On Likeable Characters

The Falcata Times asked: "How do you create likeable characters?"

As authors, we're constantly told we have to create sympathetic protagonists. I don't subscribe to that school of character creation. Instead, I believe we have to create empathetic characters. What's the difference? A sympathetic character is pleasant or agreeable and is someone a reader can relate to. An empathetic character is someone we can understand, we may not like their choices but we get why they do what they do. In other words, an empathetic character doesn't have to be likeable, we just have to understand their motivations for why they do what they do.

I write about a half-mage, half-vampire assassin. In the first scene of RHSC, she buries the body of a human she killed and then turns around and kills a friend who's a vampire. Right there, I'm asking for trouble, right? I mean who wants to read about such a cold-blooded character? Well, as it turns out, lots of people do.

Here's the thing, if you're going to write a character that does bad things, you do have to make sure they're interesting. You can do this several ways. Two biggies: Motivation and humor.

Motivation is the lynchpin here. If you have a character who's doing shit randomly then you're going to lose readers. Your character can't be like a five-year-old.
"Why did you break your toy, Timmy?"
"I don't know."
If your character is a Timmy, you're going to have problems. But if you give that same character a reason to do those things, well, that's different, isn't it?
"Timmy, why did you break your toy?"
"Because the bad voices told me to."

See the difference? As humans we're very good at rationalizing bad decisions. Make sure you character has a damned good reason to do bad things and the readers will follow.

Now, on to humor. Anyone read Mark Henry? Of course you do. Mark's protag is a man-eating zombie with tons of attitude and a potty mouth. She's not snuggly or warm by any definition. But we love her. Why? Because she's effing hilarious. She also says things many of us think but would never voice in polite company. Make the reader laugh and they'll follow a psychopath into the depths of hell and even root them on.

Speaking of psychopaths, Dexter is another fabulous example of what I'm talking about. He's a serial killer, but we love him. Why? Because he's justified his blood lust by convincing himself he's a good guy. He's killling killers, so what's the harm, right? He's also funny. Ergo, we cheer him on. When he's almost caught, we're worried about him. Yet the fact remains he does things that should give us nightmares.

All that said, the truth is there are some readers who just don't like anitheroes. That's cool. But the most important point here is to be true to your character. I had someone tell me early on that Sabina couldn't kill someone in the first scene of the book. My response? "She's a vampire assassin. That's kind of her thing." If I shied away from her killing people in the book, it kind of defeats the purpose of having an assassin protagonist, doesn't it?

Any questions?


KMont said…
*Make sure you character has a damned good reason to do bad things and the readers will follow. *

Yes, this is what will make me able to "like" and unlikable character in the long run. I went through an UF read recently where the unlikable antiheroine's choices weren't made very clear. Resulted in my not giving a you know what. I agree - give readers clear reasons for the unlikable actions. I want to understand at the very least.
SusiSunshine said…
I totally agree! I prefer these kind of heros. I love to see the development in these characters. It's better to have a hero with flaws than having one who is too perfect. Quite annoying the last one!
Great post!
Larissa Ione said…
Yup, yup, yup! I love the characters like that! What a great post!
Falcata Times said…
Thanks Jaye, a big help.
Jaye Wells said…
Two of my other favorite anitheros: Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, and Hank Moody from Californicatiion. Anyone else have favorite anitheros?
Thom said…
Hannibal Lector was like that, up until he reached the Lestatification level of being the bestest best at every best thing there is.

But in the beginning he had some funny lines and he always had his own personal justification for who he killed. A bit like Dexter, except Dex is funnier and his moral compass isn't nearly as broken as Lector's
Jaye Wells said…
Agreed, Thom. But Lector wasn't the protag in the early stories, right? I haven't read the books, just basing it on the movie.
Jeremy F. Lewis said…
You're right, Jaye. In the books, Lector's role begins quite small (Red Dragon) and grows slowly but surely (Silence of the Lambs & Hannibal), until he's the main character (Hannibal Rising).

As far as anti-heros go, I'd have to say Dexter and Riddick are two of my favorites. I'm always a big fan of the "Sometimes you need a monster to fight a monster" approach. You take someone who is utterly reprenhsible in most ways, but make them cool and as long as they are fighting people worse than they are and/or have at least some redeeming quality, they become easy to root for.

It's even better if readers can see why the character is the way they are. I recently got an email from a reader who'd suddenly "understood" exactly why Greta (in my Void City books) is the way she is and the person was stunned that Greta's actions were so completely believable and sensible (in a way) if you simply understood her thought process.
Alexia561 said…
Great post! Have to agree that if we understand where a character is coming from, and they make us laugh as well, then we can forgive them almost anything!

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