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!’”
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.)
– Noble motivations
– Loved by others
– 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 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.
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.