When you consider the books that are your favorites, what comes to mind immediately? Is it the setting, or the fascinating plot? The descriptions? These pieces are important, of course, to create a believable world that draws the reader in, but I would wager the single most important aspect of a good story boils down to one, all-important component: memorable characters. Creating vibrant, flawed, fascinating characters is an infinitely important topic in fiction writing, and really strikes at the heart of any good story. The protagonist’s journey, after all, propels the plot. But what is it, specifically, that connects the reader to these characters?
Here are a few of my favorite techniques to creating likable, endearing characters:
Give the reader a reason to root for the protagonist. There are many ways to accomplish this, but a common method is to show your character’s sense of yearning. What does your main character want so desperately—in fact, more than anything in the world? Or perhaps, they have a difficult past they must overcome; a loss, a horrible deed, a tragic mistake. Maybe this character is an underdog. Readers love to cheer for the hero/heroine. Give them a reason.
Show your protagonist’s weakness. Even the strongest of women/men have a weakness. It’s what makes us human. Even superheroes have weaknesses or readers and viewers couldn’t relate to them. We love Iron Man because his gigantic ego causes innumerable problems for him so he is forced to eat crow again and again. This tip still works if you’ve written an anti-hero with many less-than-desirable traits. Perhaps, they secretly help poor children because they grew up in the streets themselves. Maybe they can’t help but love animals, and they have three cats they dote on. Weaknesses can be physical or emotional, and are often instrumental in making a character relatable.
Give them pain. This method, in particular, is an effective way to endear a reader to a protagonist. We can all relate to pain, be it an illness, a physical malady or deformity, or emotional scarring from the past. Bear in mind that in order for this method to work, the character must fight through the pain and/or overcome it to keep the reader firmly behind them.
Use distinguishable dialogue/speech patterns. I love a character that uses unique metaphors and comparisons, or interesting dialect (with a light hand, here). This technique is dependent both on the character’s voice as well as the author’s style, but it can really hook a reader and make them fall in love with a character.
Weave in a glimmer of self-awareness. If a character knows everything about themselves, they don’t have a journey upon which to embark and our story is flat. On the flip side, if they have no self-awareness at all, the reader can become frustrated with how obtuse this character is, otherwise known as TSTL (too stupid to live). The best way to approach this is to have the character show just a spark of understanding, a glimmer of clarity that becomes larger over time. This is what character arc is all about.
Engage through humor. This tip is self-explanatory. We all love to laugh. If you create a character that can brighten a situation with a little humor, sarcastic or not, it goes a long way.
In my recently published novel that I co-wrote with Hazel Gaynor, Last Christmas in Paris, we wanted to portray two characters who struggle greatly both against the major conflict in society (WWI), as well as struggle against who they are as people. Evie Elliott is a privileged young lady from the upper class, watching her brother and his best friend go off to war. She corresponds with them both via letters (the novel is epistolary in style), meanwhile, she yearns to find some way to contribute to the war efforts. As the stakes rise and her girlfriend becomes a nurse, Evie knows she has to do something—anything—to join them or lose her sense of self-worth, no matter what her strict mother says, no matter how dangerous it might be at the Front. No matter what.
Analysis: Why is Evie likable?
- Evie yearns for something she doesn’t have—an adventure beyond her sheltered world, as well as a future in journalism, a sense of meaning. We can relate to this, all of us. Do we not all yearn for something we can’t have, be it a material item or something much more meaningful? A passion or career; love, self-respect, courage. When creating a character who yearns for something, we’ve inadvertently thrown up a mirror for the reader. What is it the reader yearns for, strives for? Our characters help fulfill the desperate pining in our audience on some level, and hooks a reader in until “The End”.
- Evie is also likable because she possesses a sense of humor. Even amidst the turmoil of war and the desperate worry she feels for her friends’ and brother’s safety, she infuses many of her letters with a light tone and a sense of humor to jolly the troops along. Her humor is born of her deeply caring nature; she wants nothing but their safety and peace of mind.
Lieutenant Tom Harding, our other protagonist, leaves his studies at Oxford and arrives at the Front, ready to do his duty for the country. His father is his only family, so when Tom’s father begins to train him to take over the family business—a popular London newspaper—Tom becomes resentful. They tangle over the prospect of Tom forfeiting his own dreams to become a scholar. When his father falls ill, Tom is thrown into ever-more turmoil, torn between duty and desire. Meanwhile, conditions worsen at the Front and Tom must face demons he never expected to arise due to all the horrific things he has done and seen. To top it off, he wishes, against all hope, that his friend Evie would remain in London for her safety.
Analysis: Why is Tom likable?
- Tom struggles against his father’s expectations for his future. He doesn’t want to run the family press, and feels as if his father has never understood him and doesn’t care to know his heart. In other words, he carries a deep-seeded sense of rejection, as well as pain and fear that he will fail his only family. This fear carries over into his role as an officer of his troop, as well as in his developing feelings for Evie.
- Tom is also likable because he believes in bravery and honor; it is these traits that separate men from beasts in the dark hours when our humanity is tested. Also, when his men are decimated, he blames himself entirely for their demise, despite the circumstances that were out of his hands.
Last Christmas in Paris demanded an intimate account of two likable, though privileged characters, who grow and change both in spite of, and because of, their faults during a volatile time in history. These characters began speaking to Hazel and me from the moment we discovered their names. And, happily, it appears they are speaking to our readers as well. That said, though likable characters are popular in fiction, they don’t always have to be likable to be sympathetic or relatable, and, therefore worth rooting for.
For example, in my second novel called Rodin’s Lover, I wrote about Auguste Rodin, the sculpture, and his collaborator and muse, Camille Claudel. Camille was brilliant and passionate, but also brash and unconventional, pushing away those who were close to her. As the story unfolds, one can see how the cards were stacked against her in a male-dominated art world, how much she struggled with her place within it. The way she grappled with her own humanity as her mind unraveled. Though a tough character to find endearing, Camille is sympathetic on many levels.
It’s important to note that many great books don’t have any likable characters—or even need them—to make their story effective and worth reading. The goal for those sorts of books is entirely different…but that’s a post for another day.
(c) Heather Webb
About Last Christmas in Paris:
New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor has joined with Heather Webb to create this unforgettably romantic novel of the Great War.
August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.
But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…
Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?
Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…
Order your copy online here.