Captain America's 10-Step Guide to a Likable Hero

Captain America’s 10-Step Guide to the Likable Hero

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:

1. Action

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.

2. Morality

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.

3. Selflessness

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.

4. Competence

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.

6. Bravery

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.

7. Determination

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.”

8. Relatability

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.”

9. Wit

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.

10. Kindness

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: Whos the most likable character you can think of?

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captain americas guide to the likable hero

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Steve Rogers is a great hero and I loved this film. For me, it was his kindness that really made him a hero and made him so likeable. My hero isn’t quite as nice as Captain America, and her faults frequently get her into trouble, but I hope people will relate to her struggles.

  2. The truth is most characters can’t be as nice as Steve Rogers without coming off as saps. Readers like likable characters, but they also like characters who are flawed – and thus interesting.

  3. I think that’s why we all like Jack Sparrow so much. He may be a rogue but what’s one of the first things he does? Saves Elizabeth Swan. Same thing with Han Solo. He may say he’s only out for himself and the money but who helps Luke save the day at the end? Yup, Han Solo. These two are what I would call, reluctant heroes. They never planned on being good guys, and in fact are quite up front about NOT being good guys. But they just can’t help doing the right thing, albeit, reluctantly.

    Great post, btw!

  4. Audiences love reluctant heroes – people who can’t help doing the right thing in spite of themselves. Perhaps because we all have a bit of that reluctance creeping around inside of us?

  5. Hmmm… I think Harry Dresden is one of the most likeable characters I’ve encountered for a long time. I think he meets just about every criteria up there with the addition of a good dose of self-deprecating humor. I wasn’t a huge fan of the pacing of the books, but I read 4 of them anyway just because I liked Harry so much.

  6. Sounds like an interesting character. What’s the title of the series and who’s the author?

  7. Recently I would have to say one of the most likable characters I have come across is Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. This young man tends to just melt your heart as he goes against his gentle spirit to oust the bad guys in order to save others at great risk to himself. Seems he has about all of the above characteristics. There are others, certainly, but he has been on my mind most of late.

  8. I haven’t had a chance to read Odd Thomas yet myself, but everyone I know who’s read it raves about it. Koontz must have done it just right!

  9. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I think the first book is called Storm Front. Definitely a must read. My husband loves them obsessively.

    • I’m reading Storm Front right now. up to chapter 4 I’m liking it. Harry does have a likable voice. Hopefully the story will take me beyond my DNF threshold [page 100].

      Anyone else have a “commit level” they set for starting a new read?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I have to admit I’m too OCD to quit reading a book, even when it’s pretty darn terrible. But I’ll start skimming and speed reading even after the first chapter if I’m not hooked.

  10. I loved Steve Rogers : “I could do this all day.” “Once they get you to run, you never stop.” “Others are dying for our country. I got no right not to help them.”

    It helped that his courage, grit, and shyness melted the heart of the gorgeous girl studying him. “You really have no idea to talk to women, do you?”

    My own Samuel McCord is a Fisher King hero, one with an incurable wound, that helps others who hurt, for he knows what it is like to stand alone with no one to help. A truly great post, K.M.

  11. @Sarah: Thanks! I’ll check them out.

    @Roland: Wounded healers, angels with dirty faces, generous beggars – we *love* characters like because they’re not only flawed, they use they flaws to dig deeper and reach higher.

  12. I think you’ve explained why everyone loves Captain America, K.M.. even though I thought it wasn’t that great of a movie. (Instead of a beginning, middle, and end, it has a beginning, middle, and beginning — stay tuned for next year’s movie!) Still, Cap has all the traits you describe. A likeable character can go a long way in covering up other sins.

  13. I agree with this list. Harry Potter comes to mind.

    • Hmm.
      Harry was okay the first time I read the series, but after that I sort of started hating him.
      Just thought it was interesting. Your go-to character for likability is my go-to character for annoying.
      🙂

  14. @Greg: I agree. The movie’s story structure left something to be desired, but it offered too many other goodies – not least among them a cast of extremely likable characters – for me, at least, not to enjoy it.

