There's no question that likable characters are key to a good story. No one wants to read about jerks, after all. But creating a character your audience will love can be tricky. How do you make them someone people will root for?
Read on for 8 rules and 14 ways to create a likable character your audience will love.
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8 rules on how to write a likable character
1. They must have flaws
What makes a character likable is that they feel like a real person. They have to have flaws. We all know that being a “perfect” character is boring and unrealistic, so give your character some flaws. Maybe they’re too trusting or maybe they can’t keep their mouth shut in difficult situations.
Most of us don’t consume fiction solely because we want stories about perfection; we gravitate towards plots where our protagonists feel like someone we could meet on the street.
2. They must have goals and motivations that are relatable
We all have dreams and ambitions, and so should your characters. Whether they’re a scrawny kid with glasses who wants to be the next Stephen King or an old woman that’s living by herself on her farm after everyone else died from some disease — readers will love it when you show what drives their day-to-day.
If your character’s motivation is to rule the universe then you have a problem. Try to think of something that people can relate to and use in their everyday life, or the audience will lose interest quickly.
[.article-cta]Learn how to develop character motivations.[.article-cta]
3. They must show vulnerability
Having a stoic character can get boring after a while. It’s more impactful and interesting if the character has some kind of vulnerability. For example, showing that they’re afraid or sad about something.
It’s a good idea to show it rather than tell a reader about it so people can get more emotionally involved in the story and feel like someone is on their side. On the other hand, don’t let this become too much of an issue for them because then they’ll just seem weak instead of strong by overcoming these issues.
It’s important not to let one emotion dominate their entire personality either because this makes them unrelatable and boring. Showing all of these various attributes gives the audience an accurate image of who your character really is. Keep some variety by showing different aspects of their personality throughout the story.
4. They must make mistakes
Whether the character is the main protagonist or a side character, you want to write them as someone who is capable of making mistakes throughout the story. The point of any story is character growth and you can’t have growth without making a few mistakes along the way, just like in real life.
Letting your protagonist fall down throughout the story shows how human they are — it also allows you to develop a sense of empathy with them when things go wrong. Make us root them on!
One of my favorite examples of a character making a mistake is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry makes the mistake of trusting the visions inside of his head too much and thinking that Sirius Black was actually captured and held prisoner at the Ministry of Magic. This mistake of Harry’s is what leads to his godfather’s eventual death.
This displays how human Harry is, that he makes mistakes like any other person, and can be extremely vulnerable to outside forces when his guard is down.
What does this mean for you as a writer? It means don’t let your character’s growth come from them never making any mistakes at all because it will make them less relatable and more “too good to be true”.
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5. They must have traits that set them apart from other people in their world
A character with distinct traits and personality traits will end up being likable to the audience because they’re more interesting than other characters. Even if those traits make them seem like an outsider in their world, it’s still something that makes them unique.
6. They must act realistically and truthfully
You need to have your character react in a believable way when they’re faced with different situations. If they’re happy, make sure it’s not for no reason — the same goes for if they’re scared or enraged.
It is important for characters to be relatable, but also not to behave in an unrealistically extreme manner.
It can be hard as a writer to know how to portray a character who reacts the way you think people might. One technique is to write yourself into the story and react in your own head as if it was happening to you, then put those thoughts on paper.
If this doesn’t work for you, try making them make decisions based on what they’ve seen or gone through before — such as remembering an event that’s similar and reacting accordingly.
Another option would be using ‘real-life’ characters who have distinct reactions after distressing incidents in their lives — like celebrities or public figures who are well known for their responses after certain events happen.
7. They must have conviction
Agency is the power or right to act independently and make decisions for oneself. Characters who are able to make a difference in the story with their actions are more appealing to the audience than those just reacting. Giving the character a backbone or agency can go a long way to making them more likable.
When you give your character agency, this means they have the power of self-direction. The audience will find it easier to form an attachment because their own lives are not so different from those characters who know what they want.
To write a likable character, it’s important to give enough weight to whether the audience see themselves as capable of carrying out these actions. In order for your character to seem real, they need some sense of being proactive rather than reactive.
The protagonist needs to take charge of their life and be proactive about what they want out of it in order for readers to relate better.
