cherub angels

The 5 Elements of a LIKABLE Main Character

“I don’t like your main character. He’s kind of obnoxious.” my beta reader laughingly told me, after reading the first chapter of my novel.

On the surface, I looked like this: 

Inside, I looked like this: 

Aloud, I said “Oh, well, he’s kind of hard to understand. He changes by the end.”

Inside, I screamed “How could you not like him?! Do you have a heart?! Is there a void where your soul should be?! Are you actually a Dementor that’s really good at makeup? Well, I guess this is what the Dementors are doing after getting kicked out of Azkaban!”

Outside: “But I really enjoyed it!” *Hugs between broken writer and Dementor in disguise* “Thank you for reading!" 

But you know what? That person that might be a soul-sucking cloaked demon creature? They were right. The character was unlikable, or more accurately, there was no reason to cheer him on. There was nothing to make the reader connect with him, relate to him, transfer themselves into his story, feel affection towards him. 

And if the reader doesn’t connect with the character through empathy? Nothing else in the story can work. Everything relies on this one fictional person. The basic definition of story is "A flawed hero with a goal overcoming obstacles to reach that goal, and how that journey changes them.” So without character, you don’t have story. Without empathy from the reader, you don’t even have character. 

So what is empathy when it comes to characters? 

It’s the process of a reader transferring their own lives onto the character. When this happens, the character’s goal and inner desires, values and weaknesses, everything about them, become proxies for our own. We learn of a shared piece of human nature between us, something we have in common on a significant inner level, and suddenly we want to see this character succeed. Because now, they are us – and we want to see ourselves succeed in real life. We feel what they feel, we experience what they experience.  

The best way to sum up character empathy in my opinion, is this quote from C.S.Lewis: “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another ‘Really? You too? I thought I was the only one!’”

That’s empathy. 

Which doesn’t mean the character has to be an angelic little cherub …

There are characters that operate in a moral gray area, there are characters that are downright awful, there are characters that shouldn’t be lovable …but we love them. So this is NOT saying that a main character has to be a perfect angel that rescues baby squirrels when they’re not busy volunteering at the local soup kitchen, it just means there’s something WORTHWHILE in the character that persuades the reader to stick around. We need a reason to relate with that at-first-glance unlikable character. Just as we have flawed people in our own lives who we can forgive and love.

A good quote for this one would be this, by G.K.Chesterton: “That’s the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”

So how does a writer accomplish a good empathetic connection?

Luckily for us, establishing this only takes a little planning in the beginning of the story. Certain elements foster empathy, elements which you can give to your character and display in the story. Making sure to incorporate a few of these will ensure that first connection between reader and character. A connection which you, the author, will then be able to grow. It’s this tiny first note of shared humanity which deepens into those important links we hold with characters. We’re living people, they’re imagined and comprised of words on a page; yet these people can be friends to us, family, mentors, role models, and become some of the most influential people in our lives. 

And how does that begin? Evoking empathy. 

And how do you evoke empathy? Well here are the characteristics that human beings instinctively identify with and admire … 

– Courage (This is the one EVERY main character should possess. Gumption to pursue what they want separates main from background characters.)

– Humor (Wit charms us without fail.)

– Goal-Obsessed 

– Hard-working  

– Noble motivations

– Loving

– Loved by others

– Kind 

– Treated unfairly

– In imminent danger, physically

– In imminent danger, emotionally

– In a sorrowful situation

– Smart/Expert at something

– Suffering from psychological weakness  

– Haunted by something in their past

– Dissatisfied with current state of their life

– Lacking something like love, friendship, belonging, family, safety, freedom, etc

It’s a good plan to give your main character at least FIVE of these empathetic little “virtues.”

If this sounds like a resume, that’s kind of what it is. “Dear Potential Reader, I’m applying for the job of Main Character of this book series. I aspire to consume your every waking thought and drastically change your life, for better and worse.” It’s a diagram of the worthwhile traits of the hero, the characteristics that win us over, which promise the reader “If you follow my story, knowing me – and experiencing the story through me – will be well worth your time.”

These traits will be displayed in the set-up of the story, the first ten pages or so. But the story CANNOT stop to let the character exhibit these winning behaviors; the story must KEEP PROGRESSING, every empathetic element must be shown with a story reason for existing within a scene. Like exposition, empathy needs to be added in subtly, as the story motors onward, slipping into the reader’s knowledge without them noticing. If it’s a scene created for the express purpose of convincing the reader “This character is lovable! Love them! I said love them!” then it will be glaringly obvious and the reader will feel the exact opposite. (They’ll also feel that way about the author, incidentally.)

Now! How does this work? 

