Characters that readers root for are the backbone of every story. Striking a balance between likable and unlikable is essential, and the best characters are multi-layered. We humans are complex beings, so adding layers of complexity is vital to get the best out of your characters and make them intriguing for readers.
When writing or when creating the background of your characters, ask yourself, “What drives them? Why do they act the way they do? What’s their ultimate goal?” Look at their positive character traits, but also their faults too. The more that you let a reader in, the better they’ll understand them and, therefore, root for them.
You can utilize some proven techniques to make an unlikable character likable—whether it’s your protagonist or your villain (or both!)
Save the Cat
This is probably the most widely known method. It’s an easy technique that encourages the reader to like the character immediately. The way you do this is by showing the character doing something kind-hearted very early on in the story (hence the name of this method—they might save a cat, for example).
Create a Compelling Backstory
Writing an intriguing backstory is a great way to give your character depth and to show their reasoning for acting the way they do. A backstory should also relate to the motivation behind them wanting or needing to achieve their goals. Try to make the backstory as interesting as you can. It can be tragic, so that readers feel empathy. Or it can be complicated, and perhaps mysterious, to pique readers’ interest and make them want to find out more.
Help Readers Connect with the Character
Readers should understand and connect with the character on some level. You can do this through a backstory, or you can do it through their internal thoughts, dialogue, or the stages of the plot. The more they connect with the character, or at least understand them and potentially relate to them, the more likable they will be to the reader.
Balance Out Their Undesirable Qualities With Desirable Ones
It isn’t necessarily bad if your character has undesirable attributes. There are many protagonists and memorable characters throughout literature who readers might not relate to, or even particularly like. For example, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
If your character has several faults, try and balance them with likable qualities. For example, they might appear self-centered and arrogant, but this might be because they’re deeply insecure. Or they might act defensive and guarded, but it’s due to something traumatic happening in their life. Therefore, they’re cautious because they don’t trust people easily.
Show the Character’s Vulnerabilities
It’s human nature to care about people who show their vulnerabilities. We feel sympathy for those who are vulnerable or hurt. This can be physical, or it can be through emotional hardship. These vulnerabilities should also relate to a character’s backstory, how they act throughout the story and ultimately, tie in with their goal.
Make Sure Their Goals Are Clear and Worthy
We touched on goals, but giving a character an overall goal (or several along the way) is an excellent way to encourage a reader to root for them and want them to succeed. However, their motivations should be easy to understand, if not relatable.
Give Them a Great Character Arc
Show how your characters grow throughout the story. This isn’t only true for a protagonist—even villains can show remorse for how they’ve acted, or at least offer an awareness. Great villains also have some redeeming features, together with clear reasoning for how and why they act so villainous. A great arc makes a reader feel invested in character growth—how they’ve changed for the better and what they’ve learnt along the way.
Don’t Make Your Characters Perfect
Nobody is perfect in real life, and fiction should be no different. Even if they seem to have it all on the surface, show their insecurities bubbling away underneath. It is even better to make your character aware of their own shortcomings and weaknesses. We can relate to weaknesses as readers because we all have our own.
Creating an intriguing character that readers root for is essential. Even if they’re unlikable with flaws, there are ways to make them likable, or at least, to offer an insight into understanding why they are the way they are.