You Don’t Have To Create Lovable Characters
You do, however, have to create empathetic characters. There is nothing worse than reading a well-plotted book that is driven by an unlikeable character.
Protagonists carry a story. If you can’t identify with them, you lose interest. It’s not rocket science.
However, you don’t want your character to turn into a boring caricature of a ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’, where you exaggerate their good characteristics and oversimplify their bad ones.
So, how do you create empathy without turning them into lovable caricatures?
Here are 10 believable ways your characters could endear themselves to readers:
1. Give them a talent or a skill.
If they are talented or have worked hard at something, exploit it. This is especially useful if your protagonist is an antihero. Sherlock Holmes gets away with a lot because he is a really good detective. Don Draper may have been an unfaithful liar, but he was always great at creating adverts. Gregory House was not a good man but he was a skilled doctor.
2. Get them to show an admirable trait.
Even if they are not brave or kind or loving, create a situation where they choose to show or embrace one of these qualities. You may want to use this as part of your set-up when you have to show your protagonist in a bad light. Katniss Everdeen is not a particularly likeable character, but she adores her sister and will do anything for her.
3. Make them funny.
We love people who make us laugh. Your characters may behave irresponsibly or inconsiderately, they may even do illegal things, but your readers will forgive a lot if these characters are entertaining in a genuinely funny way. Make them witty. Turn their crime into a caper. The motley crew from Guardians of the Galaxy would not be palatable without their ability to make us laugh.
4. Give them an injury.
Dr Gregory House is the perfect example of how well this works. House was cruel, lazy, selfish, and arrogant, but we knew he was haunted by his injury and addicted to painkillers. Even when he lied and betrayed his friends and patients, we forgave him. Of course, it helped that he was also a great doctor (see number 1) and he was funny (see number 3).
5. Show they have been treated unfairly or unjustly.
People who behave badly because they have been unfairly treated are easier to forgive. Don’t overdo this though, because we get tired of excuses for bad behaviour. A good tip is to show that they do not wallow in self-pity. If they don’t feel sorry for themselves, readers will feel sorry for them. Walter White may have become a drug lord, but he was dealt a low blow with his cancer diagnosis and medical bills he cannot pay.
We may not all understand a person who is hell-bent on killing somebody until we learn that he or she murdered that person’s family. When the law has not taken its course and justice has failed, we become more empathetic. We may not condone what the character does, but we understand it. When we learn her history, we empathise with The Bride in Kill Bill.
6. Make other people love them.
In The Hunger Games, Peeta loves Katniss. Her sister, Prim lovers hers too. Because Peeta and Prim are good people, we are prepared to give her some leeway. She must have redeeming qualities, surely?
7. Show us their broken hearts and lives.
This is useful when creating protagonists and antagonists. Almost any reader can identify with a terrible loss that changes a character’s life in a profound way.
8. Make them underdogs.
Rocky is a perfect example here. He is not a typical hero or traditional protagonist material. He is in dire straits, but readers and viewers are sympathetic to him and want him to win. We read to find out how people overcome challenges and the more difficult their journeys, the more badly we want them to succeed.
9. Make them different.
If you can create an endearing oddball who looks different, acts differently, or thinks in an unusual way, you can get away with a lot. You could even give them a syndrome like Tourette’s. If you do it skilfully, you can create an unforgettable character who forces you to look twice and see the world in a different way. The easiest way to do this is to combine this with at least two other traits in the list. The Good Doctor is a great example of an autistic doctor who is really good at diagnosing patients (see point 1). He also lost a brother who loved and looked after him (see point 6). He has the ability to make us smile (see point 3).
10. Show us how they long for love or understanding.
If your characters are searching for things we would all like to have, such as love, a sense of belonging, or a purpose, we can forgive a lot. These wishes and needs make it more difficult for us to harden our hearts to them. This is a useful way to create empathy for characters who seem selfish and uncaring.
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