    @Theresa: Thanks for reading!

  15. Enjoyed this post and the comments that followed. My current favorite tv character is Mary from “In Plain Sight”. Her personal life is a mess; but her sense of humor is amazing. She is just so realistic. Not pretty and perfect. The writers have created a likable woman who’s job it is to protect witnesses. She does that well and so do they.

  16. I’m not familiar with the show, but Mary sounds like a great character. Any author who can make a seriously imperfect character absolutely likable is an author who knows what he’s doing.

  17. hmmm Tuesday Next from the Eyre Affair (by Jasper Fforde) has got to be my favourite.

  18. I love Dana Delaney’s character in Body of Evidence; but I might have issues with her limited social skills, she’s like a female Data or Spock or even worse, Bones (TV version of Brennan). But I would enjoy trying to show her the road to happiness. In literature I would quite happily go for a drink with Inspector Morse so we could have a good moan and put the world to rights. It would have been interesting to meet Sherlock Holmes but I don’t think he is that likeable, whereas his sidekick Watson sounds like a regular guy. Miss Marple would be annoying as would Poirot but I quite fancy a weekend away with Kathy from Wuthering Heights in some cottage in the wilds as long as Heathcliff wasn’t around :).

  19. @Chey: You know, somebody else just mentioned that book to me. Methinks I better check it out!

    @Christopher: Good point regarding Sherlock and Watson. No doubt one of the reasons Sir Arthur chose Watson as his narrator *because* he was the more relatable of the two characters.

  20. You’ve made a good list here. It has really pumped me up to go back to my revisions =)

  21. Awesome! Anything that makes a writer eager to get back to revisions is a good thing in my book. 😉

  22. I like my heros with determination and kindness. But I think an imperfect hero is more interesting. Perhaps he likes to put his foot in his mouth a lot of time and learns to rectify it later on in the story.

    Every Savage Can Reproduce

  23. As I said in the post, “likable” doesn’t and shouldn’t mean perfect. As flawed people, we love flawed characters. They fall under the “relatable” heading.

  24. Thanks so much for posting this! You enumerate everything in a checklisty fashion, but it still conveys that the totality of the character is what’s most important. Working on making sure my protagonist (a downtrodden, invisible, shy high school junior) has enough spunk and activity in her inner voice to keep her likable at the beginning, when she’s most vulnerable. This seriously helps!

    http://joyeilene.blogspot.com

  25. It’s always balance! Shy characters should have at least a little spunk, and cocky characters should have at least a little vulnerability.

  26. Wow… likeable characters… Where do I begin?

    Lt. Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb’s In Death series is extremely likeable, despite all her warts. And she grows more likeable as the series goes on (you see her growing over the 2 1/2 year the series has run so far across the 30+ books.) There’s several other likeable characters in those books, but Eve’s the lead.

    I’m also a big fan of Tony Stark in Iron Man (you probably know that!) He’s got a lot of faults, and definitely has his own moral code.

    Someone mentioned “Bones” and while Bones is likeable enough, so is the rest of the cast. Personally, I like Brennan better in the original books by Kathy Reichs.

    Some of my other favorite shows with likeable characters (to one degree or another): “House”, “Burn Notice”, “Covert Affairs”… Actually, House could be debatable, since he borders on depravity quite frequently. But, you keep wanting to hang on and see what he does/says next.

  27. I had a feeling Tony Stark would be on your list! 😉

  28. I like the character of Daniel Jackson in the Stargate series. The writing for that particular show was very clever, and I almost like the way the characters interact as a group more than any of them alone, but I do like Daniel’s character because he is a good combination of loyalty, intelligence, humor, willingness to take action, selflessness, and compassion.

    I doubt I could pick a favorite book, much less a favorite character, but I do like Grandma Dowdel, who made an appearance in a few of Richard Peck’s books. She’s got some serious spunk, and you never know what she’s thinking until you get there (and sometimes not even then).

  29. Unpredictable characters are often some of the most fun to read (or write!). Their very outrageousness keeps readers glued to the page just to find out what they’re going to do next.

