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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. Love this site, look forward contributing.

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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

    Now that would be grumpy!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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