Harry Potter: 

Harry is the poster child for being treated unfairly. Yet in the face of the abusive treatment of his childhood, Harry is courageous. He does not succumb to the Dursley’s relentless campaign to stamp the magic out of him, and become a proper Dursley; though this would’ve won their approval, put him in their good graces, and made his life exponentially easier – but he didn’t do it. He knew they were wrong, knew what was right, and refused to become like them. So heck yes Sorting Hat, there is “plenty of courage, I see”. He was loved by his parents, by the three that dropped him off at his Aunt and Uncle’s, and by the majority of the Wizarding World. He’s also snarky, loving, and in constant danger. 

Judy Hopps: 

Every reason why we care about Judy is established in the first few scenes. She’s courageous. She’s funny. She’s loved by her parents. She’s motivated by noble values. Definitely goal oriented, hard working, and smart. She’s also in imminent danger, and being treated unfairly.

If we took out the pieces of the story meant to evoke our empathy, what would happen? 

Nobody would care. Judy Hopps would have been an annoying, smug, and consumed by ruthless ambition. Harry Potter would have ceased to exist because everything about him is empathetic. 

Establishing these early allows us to begin the process of temporarily transferring our lives into a story. Or in the case of some life-changing stories, not temporarily transferring, but letting them become part of our souls forever. 

Yup, having your story connect with a reader forever starts with just a little empathy. Pretty useful.

Oh, and speaking of souls, give me mine back, Dementor reader. I learned how to make people like my characters. Now you’re out of the Azkaban job and the beta reading job. 

a bit about the rankings of angels

seraphim (singular: seraph): these are the angels closest to God, in charge of guarding His throne. they help to rule over heaven and maintain order. usually, they are depicted as beings of pure and radiant light or fire - though many do have a human form as well. seraphim are often known for their voices, be it for the gorgeous songs they sang or the terrifying holy screeches they unleashed. though these may be some of the most orderly and composed angels, they can also be some of the most emotional. 

cherubim (singular: cherub): these angels are most often remembered for being the guardians of Eden. Now, however, they are said to be guardians of holy places on earth. they typically have many wings, eyes, faces, limbs etc., though, like seraphim, they may also have a more human form. cherubim are responsible for keeping harmony in heaven, and providing power to those in His kingdom. these angels are more likely to be peaceful and docile than confrontational, but of course there are exceptions.

thrones: usually depicted as beings of fire and many eyes, these angels are the ones who carry out God’s orders. they are most known for their inhuman forms, often described as being wheels. thrones are the bringers of justice in heaven, and, on earth, likely retain their strong moral compass. these angels are secretive and tend to keep to themselves and other thrones, so they have a lot of mystery surrounding them.

dominions: dominions were the leaders of the lower angels, offering advice and direction. they are very tied to heaven, and not likely to interact with humans. they are described as divinely beautiful, often with glowing skin, eyes, hair, or wings. their true forms tend to be more human-like than the angels above them in rank, and are usually remembered for their appealing appearance (to other angels, humans would of course be startled by them). these angels are thoughtful and determined, though friendly.

virtues: these angels are those who bring God’s grace to earth. though they do not interact directly with humans usually, they bring miracles and enlightenment to the world and its inhabitants. they are brilliant and powerful, though almost always benevolent and peaceful. virtues are angels of choice, and accredited with keeping earth moving forward and developing further. though they are naturally good and kind, virtues can be fierce fighters if necessary.  

powers: these are the angels in charge of defending heaven from hell and providing balance in the universe. they are often depicted as warriors and soldiers of God, though they are usually on the defensive rather than offensive. powers are wise, and it is said that they are the keepers of history. they are immensely loyal to heaven, and some believe no power has ever fallen. 

principalities: principalities are protectors of certain places, nations, cities, or groups of people on earth. they usually derive their physical characteristics and personality from the place/people they are watching over (for example, a principality of a lake may have blue or green tinted wings, wear pearls or water plants, and have a calm and peaceful personality). they also teach valuable lessons to those on earth, and are said to be the ones who inspire humans to create or invent. 

archangels: these are the warriors and protectors of human life. they are the commanders in God’s armies, and the ones to relay his most important messages to humans. they are incredibly loyal to their cause in heaven, but also show empathy towards humans and fallen angels. they show a great deal of understanding towards others, and because of that can be persuaded to join a cause even if it goes against heaven - although this is rare. archangels tend to be very complex, but their dedication and ferocity is constant.

angels: common angels are the ones most concerned with humans. there are different types of these angels, such as messengers to humans and personal guardian angels. it is difficult to categorize these angels as a whole, as there are so many of them. they are highly diverse, and the most like humans in both personality, morality, and appearance. 

fallen angels: these are angels who no longer serve heaven, and now reside on earth. typically it refers to angels who have sinned or rebelled and are then cast out of heaven by God, but there are other ways in which angels can become “fallen” as well. angels who desire free will, or fall in love with a human/humans can also be cast out. fallen angels can originate from any of the ranks above.