Cheating Your Way To Likable Characters! (Writing Workshop)

Some of you may remember that I’ve already talked a bit about writing likable characters. If you don’t remember that post, don’t worry, it’s probably just your early-onset Alzheimers cropping up again.

Here’s a link over to that post, by the way. I’M A LINK! CLICK ME!

Now, in that post, I spend a lot of time talking about writing likable villains. Why? Because if you can make your bad guy both despicable and likable, then writing a likable hero is a cake walk.

*Quick Aside*

What the hell is a cake walk? In my mind I imagine one of two scenarios:

1) Like walking the gauntlet, but instead of getting spanked with leather straps and pelted with beanie babies, the person performing said cake walk is getting cakes of all sizes and flavor Frisbee tossed at his or her face.

2) The ground has turned into one massive cake, sort of like those games children play where they pretend the ground is hot lava.

Anyways, that was a huge digression. My bad. Let’s get to the reason ya’ll stopped over today. I want to give you five easy-peasy ways to make your characters more likable. Let’s stop beating around the bush and hop right in.

1) Relatable

We enjoy stories because they let us live vicariously through other people as they experience dangerous, novel, embarrassing, awkward situations without ever leaving the comfort of our couch and underwear. Now, with that said, we don’t want to live vicariously through somebody too different from us. There’s a barrier to entry if we can’t pinpoint something in your characters that feels somewhat familiar and relatable. If that happens, we’re likely to put down your story.

Rule of thumb: have a range of traits from really broad/generalized (Suzy is a girl), and some specific ones (Suzy loves soccer).

For instance, Mgroda, the thirty-two thousand year old sentient fart floating around the Oort Cloud with the rest of his gaseous brethren is not even remotely relatable to most humans. Namely because the idea of a sentient fart is just so weird and outlandish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make him relatable. We just have to work harder at it.

For instance, did you know Mgroda has been living in the stinky shadow of his older brother, a gaseous emission that everybody, Mgroda’s parents included, just think is the coolest flatus (singular of flatulence) around? This is something most people can relate to, even if they don’t have any siblings.

We can go deeper.

How about the fact that Mgroda dreams of someday gaining financial independence from his over-powering father by opening his very own cheese and ice cream parlor? Perhaps you don’t share the same entrepreneurial ambitions of young Mgroda, but you can understand what it’s like to have goals, ambitions, and dreams.

2) Kindness

Nobody is a dick all of the time. Even House, that curmudgeonly irreverent doctor we all love to hate, isn’t always a dick.

There are two ways you can play the kindness card in your story. (Actually, there may be more than two, but these are the first ones that come to mind so I’m going to pretend like they are the end-all-be-all.)

1) Show your character doing something nice early in the story.

Mgroda steps outside and sees young Billy Ryder, so excited by his new ice cream cone, trip on the curb. He falls, skins a knee and loses his ice cream (along with what remained of his pride).

Mgroda’s reaction tells us a lot about his character.

“Ah, Billy,” Mgroda said, offering the boy a hand. “Are you okay?”

Billy snivels something barely intelligible about his ice cream.

“Here,” Mgroda said, flagging down the ice cream truck before it could pull away. “Let’s get you another one.”

“Gee whiz,” Billy pogo-sticked back to his feet like a gopher on Adderol. “That would be great.”

We end up liking Mgroda a bit more than if he’d simply kicked Billy in the face.

That goes for most of us, at least. There are a lot of sick jerks out there.

dog died

See? That’s a jerk nobody likes.

2) Show your character grow

The other way you can use kindness in your story is a bit different. In the above example Mgroda starts the story as a good person–this means we’re likely to root for him as the story progresses–but let’s say he didn’t help Billy. Perhaps he didn’t go so far as to boot him in the face, but maybe he’s so wrapped up in his own issues that he blows right past the crying boy without a backwards glance. Well, that seems pretty heartless, but it gives his character a lot of room to grow.

This is the classic Christmas Carol/Scrooge progression.

Watching characters grow gives us warm and fuzzy feelings because it gives us hope that we too can grow.

3) Real Life Concerns

If Mgroda walks right past Billy because deep down inside he’s a Hitler loving cloud of gas then we’re probably going to hate him. On the other hand, if he walks past Billy because he just got a phone call from the police department saying his Mom was in a car crash and they need him to get to the hospital ASAP, well, then it’s forgivable.

We’ve all been there (perhaps not getting tragic calls from the police), but we have all been so wrapped up in our own thoughts and concerns that we failed to notice the world/people around us.

Let’s go deeper:

Before Mgroda gets the phone call, he just gets off the phone with the bank who denies his small business loan. Oh no, now he’ll never get his very own ice cream and cheese parlor.

TIME OUT!

Let’s take a second and reflect on a couple things.

One: Mgroda is a peculiar character operating in a world I’m too lazy to really sit down and figure out. He’s a sentient fart, but we’re pretty much treating him as though he were human, sort of like Alf, deal with it.

Two: Based off what we have so far, we don’t really know what the focal point of Mgroda’s story is. Is it his relationship with his brother? His dreams of owning a business? Is this going to be a tragic drama following the death of his mother?

Nobody knows, least of all me. And that’s okay.

When you start your story, you want to get to the point of it all really quick. Your readers need to have a good idea where you’re taking them, but remember, your story is not happening in a vacuum (unless you’re really basing it in the Oort Cloud in which case…). Your characters did not spontaneously spawn into existence the moment the story began. They were alive yesterday, and the day before that. Presumably, unless you’re writing an apocalyptic tale, that world will keep on spinning tomorrow.

