When back in the day I asked people to read my first book the feedback I got was: “Yeah, your world and your descriptions are really interesting, but I really don’t like the lead.” And they were right. He wasn’t meant to be likable. I wanted to see if it would work with an unlikable main character. Seeing as that book is now gathering dust at the bottom of a desk drawer, I can say with real authority that it does not (still, no regrets. There is nothing as good for developing your writing skills by working for some websites as practice).
And in hindsight that makes sense (oh 20-20 hindsight! You bastard!) Because if we can’t identify with your main character in any way, either because they intrigue us, because we admire them, or because we can identify with them, then we’re going to have real trouble appreciating everything else that happens around them. That’s why my idea of a stupid person who only thought about himself didn’t work. He was neither intriguing nor likable. One or the other might have worked, but not both.
So now that I’ve outlined what doesn’t work, let’s look at what does. To make a novel character charismatic they should:
1. Be other-oriented
If you really think about it morality is about being oriented towards other people, while immorality is about being self-oriented. So make sure your character pays attention to others, their feelings and what they want.
2. Be human
At the same time, don’t take that too far. If your character never has any selfish thoughts, then that makes them flat and unless you’re writing for somebody who doesn’t consume a lot of media, they are not going to be very interested. We want the people we’re reading about to have to at least struggle to overcome their demons.
3. But not too whiny
We like heroes, not victims. Characters that are constantly whining about how horrible things are are victims. That does not in any way make them endearing. I mean, how many of us like to sit around and listen to a friend complain about how horrible their life is? So why would we do it for a fictional character?
4. Be memorable
It helps if people can immediately conjure a mental picture. For this reason, many writers use tags, which can then be repeated when the character is reintroduced to help you remember who the writer is talking about. So for example, Harry Potter had a lightning shaped scar, Ron Weasley was gangly and had red hair, while Hermione Granger had bushy hair. Unique names help as well so that you don’t get the characters confused.
5. Be attractive
We like attractive people and are more likely to enjoy reading about them. This is in large part due to the halo effect, which makes us believe that pretty people are likable people. It isn’t just that, however. In some ways, we project ourselves into the shoes of the lead and it is much more fun to think of ourselves as attractive than as ugly when we do so.
6. But not perfect
We don’t still want the character to be within reach. If they’re good at everything, never have any doubt and are never surpassed by others, then they’re flat and – what is more – the story becomes uninteresting as you know the character is going to win without really straining themselves. That’s no fun!
7. Be vehicles or mouth pieces
A good character has their own opinion, which is separate and well defined. Now this opinion doesn’t have to be correct. In fact, quite often stories hinge on a character realizing that they believed something that turns out to be wrong. But they still have to have opinions.
8. Have a back story
Similarly, the more interesting characters feel like they are more than the story that they’re a part of. Like if you could ask them a question about something completely unrelated – like what they think of minimalist design or Greek philosophy – they’d have something to say, even if it isn’t that intelligent. This is best done by giving them a back story. This doesn’t actually have to come out during the novel but is always there to help you decide how the character will act.
9. Want something
Your character should have a drive or a goal. Now this might not get completed in your story, but it should be there pushing the character forward. Maybe they just want to get out alive. Maybe they just want all this to end, but they must want something. We are driven by our wants and our novel characters should as well.
10. Be like our readers
And last but not least, if we want our readers to like them, make the character like them! Are you reading for a teenage audience? Then create an affable teenager. Are you writing for women? Well then obviously you’ll need some kind of friendly woman. The trick here is that it’s much easier to identify with somebody like ourselves, which makes it easier for people to immerse themselves in your tale.
Now remember, not all your characters have to be likable! That’s not the point. There are villains, goons, background characters to help the story along, and more. But unless you’re a genius writer who can somehow get away with it (which I’m clearly not and you probably shouldn’t assume you are either, just for safety’s sake) somebody has to be likable! And if you follow some of the points I outlined above, some of them probably will be.