Is Honesty the Most Important Trait in a Likable Character?

Memorable characters come in many shades—everything from Heathcliff’s murderous manipulation to Steve Rogers’s aw-shucks idealism. Sometimes the not-so-likable characters end up being all the more interesting and enduring for their inner darkness. But, generally speaking, most authors are on a mission to write a likable character.

We want readers to fall in love with our characters. We want them to wish our protagonists lived next door so they could go out for coffee once a week and chat about saving the world. We want them to think our characters are, in short, heroes. But how can we be sure of creating such a delightfully lovable personality?

The answers are as vast as the personalities we know in our own lives. We might like one person for his wit, another for his kindness, another for his daring, and yet another for his virtue. And when it comes to characters the truth is: we also like them for their flaws—to a point.

So the new question becomes: How do we create a character who is flawed enough to avoid the Goody Two-Shoes Award, while still being likable in spite of his flaws?

The answer to that is easy.

Make him honest. I don’t mean never-fish-for-spare-change-in-a-pay-phone honest. I mean tell-it-like-it-is-and-own-up-to-it honest. Readers will forgive a character any number of flaws if the character is honest about who he is and what he’s doing.

The highly forgettable early Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant vehicle Sylvia Scarlett, in which Hepburn plays a young girl masquerading as a boy to help her crooked father escape the police, offers a good example in the midst of its otherwise chaotic storytelling. Early in the movie, the originally virtuous Sylvia finds herself talked into being a thief despite her convictions. In short, she’s a hypocrite—potentially the most dislikable of all character types. But she saves herself from viewer disdain. How?

You guessed it. She’s honest.

Tipsily, and still in her guise as a boy, she reveals the truth to a young housemaid who was about to unwittingly take the fall for a crime committed by Sylvia and her companions. Sylvia points at her father, their traveling companion, and then herself, saying, “He’s a crook, he’s a crook… he’s a crook.” And just like that, despite her multitude of sins, she wins viewers back. She’s struggling. She’s tempted. She’s fallen. And she knows it.

And that’s more than enough to make her a likable character.

Tell me your opinion: Who’s the most honest character in your work-in-progress? Is this person a likable character as a result?

Is Honesty the Most Important Trait in a Likable Character

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great post. 🙂 My most honest character is my MC, Darby. She is honest to a fault, and is deeply convicted when she has to lie. She’s also deeply humble, which is probably my favorite aspect to her personality. Even though she is completely unique and no one else on the planet can do what she does, she takes no pleasure in accolades, and is actually a little embarrassed by her abilities.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s fun when characters have conflicting attributes – mad skills and so much humility they don’t realize how mad their skills really are.

  2. Great post, Katie! They always come at the perfect time.

    I love the character in the wip I’m editing. Her too honest and straight to the point personality sometimes comes across as arrogant. She’s driven and believes in her abilities (racecar driver) and going for her dreams. I hope her fierce love for her family and the sacrifices she makes for the man she falls in love with shows there’s more to her and that readers will like her as much as I do.

    I’ll find out from my beta readers next month. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most readers like blunt characters. If nothing else, we like that they get away with all the blunt stuff we’re too polite or scared to say ourselves. Especially if the character is witty, we’ll love him for his in-your-face honesty.

  3. Although I think honesty is the best quality for anyone to have, I don’t think it’s always necessary for a likable character. It depends, of course, on what they’re lying about. The serial killer living next door will never be likable, but the character who lies to hide the shame of an abusive past can be extremely likable, and we’ll forgive them their lies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The difference is that the character isn’t lying to *herself*. But you’re right. If a character has a legitimate motivation for lying, even to himself, readers will be much more likely to forgive him.

  4. This is what I love about my heroes. They may tell lies to save their people, but their honest about doing so. They live in a world where they must hide to protect where they come from. The enemy would love to figure out where they are, but they never allow them to see past what’s in front of them. To do otherwise, would risk their families, neighbors, and friends.

  5. Kay Anderson says

    Good post! I like honest characters. Some of my characters are like this, but my character Jessica struggles with telling the truth due to her past and all her personal experiences. She’s good at hiding her emotions when around others and “putting on a smile” when really she feels otherwise; that is, except Demetrius and his mother Robyn. They can always tell when something’s bothering her and can never be fooled.

    I think readers would probably sympathize with her though. I know I do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s fun when other characters won’t let the protagonist get away with stuff.

  6. Good post. I do think honesty is important; otherwise, how do we trust characters to not just change at the drop of a hat? I’m wondering if this honesty cam appear partway through the story and still be as effective. (I’m thinking of Gone Girl here, but of course there are other stories with unreliable narrators.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, definitely. Some characters have to evolve into a place of honesty. In the Sylvia Scarlett example, Katharine Hepburn’s character would never have allowed herself to get mixed up in a life of crime had she been completely honest with herself from the beginning of the story.

  7. So far all of my characters are honest but then, I’m not very far into my story. I have a feeling the most honest one will be Elisabeth, a teenager. She’ll be a part-time assistance, which will require her opinions often. I’m hoping she will bring a practical side to the main dilemma and will add some humor.

  8. Another solid post. I’d have to go with Gabe. Gabe is a former NFL linebacker who is now traveling with a family in my futuristic CAMP DOGS. He’s now the gentle giant. Too much so. He’s almost cliche’. So I gave him a scene in which he confesses to taking part in a gang rape during his early days in the NFL. Yeah, heavy stuff. But it made him more appealing, believe it or not. I tested it on some other writers and they agreed. I’ll use this tactic again. If I have a character who’s a little too perfect, I’ll just give him what we all have –a past we’re not proud of. In fiction, of course, the uglier the past, the better. Gabe, by the way, goes on to save my young heroine from a similar fate. So it all comes together.

    • It’s true. We all relate to characters who have sinned. We like them all the more for their guilt, their shame, and their desire to do better in the future. It can also help explain *why* they’re good guys in the present.

  9. Self-insight is the one thing that can rescue a character, however flawed that character might be. It even redeemed Hannibal Lecter!

  10. K.M.
    Readers want characters who say and do what they’d like to, but often can’t. If this translates into honesty, fine. But it can also take the form of audacity, courage, etc. In the end, it has to do with acting in a way that isn’t constrained by social or professional restrictions, or by fears for personal safety. Characters who act out behavior and even thinking that we don’t feel we can allow ourselves are what create what agents call the “root for” factor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Which is exactly the appeal of the Sylvia Scarlett character in this scene. In telling the truth, she’s crossing her father and their partner and risking her own safety in admitting her crimes to a third party. We admire not just her honesty, but her bravery in being honest, under the circumstances.

  11. My MC’s cousin Sam reveals to Kyle, Ella and Bianca that StarGirl AND Amelia are, in fact, the same person. And Samantha is honest about wanting to protect her city and the people she loves as well as the fact that she enjoys it.


  1. […] How do we create a character who is flawed enough to avoid the Goody Two-Shoes Award, while still being likable in spite of his flaws?  […]

  2. […] — K.M. Weiland, quote from Is Honesty the Most Important Trait in a Likable Character? […]

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