What this means is that the world, and all its problems, do not magically disappear once your story gets going. Maybe Mgroda’s story has nothing to do with any of the things we’ve talked about thus far. That’s fine, but those things we’ve already talked about–his strained relationship with daddy fart, his mom in the hospital, bawling Billy Ryder, and a no-go on the business loan–don’t magically disappear.

Keep those elements playing in the background and you’re character gains a layer of reality.

Readers like real characters.

4) Give Them A Friend

The title of this blog post references the fact that you can cheat your way to a likable character. So far there hasn’t been anything sleazy about the previous tips. This tip (and the next one), however, are sort of like writing an escape hatch into your story. They may feel a bit contrived, but listen: writing, by it’s very nature, is contrived.

As the god of your story world, you are constantly cheating. Conveniently manipulating people to your whims. This is no different.

Give your character a friend. Even if you’re writing a loser loner type, still give him a friend.

Why?

Because everybody out there has at least one friend. If you’re character is absolutely friendless, then you’re reader is probably correct in assuming there is something wrong with your character.

There are three types of friends/relationships (probably more, but again, I’m lazy):

Superior Friend: The friend is way super-cool and it seems like she’s slumming by hanging out with your MC. Your character can have self-doubts about why her friend is there in the first place, but you as the writer need to make it clear she’s there because she sees something in the main character that nobody else does. This gives our MC social proof, an incredibly important concept for our little monkey brains.

Best example of this I can think of is Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The books are told from Watson’s perspective, so he’s our POV but perhaps not our MC. Maybe a better example is Fonzie and everybody else. *shrug*

Oh yeah, the Fonze is way cooler than you!

Oh yeah, the Fonze is way cooler than you!

Equal Friends: This is the idealized friendship we all seek out. A great example of this might be Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermoine Granger. They all bring something different to the table. Though the story is ostensibly about Harry, you’d be mistaken to think that Ron and Hermoine aren’t equally as important.

Inferior Friend: This is the sort of relationship where our MC is drastically cooler than his friend. Great examples of this are Jon Snow and Sam Turley from Game of Thrones, or even better might be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Guess which one is the cool one. Hint: it's the one with nicely quaffed hair.

Guess which one is the cool one. Hint: it’s the one with nicely quaffed hair.

Anyways, friends are great because you can learn a ton about a person by watching how they interact with people they trust/like. Do yourself a favor, give your character at least one good friend, it’ll make your job so much easier.

5) Underdog

We love underdogs. It’s the reason Rocky did so damn well. There’s something about the David standing up to Goliath that sets our hairs on end. We root for the little guy because we all see ourselves as that little guy. The world is big and scary and mean and we are small, poor, weak by comparison. When we see a character personifying all these traits, we instinctively relate to them and therefore root for them.

Now, that’s not to say you need to write a story where your MC is fighting impossible odds at every turn (though, personally that’s precisely the sorts of story I like to tell). But you should go out of your way to make us sympathize with your MC. A great way of doing this is by showing us your character in those situations where she is inherently powerless. Whether that is a teenager dealing with her parents, or a middle-aged businesswoman confronting her boss, or even a little old lady going up against the City Council who are trying to evict her from her home of fifty years so that they can build a spiffy new condominium.

Show us your character being powerless. But then show her taking back that power bit by bloody bit.

That’s the sort of character we get behind. That’s the sort of character we like.

Alright, get down to the comments and tell me about some of the characters you like most and why. Then, if you’re feeling really spunky, tell us about the characters you don’t like and why.

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6 thoughts on “Cheating Your Way To Likable Characters! (Writing Workshop)

  1. Anthony, you should be teaching a course. Your students would love you. Keeping to the Game of Thrones, the character I really didn’t like was Joffrey Baratheon – there wasn’t even a shred of caring in him, pure evil. Even his grandfather, Tyrone Lanister (?), another really evil character, had love for his son Jamie.

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    • My two least favorite characters in Game of Thrones are Joffrey and Ramsey Bolton. Two people so entirely evil that it’s impossible to summon any shred of sympathy for them. If it weren’t for the enormous Game of Thrones cast I would say they were the result of lazy storytelling, but I think Martin does something really interesting with them. Namely he uses them as a rallying point for our hate. All the other characters are ambiguously good and bad, so the audience’s opinions are constantly in flux. Joffrey and Ramsay, however, are the constants, the cornerstones we as the audience always recognize as despicable. Somehow having those landmarks makes the rest of the gray area more comfortable.

      Have you read the books or watched the show, Noelle? Personally I only made it to the third book before I got overwhelmed. 😦

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      • Excellent point, Anthony. I have read every book but have only seen the first two seasons of the show. We don’t get HBO anymore, although we now have Hulu, so we could have a marathon session. The books are a bear, though,
        Think about that class – you are up on all the latest stuff the young kids like and can use it so easily to teach writing!

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  2. GOT is a perfect example there’s so many different types of characters, some of my favorites are the sneaky ones Martin manages to flip back and forth from good to bad to…well we’re not quite sure anymore. Jamie Lannister is definitely flipped from villain to a hero that we feel sympathy and hope he makes it out of the next season alive. The other that intrigues me is Little Finger. He’s been skulking around just behind everyone one doing nepharious and complex things since GOT began, we were given the impression that he was just a side character who was obsessively in love with Lady Stark and got his creep on helping out and then later transferring his affections to Sansa….but just when you think he’s developing a real ‘feeling’ this season he up and gives her the shaft AGAIN. Sneaky, sneaky.
    Anyways, I loved this article Anthony. You remind me of a teacher I had in elementary school that would reward learning with chSmarties

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