  30. Great blog post! Thanks for the enumeration. Gotta agree with all of them, especially how the hero embodies the bulk of people’s moral codes and behaviors.

  31. Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  32. Flynn Rider from Disney’s “Tangled”

  33. He seems to be a lot of people’s favorite these days!

  34. This is an awesome post. It’s made me reevaluate some things in my characters; I can’t wait to go back and better them!

  35. The only thing better than creating characters is figuring out how to make them better! Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  36. Madeleine L’engle crafted some very fine characters. I go back to her books over and over again. Meg Murry from A Wrinkle In Time and its two immediate sequels (A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet), and Vicky Austin from her Austin Family series, have always struck me as very believable–and relatable–characters.

  37. Vicky Austin! I was just trying to remember her name the other day. Thank you!

  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. Christopher January 28, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    I’m not a Novel writer, but I write Screenplays. Took me quite a while to really make character’s believable. The way I began to make them even more believable and everything you describe in your article was observe people more, listen to them speak and watch what they do. Some talk and no action, some talk and all they do is action even if they fail. Some give up and some keep on trying. Some have beliefs they cling to that are wrong and then they change them to become different in the way they approach things, which would be arc. When I seen this in movies and apply it to real life and vice versa, then it clicked in my brain.

    We don’t want a main character that is passive aggressive, although at the beginning he/she could be that way(like Rocky), but eventually and hopefully the inciting incident will kick them out of their nest so to speak and they have to start trying to solve a problem and working towards the goal even if what they think they want at the start becomes different by the end.

    I love characters who fail and keep trying. Indiana Jones is one my favorites because he’s not only likable, but very relateable and is always failing, which is okay, because he doesn’t give up. No I’ve never traveled the world seeking buried treasures, but I don’t have to. With a great character you can do that through them. We are all our own a characters in many ways.

  40. Spot on. Characters who take action, fail, try again, fail better (as Samuel Beckett says) win readers over because they not only reflect human realism, but because they also offer a model we can all aspire to follow.

  41. My most likable character is Indiana Jones. And I realized, reading your post, that he has it all… And – bonus – he’s so sexy. In books, I’m thinking of Athos, from the Three Musketeers. His dark side makes him very interesting.
    I’ve always found that creating strong characters is the most difficult part of writing. This resume will definitely help me in the future.

  42. Indiana Jones is a great character. He incorporates most if not all of the traits listed here. And Athos is great as well; his darkness is definitely what deepens the level of reader interest.

  43. I gotta commend you on picking this character for this entry. Not only is the movie great, but I felt his character arc was written extremely well. A prime example of how the best heroes are written. They have the x-factor, that special something that makes you want to come along for the ride. They’re not always cut & dry like Captain America, whereas you have Han Solo who’s a tad more complicated, but as long as they come through where it counts, that’s the important thing.

  44. Captain American lands on the extreme end of likable. He could easily have been *too* likable and run himself into the goody-goody category, but the writers and the actor did a good job of keeping him relatable through his humility and his social awkwardness.

  45. Great article! Definitely gives me something to think about in regards to my own stories. One of my favorite characters is Hamish Macbeth from M.C. Beaton’s series. He’s a layabout village bobby who’d rather snooze in the garden and mooching food from the locals. However when he’s called in a murder investigation, a slightly different Hamish is seen. A little more on the serious side but still with the gentle neighborly behavior that gets people to open up to him about the case.

  46. What a great character name!

  47. My favourite hero(ine) is Sailormoon – she may be a blubbering fool at times, but her kindness, and her morality are what pull at my heart strings!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      A well-rounded character will always have the faults to balance out their virtues – but their virtues are so strong that we love them the better for their faults.

  48. Love this site, look forward contributing.

  49. I love this article. It amazes me how someone as young as you are has such a grasp of strong writing skills. I’m a late bloomer, and I’m loving every minute of learning. I can’t wait until my novel is published. Thanks for the lessons, and more power to you!

    Cindy

  50. I must say I love your posts. Very insightful. As a fellow writer, I especially like characters, and this post had a lot of great information.

