Make me like your character, and I will follow him to the center of the earth, I will fight with him in the trenches, I will slog through bogs, brave tsunamis, and face down volcanoes for him. If I like your character, I won’t just read your book, I’ll ache when it’s over, buy it in hard cover just so I never have to say goodbye, re-read it until it’s dog-eared, and welcome that character to a permanent place in my heart. In short, I’ll love him forever—and you’ll have at least one rabid fan for life.
Sound good? That kind of loyalty is what every author dreams of creating when he introduces his characters on the page. But creating a likable character isn’t as easy as snap-your-fingers-and-stars-and-stripes-forever. Likable characters require careful crafting if they’re to come to life in a way that is not only believable but compelling. This summer’s blockbuster superhero movie Captain America: The First Avenger featured a protagonist who practically oozes likability. Let’s take a look at ten traits found in almost every likable character—and how the movie’s scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely utilized them to make Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, a likable hero:
In his post “What makes a sympathetic hero?” Jason Black explains, “Heroes are characterized by action. The hero actually does things. He or she doesn’t sit around watching things happen, or waiting for situations to resolve themselves.” In the opening scene of Captain America, the hero first takes action by attempting to join the army. A few scenes later, he takes even more literal action by calling out a heckler at a movie theater and fighting him in an alley.
In his book Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell notes that “[t]he mark of the hero is that she represents the values of the community. She is representing the moral vision shared by most people and is someone we root for as a result.” Steve Rogers presents an idealistic all-American out to defy evil and generally save world. He’s a golly-gee-whiz kid who sticks up for the downtrodden, refuses to shirk responsibility even when given an out, and believes in truth, honor, and justice.
The willingness (even if sometimes reluctantly) of a protagonist to put others before himself will cement reader loyalty. We love characters who put it all the line to protect others. When Steve Rogers parachutes behind enemy lines on a suicidal mission to save his best friend and other captured soldiers, he proves his regard for others, even at the possible cost of his own life.
Bumbling, klutzy heroes are fun. But, at the end of the day, we want a character who can get the job done. We like heroes who are skilled and competent (although not necessarily perfect: Captain Jack Sparrow may stagger about, but, whether by skill or by luck, he always seems to come out on top, and we wouldn’t have it any other way). In the comic books on which the movie is based, Steve Rogers was an accomplished tactician and hand-to-hand combatant. His ability to triumph isn’t based solely on his superpowers; he’s also worked hard to master necessary skill sets.
5. Loved by Others
In her blog post “Creating Sympathetic Characters,” Darcy Pattinson asks, “Ever wonder why so many stories have sidekicks? If someone is loved by someone else, it establishes the character as someone worthy of love.” A character who dies in the middle of nowhere, with no one to mourn his death, isn’t going to pull at reader heartstrings nearly as much as if another character is heartbroken. When Captain America earns the loyalty and respect of his men, he also validates the viewers’ appreciation of him.
Wimpy characters need not apply. Even when frightened and nervous, characters need to be willing to move forward in the face of odds that would melt most of us into blubbering, quivering blobs of Jell-O. Steve Rogers—a “90-pound asthmatic”—proves his bravery again and again, notably in an early scene in which he jumps onto what he believes is a live grenade, in order to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Tenacity, bullheadedness, grit—whatever your tomato-to-mah-to, this is a must-have if your hero is going to get through 300 pages of trials and tribulations. Moments of doubt aside, your hero must have the inner fortitude to keep getting back up no matter how many times he’s knocked down. After being laid out by a bully twice his size, Steve Rogers swipes the blood from his nose and insists, “I could do this all day.”
Heroes come from many walks of life, but the one thing they all possess is a relatable element—a goal, dream, or desire the reader can understand. We may not be able to relate to a skinny kid transformed into a super-soldier by a special serum, but we can relate to his disdain for bullies “no matter where they’re from.”
A little humor can go a long way toward making even disreputable characters likable. We don’t love Han Solo and Jack Sparrow for their altruism; we keep watching them because they’re so stinking entertaining. Steve Rogers’s witty comebacks, especially in the face of danger, make us grin. A character who makes us grin is a character we’ll like.
Even characters who are as rough as a farmer’s elbow in winter need to possess an underlying kindness. Maybe they don’t know how to give compliments, stop babies from crying, or make flowers bloom in their footprints, but they should have an underlying desire to uplift and help others, however clumsily. Despite ham-handed social skills, Steve Rogers’s desire to help others makes us forgive his occasional bungling remark or action.
Likable characters come in all shapes and sizes. Some are blatantly endearing. Some make us like them in spite of themselves. Likable does not equal perfect. Sappy, sugary goody two-shoes are more likely to inspire a gag reflex than undying loyalty. Your character doesn’t have to be nice. He can be a grumpy old man who throws cans at pigeons. In fact, a grumpy old man who possesses the above traits and still throws cans may give even the likes of Captain America a run for his stars and stripes!
Tell me your opinion: Who’s the most likable character you can think of?
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