Unsolicited Advice: Likable Characters

A user on one of the forums I frequent posted the question, “… what do I do to make effective characters that readers can like?”

So I took a stab at answering:

It’s job interview time.

You’re sitting in the seat across the desk from your Possible Future Employer. This employer asks you the dreaded interview question, “Tell me about your greatest weakness.”

Now, we all know this is a trap. You’re never supposed to say your actual greatest weakness (“Well, to be honest, I’m pushy and I hate not getting my way!”), and you’re extra never supposed to say your “fake weakness” (“Gosh, you know, I just care too dang much about doing a good job.”).

You’re supposed to say something that will let this employer know that you’re aware that you’re not perfect, and you’ve identified your faults, and you’re actively seeking to fix them.

The same goes for characters.

If your character has too great a weakness (cantankerous, mean shut-in who hates puppies), everyone is going to hate him/her. If your character has a fake weakness (loves puppies TOO MUCH), then people are going to roll their eyes and also hate him/her.

So you need that middle ground. Your character needs flaws that are relatable to normal people. Normal people don’t hate puppies, but normal people do struggle with things like addiction, depression, a degree of self-centeredness, and so on.

People related to Harry Potter because he was a poor orphan whose adoptive relatives treated him like garbage. And you know, we’ve all felt at some point that someone treated us like garbage, and there was nothing we could do about it. Harry got to escape that treatment, which gives the rest of us hope that, hey, maybe a giant hairy dude on a flying motorcycle will save us too, someday.

What do you think of my advice? What do you look for in likable characters? How do you make your characters likable?

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