Whether a story is plot- or character-driven, you aren’t gonna stick with it for long if you can’t stand the characters or they just don’t ring true for you. Nothing ruins a story faster than a TSTL heroine or an ass-wipe of a hero. But what makes a character likable? Obviously this answer partially depends on individual opinion. But there are a few things that are fairly universal. For example, the first thing a character needs to do is stay true to the persona the author has created for him/her. For example, a strong, independent heroine wouldn’t turn to mush at the first sign of trouble and let the hero drag her around by the nose. Just as a dark, tortured hero wouldn’t break into song and dance under the heroine’s window to win her love. That’s not to say a character can’t have dimensions and interesting personality quirks, but they have to be believable within the parameters of his/her general personality.
A likable character wants to do the right thing. Though he or she might screw up occasionally, they do it with the idea that they’re doing it for the right reasons, with the right goal in mind. Readers can forgive a lot of sins if a hero/heroine means well and/or tries to recover from a terrible mistake. But one who doesn’t care if he/she hurts somebody is pretty hard to love. There are also some sins that can’t be forgiven. Rape is one of these sins. Child abuse is another. And mistreatment of animals will make a character nonredeemable in many people’s minds. Of course there are ways around even these taboo things. If a character has been possessed by another being (demon, alien…) and had no control over these actions the reader will probably forgive him/her. If he/she is devastated by the knowledge of what he/she has done the reader might forgive the actions. But it’s not an easy sell.
Likable characters have traditional values. Whether you are a radical progressive or a traditionalist, certain qualities are still considered admirable in a fictional character. Men treat their partners with respect and care. Women care for those who are helpless and value strength in their peers. Likable characters will do the right thing, even if it causes them some serious discomfort. They’re loyal, always there for the people they love or others who need their help. They respect other people and guard their rights, despite overwhelming opposition.
Likable characters have a sense of humor, especially about themselves. There’s nothing quite so appealing as a man who can laugh at himself or a woman who can admit her flaws with a smile. While it isn’t appealing when a character turns his/her acerbic humor against another person, laughing at oneself can be very appealing and even sexy.
And most importantly, likable characters are flawed. Yep, it’s true. While we like to read about larger than life characters, perfection is boring and…let’s just admit it…a little annoying. Flaws give a character depth and interest. They help us identify with the character and even put ourselves a little bit into their shoes. Flaws make them human and it’s their humanity that we’re attracted to.
Happy Reading everybody!