    I know this post is regarding how to develop a likable hero, but I wonder if you’ve ever explored how to make a likeable villain (or at least, an interesting one that readers are intrigued by).

    To that end, I’d love to see your take on Wilson Fisk as portrayed on the new Daredevil TV show on Netflix. Several of the amiable traits you mentioned in this post apply to this version of the Daredevil’s arch enemy…some traits that do typically go with a villain (competence, action, determination) but also several that are usually reserved for the hero (morality, however Machiavellian it may be; loved and cared about by his friend and girlfriend; relatability in his backstory; kindness towards his inner circle; etc.). Even through all his evil actions, he still believes he is in the right and desires to clean up the city (an interesting foil to the hero, who wants the same thing and who also believes he is in the right).

    I would love to see your thoughts on such a topic.

    –Megan Clemons

  51. Marilyn Delson says:

    “Rose in a Storm” by Jon Katz. Rose is a border collie who lives in rural Upstate New York at Bedlam Farm. She has a work ethic that’s unobtainable by most humans and a preternatural understanding of wild creatures. When a snowstorm hits and her master becomes incapacitated, Rose takes over, in the most charming and doggish way possible. Although she’s not human, she’s a representative of just how wonderful her species can be.

  52. M. Bollism says:

    Loved this post and thread. The first character who came to mind was Willoughby. Not a hero, I admit but hero-like in some ways. I liked him better than most period heroes.
    I also like the point about outrageous characters.
    Just a couple of days ago I wanted to introduce an outside voice to a story I am writing and this character has come along and juiced up the whole thing. Altered it, even. I can’t wait to see what she does next!

  53. When I first read that I thought you wrote “a grumpy old man who throws *cats* at pigeons”

    Now that would be grumpy!

  54. Coming in at the tail end of this conversation, I have to say that I prefer intelligent competent heroes, to ‘gung ho’ superheroes. The sheer fantasy and impossibility (or at least implausibility) of the ‘comic book’ superhero turns me right off.

    Characters like Morse, House, Reagan, or Callan, from TV spring to mind… from movies, the Jack Nicholson role from ‘Easy Rider’, or both Rusty and Rocky Dennis from ‘Mask’, or Kelly, and even Stuart from ‘London to Brighton’.

    Frank Westworth’s JJ Stoner, from his ‘Killing Sisters’ trilogy, and the Stoner e-book short stories, is the nearest to a literary ‘superhero’ for me… and he can be a real ‘nasty bastard’ to those he has reason to deal with.
    He’s more of an anti hero, but a far more complex and believable character than most action heroes. Even at the first meeting of him in the opening scene of the short story, ‘First Contract’, he calmly shoots dead five detained Iraqi ‘civilians’ without batting an eyelid in remorse.
    The ‘Killing Sisters’ themselves are interesting – especially ‘Chastity’, who I’ve yet to decide whether she’s a heroine or a villain… She’s certainly an accomplished killer.

  55. Joe Hayden says:

    I’m partial to Druss the Legend created by David Gemmel. I also like the way Mr. Gemmel became a writer. We share some traits there. Druss is the old fashion guy who does things because they are right damn it. He is an old guy compared to the others fighting alongside him but certainly does more than his share. His morals aren’t the shiniest when it comes to killing the enemy but he will stand in the path of a falling mountain to save a child.

  56. I like the way Steve Rogers fulfils his friendship with Bucky. Bucky was the person who saved Steve from one of the bullies & Steve remembers this fact after being transformed into Captain America. He acknowledges this fact, now that he can defend himself still he doesn’t side line Bucky.

    Also Steve doesn’t have any bad attitude regarding his newly gained super human abilities.

    Similarly the Character of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings goes through a similar transformation where he converts from Grey to White in the process becoming stronger & still remains humble to other people.

    Nice Article, I’m learning a lot from these & I know still I have lot more to be learnt.

  57. Okay, I know this is an old post but since I stumbled across it, I have to mention Bigwig from `Watership Down’. He’s tough and grumpy and you have to earn his respect. Once he’s decided to take a stand, though, he never backs down.

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