Writing Likable Characters

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Says children’s-book author Elise Broach in a recent blog post about likable characters, “Nothing in a story keeps readers as enthralled as a character who has won their hearts.”

You’ll get no argument from me on that count!

Elise talks about putting your character in a jam to inspire sympathy. Always a good idea, because we tend to feel sorry for people who get a bad rap that they don’t deserve. “A difficult situation with a high emotional investment for the character sows the seeds of compassion and affection in the reader.”

She goes on to talk about “personality traits” that endear characters, or that put readers off: “spunk; persistence; courage; kindness; ingenuity; loyalty… funny” versus “boring or predictable… overly earnest or preachy or self-pitying… Whiny… Passive… mean to animals” and so forth. Definitely a thought-provoking post.

And here are a few of my thoughts.

I haven’t yet completed the “Sympathy and Empathy” chapter in Character Fiction 101. But a few of my ill-digested notes stick out at me.

  1. You need to give your audience a reason to care about your characters. Therefore, you need a reason to care about your characters. Then you need to forsake them; to understand exactly what they need, empathize with them, and stick them in the worst possible situation you can imagine for them. You need to be able to sympathize with your characters, else how can you expect your readers to? But sympathy has no place in the life of a writer, because your job is to attack your sympathetic characters at every turn. No wonder so many writers go mad.

  2. To evoke sympathy, you must persuade the reader. The art of writing sympathetic characters bears much in common with the art of selling used cars. You’re trying to trick the reader into feeling a certain way, regardless of the facts (as it were). Your character can be determined, or she can be stubborn. Easy-going, or flighty. Entrepreneurial, or rebellious. Empathetic, or mushy. Principled, or self-righteous. It’s all in how you portray her. Go through your copy of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Note how your favorite authors use Cialdini’s tactics (probably without even knowing it) to make you love some characters and hate others.

  3. A sympathetic character does three things: (a) She feels human needs and tries to fulfill them. This makes her a real human being, like any of us. It’s much more difficult to hate someone, even an enemy, if he’s only doing what we might do in his situation. (b) She pursues a noble cause. Therefore, we root for her, because everyone wants to be on the side of right and good, and against the forces of evil and rottenness (as Maxwell Smart might say). This is where your fast-talking used-car-salesmanship comes in handy. (c) She confronts an obstacle that prevents her from realizing her noble goal. That’s where the “story” part of your story comes from.

What do you think? Am I onto anything with these points? Is there a magic formula to character sympathy? Or as character authors are we doomed to faking it forever?

Keep writing!




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