8. Their positive traits must be their defining characteristics over their negative ones
This is probably the most important rule. The positive traits you give your character need to be the ones that define who they are. Every character has flaws, but a major aspect of what makes a character likable is how they deal with their flaws and let their strengths shine.
A likable character is not defined by their mistakes or bad decisions, but instead by how they own up to them and work to improve themselves.
What this ultimately means is that a likable character is someone who is easy to root for because they’re trying to better themselves in some way — even if it’s just becoming a better person overall.
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The Positive Trait Thesaurus is a valuable resource for character development. It provides a large selection of attributes to choose from, along with real character examples from literature, film, or television. This allows you to see how an attribute drives actions and decisions and helps you to avoid common personality pitfalls.
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Creating Character Arcs
Positive Trait Thesaurus
An index of character strengths and attributes.
Creating Character Arcs
Build powerful and compelling character arcs.
14 ways make a character likable
The story of Game of Thrones (or a Song of Ice and Fire) is set in a world with horrible people in it. But there are plenty of characters that keep the audience enthralled because they are characters that they root for to win against the horrible ones.
Below are fourteen ways on writing likable characters based on the characterstics and choices of many of the main characters of Game of Thrones.
1. Make your character good with kids and/or animals
One way to make a character likable is to show them being good with kids and/or animals. This can be done by having them interact positively with kids and/or animals in various scenes or situations. This shows that they have a caring and nurturing side that makes them likable.
- Davos Seaworth is friendly with Shireen and learns how to read from her.
- Ned Stark is a good father to all his children and always looks out for them.
- Jon Snow has a good bond with his dire wolf, Ghost, and shows affection for him.
- Daenerys looks out for her dragons when they are babies and cares deeply for them as they grow.
2. Have them be witty and make sarcastic comments
The most direct way to show a character’s personality in your novel is through what they say. A character’s dialogue is a reflection of their personality and is the way we get to know them.
Giving your character some witty or clever one-liners in dialogue can be a great way to show their intelligence and wit. These one-liners can also be really amusing for the reader, even if they do not reveal anything about your character’s personality.
- Tyrion, the biggest culprit, always has a witty comment to make because he can see a situation from different angles.
- The Hound likes to make jabs at people who he finds are full of themselves.
- Bronn always has a realistic reaction to absurd situations and isn't afraid to make funny comments that are brutally honest.
- Olenna Tyrell likes to make jokes against the idea of royalty in general and goes against being the stereotypical proper old lady.
3. Make your character loyal and honorable against all odds
Loyalty and honor are two very likable qualities in a character. When your character is loyal, it shows that they are dedicated and committed to something or someone.
Being honorable means that your character has a moral compass and sticks to it no matter what. This can be a likable quality because it shows that your character is principled and has a strong sense of right and wrong.
- Even when Podrick was given the chance of knighthood if he testified against Tyrion, he stayed loyal to Tyrion till the end of his service to him.
- Brienne of Tarth always followed her duty in serving Catelyn Stark, from bringing Jaimie Lannister to King's Landing to finding and saving Sansa and Arya.
4. Give them a sympathetic backstory
A character with a sympathetic backstory is someone whose past makes them likable because it’s relatable or tragic. This can make the reader empathize with your character and understand why they are the way they are.
- From the beginning, we think Jaime Lannister is dishonorable for killing King Aerys because it suited him at the moment. But we find out his backstory later that the reason he killed the king was to save countless innocent lives. This makes us realize his motives and justifies some of the flaws we've seen.
- Theon Greyjoy was given up by his father and grew up as a ward of Ned Stark, never feeling like he belonged anywhere. This made him act out in destructive ways, but we see his potential for good.
- Tyrion Lannister was once married but found out shortly afterward that it was a practical joke and that his wife was actually a prostitute. This explains his drinking problem and his promiscuity.
5. Have them be aware of their weaknesses and make the best of them
A likable character is someone who is aware of their weaknesses and doesn’t try to hide them. This shows that they are comfortable with themselves and are able to make the best of their situation.
- Tyrion is aware that he is a dwarf and that there is nothing he can do about it. Instead of being hateful to others because of it, he reads and uses his intelligence to gain power and influence.
- Samwell Tarly knows he isn't strong and can't be a good fighter, so he uses his intelligence to help his friends in other ways like researching dragon-glass and becoming a maester.
6. Give them a major societal disadvantage or disability
A likable character can also be someone who has a major disadvantage or disability that they have to overcome. This can make the reader admire them for their strength and determination.
