book, there are many factors that might prevent me from being able to immerse myself in the story. One of the biggest is unlikable characters. I imagine that’s the case with many readers, especially if you enjoy character driven books. We don’t want to cheer for a character that we just don’t like. Sometimes I don’t like characters because they’re boring, other times it’s because I don’t respect them. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that writing likable characters is essential for an author’s success.
What’s the first step to writing likable characters? You have to actually like them yourself. If you don’t love the characters you create, then how can you expect readers to love them?
After I wrote Missing Lily, I had a lot of readers asking me to write Lorraina’s story, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t like Lorraina yet. I liked her more than I had during Just Ella, because I understood her better. However, writing an entire book from inside her head wasn’t something that I was prepared to do. So I took on Marilee’s story instead, because even though she was a bit shallow and silly, I had always adored her.
Speaking of which—it’s not just your main characters you need to like. Even if you don’t adore your side characters, you at least need to enjoy writing them. You need to find them intriguing or amusing or dangerous—something to draw you into writing, and draw your readers into reading.
One of my all time favorite characters that I’ve written is Tobias. I LOVED writing Tobias. He was a total punk, a creep, and a nasty personality, but he was so fun to write. His mannerisms, speech patterns and fastidiousness made him come alive in my head. He was intriguing AND dangerous AND amusing (at least to me).
If you force your character into a mold because your plot needs it, then you’ll probably run into trouble. Tailoring your characters to fit a plot is going to make them seem fake, one-dimensional, and/or unrealistic. The same is true if you arbitrarily assign traits or quirks to a character. Characters have to be relatable. Whereas setting can be less so. I love getting sucked into a different or unexpected world. I can suspend reality and imagine that a place unknown to me exists. However, reading about a character who doesn’t act like all the other humans I know is tougher to swallow. We’re all familiar with human nature and human interactions—we live it every day—so when we read about a character that just seems off, we notice.
Don’t create a bad guy just because you need a bad guy. Don’t introduce a rude, popular cheerleader just because you need someone to antagonize your heroine. Don’t use your characters as plot devices! Readers can smell it a mile away if a character is inserted simply to steer the plot in a new direction. Put your character in a situation and imagine how they would react. Let them guide the action. Just because you planned to have Jane break up with John by chapter 10 doesn’t mean you should force her to do it. Be flexible. If you’re not sure what a character is thinking, try writing to scene from their point of view.
Treat your characters with respect. Give them dimension, flaws, talents, quirks and humanity. Create characters you’re passionate about and your readers will fall in love with them too.