Making a Character Likeable

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I had my writing group on Monday and it went well as always. Everyone seemed to enjoy my Chapter 4. I even got a “this is the most exciting chapter so far”, which was nice. It was the most fun chapter to write.

There were a few suggestions, one of which I need to fix right now before I continue writing. It turns out my main protagonist, Art, is proving to be not too likeable. I need my audience to want my main character to succeed rather than want him to be captured by the villains of the story. My audience needs to care about Art.

Part of the problem, I’m hearing, is that they don’t like some of the choices Art makes. For example, he is told not to go somewhere and goes there anyhow. One of the members of my writing group has sons in my target audience and they were both turned off by this. I really need this plot point, so I’m not going to abandon it. However, I could soften it a bit.

Also, when confronted with a very arrogant manner. Should I soften this with some internal doubts?

My question is this: How do you make a character likeable? How do you get the audience to care whether or not your character succeeds. I don’t want him to be flat. I want him to have flaws and act in ways I or the audience does not. However, I don’t want them to wish harm on the guy.

Any help would be very much appreciated.

Unrelated, my weekly children’s review is up at This week I review a book by Eric Carle.


16 thoughts on “Making a Character Likeable

  1. Not knowing Art, or where he went that he shouldn’t have, I have to wonder if he had some idealistic motive for going to a place he had been warned not to go. Perhaps he had a hunch about something and needed to check it out. Maybe he really had a strong positive motive for his actions, but the reader just doesn’t know what they are yet. Can you provide some clues to his back story that will give the reader a sense that even though Art seems to be a rebel, he really has a good reason for his decisions?

    I enjoyed your blog today. Thank you. A flawed character is so much more believable than a perfect one, but so much harder to write.

    -Janet Sikes Anderson, Do The Write Thing Publishing, Do The Write Thing Publishing’s Weblog

  2. It’s hard to answer without seeing the story, but generally if your protagonist is going to break rules it has to be in a believable way. He could have some moral or personal reason to break the rule, he could have been tricked into it, or he could have done it accidentally.

    I think readers love it when protagonists break the rules, but they need to be able to see the reasoning behind it.

  3. Readers can relate to human characters, especially ones with human failings. To me it is very human for a person to do the opposite of what an authority tells them to do. My characters are always doing the wrong thing usually due to some overriding emotion i.e. strong curiosity, strong shyness or awkwardness. You could have him thinking: “Well, I know this is wrong but I just *have* to see this place/do this thing,” and show him convincing himself that he’s not doing too much harm by his decision.

  4. Rob – those are good suggestions

    Helen – I may go with the whole “Well, I know this is wrong but I just *have* to see this place/do this thing,” angle. In fact, I implied this but I think I need to go a little further with it.


  5. Tough question. As a reader, I need to see flawed characters. As a writer, it can be difficult to pull off. I think the young adult and children’s markets are really tough on this issue. Adults seem to be bothered by it because they want good examples for their kids, but as long as kids see that there are consequences (good & bad) for choices, then I think it’s more than ok for characters to go down the wrong path once in a while. And kids like to see other kids humanized. I mean face it, kids don’t always do the right thing. But if you had kids test read and they had trouble, then I’d say the motivation for the choice probably wasn’t set up. Why does he do what he shouldn’t? IS there a consequence for not obeying?

    side note – it isn’t always a bad thing for a hero to get captured once in a while. It can be a logical consequence and can be fun to watch them wiggle out and learn from their mistakes. 🙂

  6. Very interesting post and comments. Lots to learn from them.
    I agree with what the others said: he doesn’t have to obey but he has to be strongly motivated and also to face the consequences.

  7. I’ve been having the same problems. My protagonist, Wade (I know it sucks, but it’s just to make it easier to write while thinking of a better name), does something out of anger and ends up getting framed for murder by the murdered’s father and somebody told me that Wade could easily have avoided the situation. I’m still looking for a way to smooth this out without changing half the chapter. But I think some of the best ways to make a character likeable is to add traits with wich people can familiarise, like an insatiable curiosity that made Art unable to not go there.

  8. “Likability is no guarantee of audience involvement; it’s merely an aspect of characterization.”

    “The audience’s emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy.”

    Story by Robert McKee

    That’s a screenwriting book, but it’s my favorite book on any aspect of filmmaking. Study the difference between empathy and sympathy to get your audience to connect with your characters. The characters must make choices that we could see ourselves making.

  9. Hello! Found your post while looking for writers’ experiences on creating likable characters. I was particularly inspired by your older post because it reminded me of my own past experiences; I incorporated this into my blog’s article today and wanted to share. 🙂

  10. Hi,

    I’m struggling with the same question, how you create a likable character.

    I remember somewhere, I heard that there are 3 issue in writing a novel, one of them is to have a likable character. But I couldn’t come up with any idea about how to make one.

    That’s how I start googling and stumble on your blog.

    Reading your blog remind me of this manga (Last Inning) perhaps you could google for its scanlation. I remember this manga because the protagonist is a heartless manipulative salesman who tricks people to buy his useless stuff. He even tricks an honest housewife who wants the best for her family, so for the first few pages, this character is totally not likable.

    But it intrigues me to read more. I mean it makes you think, what’s wrong with this man.

    And funny to say, because you say the way it is with your character, it made your reader wants the villain to capture him, this character do goes to prison.

    But that’s when the writer start to tell the background, of why he became a “con man”, manipulating those around him to serve his own goal.

    That’s also the point where the writer give this con man a chance to redeem himself.

    So your protagonist break the rule, and the villain capture him for that, why not? That’s how your protagonist grow. He learns from his mistake, the reader might hate him at the beginning, but through the story they begin to cheer him for trying to learn from his mistake and grow into the character they want him to be.

    I’m not a writer, so I think I might not help you a lot, but as a reader I think its fun to read a protagonist who is a bit “evil”, as long as we can reasoning why he became like that and how he struggle to fix it.

  11. Yeah I am having the same problem. I want my character, Caleb, to be likable and kinda quirky. I’m using a technique Whig involves his dreams. If art and caleb are gonna break the rules the reader has to see a reason behind their choices- I’m using his bad memories Whig are told through his dreams to affect his Descisions- try that, it worked a little for me. Is it just me or do propel tend to like the bad guys more than the good guys?? Why is this?!

  12. I know how you feel!! I have the same problem. Try using dreams. Don’t lay everything out for the reader, if art is gonna break the rules then don’t tell them why int the vey first chapter. Then slowly introduce the reasons as to why he acts the way he does through his dreams. Trust me. It really makes people sympathetic towards them. Good luck!!

    Hey is it just me or do prowl tend to like the bad guys over the good guys?? Why is this!?!?

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