How to Write Likable Characters
I don’t know about you, but I’m all about likable characters. You know, the ones I can root for. But writing a likable character isn’t as simple as saying, “And then he was nice,” and being done with the matter.
A likable character shows you what they’re made of. They let you decide for yourself if they’re the kind of person you’d want to throw your hat in for.
And sometimes they let you know right off the bat.
One of my favorite character introductions of all time is from the renowned Western writer Louis L’Amour’s Comstock Lode. About midway through the novel, a new character is introduced. This being the kind of book and setting it is, one of our main characters asks if he’s had anything to eat.
“Yes, ma’am. I et the day before yestiddy.”
Sure he ate. Just not for two days. But instead of complaining about it—I know I’d be in no mood for smiles at right about that moment—he’s making light of the situation.
We already know several things about his character from just those two lines.
1. He must be used to living pretty rough.
2. He’s determined to be upbeat.
3. This guy’s not about to go asking for any handouts.
I dunno about you, but L’Amour got my heartstrings wrapped around his fingers pretty good on that one.
So there we have it. I was hooked.
Now, there’s a lot of ways you can do this—make a character likable—and I’m not about to go pretend to be the all-authority on matters, but I do have some thoughts I’d like to share.
One is that just because a character may be likable doesn’t mean they’re good. Likable and good are in two totally different ballparks. You can have a pretty bad guy or gal who’s still likable in some ways.
This is where the “save the cat” principle comes in. That’s right. Save the cat. The term was coined by Blake Snyder, and if you’re not familiar with his work, I suggest you check it out (not an affiliate link—I’m not making money on this). His original book by the same name totally changed my writing game.
So what does Save the Cat mean? No, your characters don’t always have to go around rescuing kitties in order to be likable—although they’d probably earn some pretty big points from me with moves like that.
Essentially, when a character “saves the cat”, they’re doing something that gets the reader on their side. Maybe this person has played quite the questionable hero in the into, but now the audience finally gets to see them sacrifice something, risk themselves, or otherwise just help somebody else at no personal gain, just because it’s right.
That’s when we know we’re on their side—even if maybe they’re still not the most angelic of characters.
They’ve got that glimmer of gold. Somewhere inside them is a spark of goodness we can root for.
And that’s the heart and soul of a likable character.