I’ve decided that the key to writing likeable characters is to make them complex and layered. Characters are what I – and I think most readers – connect to and come to love most in a book, so it’s important to write them well.
I will like pretty much any type of character – creepy psychopaths, classic villains, flirts, princesses, peasants, assassins, blacksmiths, con men – so long as they haven’t done anything utterly unforgivable… And so long as they’re deep and layered. Unless it’s a spoiled brat of a princess, in which case there’s a good chance I’m going to hate them no matter what. (Unless you’d like to take that on as a challenge to write a deep, layered spoiled brat princess that I can actually tolerate…) It’s hard to like a villain who’s nothing but an obstacle for the protagonist, and it’s hard to like a protagonist, no matter how “good” they are, if their only goal is to destroy the villain. There must be more to them than that. They must have goals and motivations and deeper personalities than what they show to the people around them. Give them layers. Give them facets and unique voices.
Sometimes I worry for my mental health because some of my favorite characters are psychopaths and massively evil characters who literally scare me, and then I remember that I also have favorites who are the good guys who want to help people and keep the world functioning smoothly and will do just about anything to save someone they care about. When I look at all of my favorites – the good and the bad – I see one common thread: They’re complex. How do you make a complex character, you ask? Let me tell you what I think helps to make a layered, multi-faceted character.
Give them goals
I don’t just mean “save the princess” or “destroy the bad guy and save the world” or “destroy the protagonist and achieve world domination.” I mean short term goals, long term goals, complex goals that they’ll pursue whether or not it fits the overarching goal of “save the world” or “destroy the world.” A lot of times it’s good if these goals create conflict, whether between characters or within them. The main character of my planned NaNoWriMo project, The Shadow Raven, wants to gain power and get revenge on the person who hurt her. The second main character, on the other hand, wants only to do well in the role he’s been thrust into and doesn’t feel very confident in it. The main character is very confident in her goals, and thus she helps to encourage Character B, partially to help him and partially to further her own goal of power. On the other hand, the main character’s confidence is something that Character B isn’t very comfortable with and thus it causes tension between them.
In my current project, The Last Assassin, the main character is looking for a place where she feels like she belongs. Unfortunately, she’s torn between several options and her indecision tends to leak into the rest of what she does. It also mingles with an insecurity encouraged by the villain of that story, which is caused because of his goal to destroy her. Conflicting goals can be really interesting and add a lot to a story. That said, goals don’t always have to conflict. Sometimes it’s better to have characters with goals that align well so that your character can have an ally they know they can trust. Or can they…
Give them motivation
Again, “I want to save the world because it’s the right thing to do and it’s my job as the protagonist” and “I want to destroy the world because I’m evil and it’s my job as the villain” are boring motivations. Try to come up with a deeper motivation for your characters. Backstory can be a gold mine of motivations. Maybe the main character wants to defeat the villain because they know he killed their mother, or maybe the villain has some deep-seated grudge against the protagonist’s ancestor. These are still fairly cliche motivations, but they’re better than the generic good guy and bad guy motivations given to begin with. And try to think outside the box a little. What if the villain’s grudge wasn’t with the protagonist’s ancestor, but the sidekick’s, so he’s actually after the sidekick? Or what if the main character only thinks that the villain killed their mother, and really it was someone else entirely; maybe the villain isn’t even the villain at all, and they’re now looking for someone they don’t know. There are a lot of possibilities for motivation.
Give them a flip side
If you’re working with a protagonist, give them a dark side. If you’re working with a villain, give them a redeeming quality of some kind, whether it’s an actual good side or just a fun trait. The massively evil villain in my book House of Mages has a few fun scenes near the end in which he’s calling out the protagonists on a bunch of cliches and making puns left and right. You still loathe him because of all of the awful things he’s done to the protagonists and he has no good qualities when it comes to good versus bad, but for those few scenes he’s enjoyable to read.
The main character of The Last Assassin has a rather dark past which over the course of the book she grows to believe is a defining feature of hers, despite her friends’ coaxing otherwise. The main character of The Shadow Raven has a side of her craving power.
Give them flaws
Perfect characters tend to be very annoying to read. They could be the most good, virtuous character on the planet, but if they’re too perfect it’s not likely I’ll enjoy reading them. So give your characters flaws. Give them weaknesses. It can be fun to give them weaknesses in their job. For instance, the main character of the third book in the Dark War Trilogy doesn’t feel like she’s ready for the job she’s given. She doesn’t feel like she can accomplish it, and this is her weakness. Her fear and insecurity are her flaws.
Villains need flaws, too. They may not be the same as your protagonists’ flaws – they may have more psychological flaws while your protagonists have more physical flaws or vice versa – but they need flaws. One of my villains is overly prideful. When his methods are turned on him he fumbles. Another villain of mine doesn’t understand compassion because she’s never seen it up close, and certainly not directed toward her. These are flaws that can be used to defeat your villain or to redeem them, as the case may be.
Don’t forget your villains
Hopefully it’s been evident in the rest of this post, but don’t neglect your villains. Don’t give your deep, interesting character a dull, flat villain to defeat. A well-written villain can add so much to a story, whether they’re seen “on screen” a lot or only in a few scenes. Never let them fall by the wayside. Now, this applies a little differently if you have an abstract villain like doubt or fear or the unfamiliar, as obviously those are developed rather differently. But always pay attention to your villains as much as your protagonists. They’re characters too, and they can accomplish just as much as the good characters in your story. Let them affect the protagonists throughout the course of the book in some way, and give them everything I’ve mentioned above just as much as the protagonists. Even a nearly pure evil villain can be enjoyable to read and we can love to hate him as the readers if he has the right ingredients.
Hopefully this post was helpful and you enjoyed reading it. Are there any other qualities you’d suggest for what makes a good character?