How To Avoid the Trap of Creating Unlikable Characters

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a writer has been HOW to make my heroes and heroines more likable. In hindsight, I can see that most of my rewrite issues have revolved around getting my main characters more likable.

As a result, lately, whenever I watch a movie or read a book, I’m extremely aware of the likability factor of main characters. I’ve grown incredibly sensitive to the issue, which is often the case when we’re learning to do something better.

I realize there's a wide spectrum of subjectivity when it comes to making characters likable. What one reader might think is unheroic and entirely disagreeable might not phase another reader. But no matter the subjectivity involved, I’m realizing our books will resonate best with readers if we give them main characters they can LOVE and RELATE to.

Yes, yes, “love” and “relate” are subjective. But my evolving opinion is that no matter what we write, we can cross the line and go too far, essentially alienating our readers from our characters.

How can we know if we’re crossing the line and making our main characters too unlikable? And what can we do to make sure we’re keeping our main characters likable enough?

I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments today, because the likability issue is still one I’m working on (as my critique partner and editors can attest to!). But here’s what I’ve learned so far:

How can we know if we’re crossing the line and making our main characters too unlikable?

We hear this writing mantra over and over: Add tension to every page, increase the conflict, and get our main characters (MCs) into trouble. In humble obedience to the rules of fiction, we try to heap mountains of problems upon our MCs. We do this externally in the form of villains, trauma, or drama. And we do it internally in the form of emotional struggles, character weaknesses, or relationship problems.

A story wouldn’t be a page-turner without the conflict to move it forward. However, at the beginning when we’re trying to establish the problems and the need for character growth, we may tip the scales too far.

Yes, our MCs need flaws, things they have to work through as the story progresses (aka character arc). But in the process of making our MCs imperfect, we can’t turn them into bitter, whiny, selfish, angry, mean, cold-hearted jerks.

I’ve learned that in making my MCs have real, everyday, human problems, I have to be careful not to shape them into the kind of people no one wants to hang around for 300 plus pages.

What then can we do to make sure we’re keeping our main characters likable enough?

Like most things in fiction, we’ll have to learn to find a balance. We don’t want perfect Pollyannas. Neither do we want boorish baboons.

When I think about the kinds of characters that really resonate, the ones I remember long after I close a book, the people I fall in love with—they usually have something noble about them. No matter their flaws, there’s a quality that makes me want to be like them. I look up to them and admire them.

Here are several traps we should avoid if we want to make our MCs likable enough:

1. Too many negative traits. Perhaps we’ve given a likable quality to our MC. But the mounds of negative traits overshadow that one tiny likable quality, drowning it out so that the reader can’t see it (I’ve been guilty of this!).

2. An unforgivable trait or action. We might have made our character likable, but then she does something (or several things) that the reader finds unforgivable, completely unlikable, and unredeemable. The event or action leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth and often they’re unable to resume their fullest love of our character after that. (I’ve been guilty of this too!)

3. Bringing out likable traits too late. Sometimes we wait until too late in the story to bring out the likability factor. We can’t have our MCs acting like spoiled brats until the end when they finally change. We need to have something heroic within our MCs that readers can love right from the start.

My Summary: It’s often very difficult for us to see how we’re portraying our characters. We have an image in our minds. But what comes out on paper, what readers see, isn’t the whole picture we envisioned.

When we’re getting objective feedback from our critique partners or editors, one of the things we should ask them is, “Do you like my main characters? Why or why not?” We should pay careful attention to their likability feedback.

Ultimately, we should ask ourselves, “What can I do to ensure that my hero is truly a hero.”

Your turn! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the likability factor. Have you had trouble making your MCs likable enough? Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you absolutely loved the MC. Why? What did the writer do to help you fall in love? Or on the flip side, have you read a book where you couldn't fall in love with the MC? Why?

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