Must characters in stories be likeable? No. Are unlikeable characters popular with audiences? Yes. But they’re harder to write. What if you want to create a genuinely likeable main character who appeals to the broadest base? Here are some tips and tricks.
Make your hero OR your main opponent a ‘rogue charmer’, ‘prankster’ or ‘trickster’
Trickster is one of the fundamental character archetypes. Other examples are the magician, the wise old man, the lover and so on. But of all the characters and character types, the trickster is the most popular with audiences worldwide. It goes back thousands of years:
- Odysseus/Ulysses – Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, a hero in ancient Greek literature. Odysseus is renowned for his brilliance, guile, and versatility, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (mētis, or “cunning intelligence”).
- Hermes – the Greek god. According to prominent folklorist Yeleazar Meletinsky, Hermes is a deified trickster.
- Merlin – from the Arthurian legend, perhaps based on 6th-century Druid living in southern Scotland. He causes trouble at his former wife’s wedding, for instance.
In Children’s Literature, instead of the ‘rogue charmers’ per se, we often see child protagonists who get into trouble despite their best intentions, and who always maintain a positive attitude against all odds.
- Anne Shirley — Anne of Green Gables is a completely unrealistic character in that a child who’d been through such hardship would probably be suffering from PTSD and be irredeemably damaged by the time she reached Marilla and Matthew. This aspect is rendered more realistically in the recent re-visioning Anne With An E. Nut the fictional Anne is loveable because she tries her hardest to please, and we know why she does what she does.
- Ramona Quimby — Likewise, Ramona is always getting into trouble despite her best intentions. Ramona is a granddaughter of Anne Shirley.
- Amelia Bedelia — overcomes minor misunderstandings while maintaining her dignity and cheerful attitude
How TO execute the trickster technique
- Create a character with extreme confidence.
- This person also has a way with words.
- Think con-man. (Con man is short for confidence man.)
- The audience just wants to do whatever this character suggests.
- Make them fun-loving. When they are the hero of the story, a big part of their function is to show other people how to enjoy life.
- Whatever goal you give your trickster, have them involved in a plan that involves deception. This is crucial. The more deception the better the story.
- This character is very likeable even when they’re being bad. They’re often a complete liar. Problematically, perhaps, an audience forgives this so long as the above criteria are fulfilled.
Or you can make the trickster the main opponent because of their ability to attack the hero. This is handy because it will give the hero a lot of trouble (and therefore a lot of story to work with).
Editor Cheryl Klein urges children’s authors to avoid ‘whiny protagonists without charm or truth’. The worst thing you can do is have a main character sitting around contemplating things. She sees a lot of scripts start like this when the character is about to move to a new place, so watch out for that especially if you’re writing one of those kinds of stories.
Give Your Character Authority
Klein writes that in children’s stories voices must have ‘authority’ — ‘a sense that the writer knows where he is going and what she is doing; the feeling that the reader is in good hands.’ She says that authority comes from three things:
- specificity of language
- not wasting the reader’s time
- recognisability (identification)
Bravery, confidence and self-motivation are important for child protagonists as they are for the ‘con-man’ archetype described by Truby:
- Little Bear — illustrated by Maurice Sendak is sweet and plucky, friendly and adventurous
- Nate Wright (a.k.a. Big Nate) — aspiring cartoonist and prankster, exhibits great confidence and creativity
Give Your Character Positive Energy
- Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows, who really wants a dog and works tirelessly until he’s saved enough to get one
- Hermione of Harry Potter loves her school work and helps the reader to become interested in magic, too.
Or Give Them Interesting Negative Energy
Likeable characters may be pessimistic and sardonic.
- Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games doesn’t have much hope for the future at the beginning of the story but she is soon propelled into action.
- Bella Swan is a bit of a Debbie Downer, and also a blank Every Girl, but that doesn’t stop her from being interesting. She still has drive (except when she falls into depression — which the reader quickly skips over because the pages are blank except that they have the words for months on them) by seeking out the company of certain boys in a love triangle.
- The Wimpy Kid has a good, pessimistic handle on his situation in life, and this series is an example of a funny kid with interesting pessimistic energy. This makes him likeable.
Header painting: George Bernard O’Neill – Stolen Fruit is the Sweetest