Creating Likeable Characters

By | February 1, 2013

Compelling, likeable characters immerse me in a story. Even the most exciting plot won’t keep me turning the pages if the main characters don’t make me feel invested in their plights.  I tend to be drawn to characters I can relate to on a deep level. They are often flawed, are experiencing struggles, obstacles and personal growth, and have an unusual outlook on life or a sense of humor.

Lead characters displaying some kind of flaws endear themselves to me the most. I recently read Book One of Shadewright (science fiction) by Dean McMillin. The juvenile character, Phantist, is an outcast orphan, insecure about his newly acquired shadow shaping talents.  His plight took me back to elementary school, when I was often bullied and teased, and I felt eager to read on to learn whether Phantist found his journey to more secure ground the way I eventually did.

In Ellen Cross’s Holly’s Healing (holiday menage), Holly Reece is disfigured and partially disabled after a car collision with a drunk driver. Her vulnerability, after losing what seemed like the perfect life, is what caught my interest and made me want to see how she would overcome the suffering that stood in the way of her personal growth. Not only does Holly have a flaw, but she’s also in the midst of a struggle – another important grabber for me in a story.

As a former expat, I found Nadine Hays’ Happier Than a Billionaire (memoir) a hilarious read. Having lived in Peru for two years, I repeatedly laughed out loud and said to myself “that sounds familiar” as Nadine and her husband adjusted to their new life in Costa Rica. I still remember how the electricity went off without fail whenever I tried to broil a steak, how the shower would diminish to a trickle whenever I rinsed the shampoo from my hair (if someone used water on the first floor, there would be no water pressure upstairs), and how most mornings I woke up to vendors yelling “carrots, potatoes, onions” as they rolled their wheelbarrows full of produce down the street. But what really drew me to the narrator in Billionaire was her struggle – surviving in a new and different country – as well as the sense of humor she maintained no matter how dire the circumstance.

When I write my books, I try to create characters certain readers will relate to. If you’re a gung ho, got-to-get-the-job-done-at-all-costs person, you’d love elite open water swimmer,  Jeff Dickson (The Open Water Swimmer). He’s fiercely competitive and goal-oriented to the point that he’s socially awkward and unsophisticated around women. You might be able to relate to the areas in your life which feel a little out-of-balance as a result of your eyes-on-the-prize drive. Jeff’s about to learn that there’s more to life than just crossing the finish line first.

Children’s writer Dana Thomas is the typical spontaneous creative. You never know what this impulsive children’s author will do next. Early on in The Open Water Swimmer, she decides she’ll pack up her laptop and head to the nearest open water swimming race to identify the swimmer she’s been dreaming about. But she’s insecure about herself as a person and a woman as a result of a failing relationship and is about to embark on a journey to learn a lot about both.

Message from Viola Mari‘s Marissa Jones is a oceanographer/meteorite scientist at Scripps Institute in La Jolla. Since she’s a geeky scientist, her best friend, Jennifer, incessantly tries to match her up with men she knows (many of us have dealt with this situation at some point or another)…I happen to have rather horrid memories of a certain friend setting me up with an overweight Italian man who was obsessed with chocolates and caramel apples in the food court and kept exclaiming, “Oh, my God” whenever we passed another food counter. What a night of bliss that was (not so much). Anyway, back to Marissa- she’s also a rescuer, accustomed to caring for her family and friends, while in most cases neglecting herself and rejecting assistance from others (now if this doesn’t sound like a familiar female trait, I don’t know what does).

Marissa’s eventual lover, professor Justin Lincoln, is another one of those whimsical creative types. He’s used to women swooning over him and taking relationships and the rest of his life one minute at a time. You can probably imagine what kind of chaos ensues when Miss structured scientist meets Mr. Minute-by-Minute, but let’s just say the explosion leads both characters to undergo some serious re-evaluation and personal growth.

Whenever I recall books that became favorites, lead characters jump out in my mind. I remember Jamie Zeppa’s fearless and adventurous attitude as she leaves Canada to teach English in distant Bhutan (Beyond the Sky and Earth – memoir), the vulnerable and lost Mala in Nicholas Christopher’s A Trip to the Stars, who voyages to different seaside locales around the world, the restless Lady Dona in Daphne DuMaurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, who rebels against her confining female role and embarks on exotic adventures, and so many other characters who endeared me to them from the very first pages so before long I found myself feeling like the character’s number one cheerleader and best friend.

Now that I’ve shared my thoughts on how characters bring the text to life, I’d be thrilled to hear your comments on the subject.

2 thoughts on “Creating Likeable Characters

  1. Ellen Cross

    A fascinaing insight into what catches, and holds a readers interest, Sabrina. I found myself nodding and agreeing with you on your own discoveries and preferences in the type of leading role backgrounds that will draw a reader into reading the complete story.

    And thank you so much for the mention. It’s an honor to be held in such esteem by an amazing author as yourself 🙂

    Ellen

    Reply
  2. Sabrina Devonshire

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Ellen. And you’re very welcome. But you over-exaggerate – I can only aspire to be amazing…I’m chomping at the bit to get my hands on this Valentine’s Day story you’ve got coming very soon 🙂

    Reply

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