- In the world of Game of Thrones, bastards are low class which makes Jon Snow's path to greatness more difficult.
- When Jaime Lannister loses his hand, he has to relearn how to fight and do everything with his other hand.
- When Arya Stark becomes blind, she doesn't let that stop her from learning how to fight and becoming a deadly assassin.
7. Have them stick to their values and beliefs
A likable character is someone who has a set of values and beliefs that they stick to no matter what. This shows that they are principled and will stick to their ideals even if it isn't the easy way out.
- When Jon Snow is given the chance to become a legitimate Stark and become the lord of Winterfell by Stannis Baratheon, he denies this because he swore an oath to the Night's Watch. With the values instilled by Ned Stark, Jon Snow sticks to them even though he is given a chance to gain everything he ever wanted.
- Throughout the story, Daenerys sticks to her ideals of freedom and justice as she battles through Essos. Even though her council advises her to make certain decisions that make her conquest easier, she adheres to freeing slaves and serving justice to those who deserve it.
8. Don’t have them follow negative aspects of their stereotype
When you’re creating a likable character, you want to avoid having them follow any negative aspects of their stereotype. This will make the character feel one-dimensional and the reader won’t be able to connect with them.
This can be a form of subversion and help make them more interesting.
Throughout Game of Thrones, we are shown the horrors of war and how soldiers and warriors take advantage and abuse women, particularly in a sexual manner. The Hound at first is shown as this soldier stereotype, but he indeed has a code. He refuses to take advantage of the female characters even when we the audience expect someone like him to do so.
9. Make your character on the same level as the bad guys
Everyone loves the underdog, but sometimes when the villain is all powerful it's satisfying to see a character who can go toe-to-toe with them.
They can be just as smart, just as strong and can hold their own against them. This makes the audience really root for this character because it finally makes them feel like there's still a chance for the good guys to win.
When Oberyn Martell is introduced, it is when the Lannister family is at their most powerful when a lot of the other heroes have been defeated. Oberyn is smart, influential, and has the power to intimidate the Lannisters finally so we root for him to show them up.
10. Have them stick up for the disadvantaged or oppressed
A likable character can be someone who will stick up for those who can't defend themselves. This is usually standing up to bullies who oppress weaker characters.
- Tyrion Lannister is often seen standing up to his cruel nephew and king Joffrey when Joffrey abuses Sansa.
- Jon Snow stands up to the bullies at Castle Black when Sam is picked on.
- Daenerys is always fighting slave masters to free slaves.
11. Make them adaptable to new situations
An adaptable character is likable because they can roll with the punches and don't let new situations get them down. They're able to go with the flow and make the best out of any situation.
Arya Stark is always adapting to her new environments, but specifically when she's held prisoner by the Lannister army at Harren Hall, she not only survives but gains favor with Tywin Lannister by being his cup bearer.
12. Make them new to a familiar world
When a character is new to the familiar world of the story, it can be endearing to watch them comment on things the audience or other characters take for granted.
Ygritte is constantly asking questions about Jon Snow's world and why they do they do the things they do there. When Ygritte and Jon get south of the Wall, Ygritte makes comments about windmills being giant towers and questions why girls would swoon at the sight of blood.
13. Make them brutally honest
A likable character can be one who is brutally honest, even if it might not be what people want to hear. This type of character is likable because they're not afraid to speak their mind and they're refreshingly honest.
Bronn is an easily likable character because he's not afraid to speak candidly. In a political atmosphere where people have to choose their words wisely and speak in almost riddles, Bronn is a breath of fresh air.
14. Give them a character change from unlikeable to likable
This is probably the most difficult likable character to write, but it can be done. A character who has a change from being unlikeable to likable is likable because they've gone through a journey and the audience has seen them grow as a person.
This can be satisfying to the audience because the unlikable person has learned from their mistakes and chooses to be a better person.
- Jaime Lannister goes from being a dishonest and insulting knight to someone who keeps their oaths and protects his family.
- Theon Greyjoy goes from a spoiled prince who wants nothing more than to please his abusive father, to someone who wants to do the right thing and protect his true family–the Starks.
Likable characters are essential to a good story. They provide hope, they make us laugh and they give us someone to root for. There are many different ways to make a likable character, so find the one that works best for your story.