Tuesday, March 24, 2009


A friend posed a question to me today: how do you make your characters likable?

To me, likability is a lot less important than understanding WHY characters do what they do. Someone might not be nice, moral or even a good person, but generally, if I understand why a person is going after their goal, I'm going to give them a chance. Also, the more primal the motivation, the better. We tend to want to root for people who are fighting for:

1. SURVIVAL. It's the most basic desire on earth. Drop us in a hurricane and we'll follow just about anybody trying to get out. Same with medical shows. Are they going to live or die?
2. LOVE. It's every romantic comedy and many B-stories, and is completely universal. We've all been there. We all want to find love.
3. FAMILY. We've all got one, and most of us would do just about anything for them.
4. TRUTH AND JUSTICE. We want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. We want to believe that truth and justice exist. It's every legal drama, every cop show, every ERIN BROKOVICH-type story of fighting the man.

Now, I don't think any of these are necessities in your story - but they make it really easy for us to root for people, whether those people are "likable" or not.

On a similar note, it can be challenging when our characters make unconventional choices - but it can also be interesting. When Nancy in WEEDS needs money to support her family, she turns to drug dealing. She could have gotten a job as a secretary and moved into a smaller house - but she didn't. She could have chosen a profession that didn't put her children at risk. Sometimes it's not easy to like her - but on the flipside, her story is also a lot more interesting. Would we want to see the story about the secretary? Probably not. In Nancy's case I think the balance comes from A) the show's quirky tone B) how we see, in other ways, that she really does love her children, and C) that she often gets what she deserves after she makes mistakes.

Bookmark and Share


GregM said...

Second your comments about understanding people's desires. I had the pleasure of acting in Richard III once; man, nobody could *like* Richard, but boy do we love to watch him. Same as Iago. Same as Lady M.

Monsterbeard said...

I think we should replace likable with interesting. Nobody likes Hilter, but we sure are willing to make countless movies about the guy.

A likable guy can be incredibly boring (just ask my roommate! JK, roomie) but an interesting guy can be a terrible person and we'll still turn the pages.

Dan Williams said...

People who are considerate and kind and supportive towards others, especially those who are vulnerable like children, seem to be really likeable.

Fade in:

A MAN (30's) is rushing to catch a bus.

An OLD STREET PERSON dressed in rags gets in his way.

OSP: "I'm just so hungry."

The MAN looks longing at the bus, which now starts to pull away.

OSP: "Six bucks, ten bucks."

The MAN makes a face but takes out some cash.

MAN: "Twenty."

OSP: "Sometimes I just can't go on."

MAN: "And twenty more."

(I like both of them because both are considerate to each other.)

Kristan said...

Hmm, good points. And valid to any writing, not just for the screen. Thanks. :)

Tanya said...

It's interesting how many people tend to rate characters on a likability scale because it really is more about motivation (and I agree with you about the primal aspect). It's also about being human; you make a good point with Nancy in WEEDS - her job may not be ideal, but it poses interesting circumstances showing that she may not be perfect, but she is human. And people can relate to that.

writerjoel said...

I find excellence is the secret likability. Richard III, Iago, Hitler, Nancy from Weeds: they're all great at what they do. They know what those around them do not.

If you want to make a bastard likable, make him/her great at it.

Sarah said...

And if you want a down-and-dirty way to increase likability for your character, I once read this tip and it's stuck with me: Show someone else (early in the story) treating your character meanly or unfairly. The audience is instantly on their side. It works. And it's fun if you can flip it later, showing why the mean person was justified in their earlier behavior. Nothing like shifting people's sympathies to keep them watching!

Sasha said...

I'm not sure a reader/viewer needs to *understand* a character's desire. I think the reader/viewer just has to understand that whatever the desire is, is INCREDIBLY important to the character.

I tend to love and identify with the villain in any story. Maybe that's because I'm a huge b*tch, but I think it's because the villain tends to be REALLY DESPERATE for something. So desperate that he/she is willing to stoop to anything to get it (his/her willingness to stoop to ANYTHING is what makes him/her a villain, I guess). Whereas the hero isn't/can't ever be that desperate, or else they wouldn't have the moral standards necessary for heroism.

Anyway, I think desperation is the most attractive quality a character can have.

aaronjho said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aaronjho said...

This is my first time posting a comment, but I've been reading your blog regularly for about 2-3 months and I just wanted to say it's been incredibly insightful. Thank you and keep it up! Anyway, I just wanted to say that a lot of a character's likability comes from their ability to take action and actively pursue what they want. When I ask people who their favorite "Friends" character was, the person I get the least was Ross, and their reasoning was that he was too sappy and appeared weak because he'd pine and pine after Rachel but never really do anything about it. But Ted from "How I Met Your Mother" I feel is just as sappy and romantic, but much more likable because he's always ACTIVELY pursuing his love interests, and although he's the quintessential "nice guy," he doesn't come off as weak or beta because he's proven that he's ballsy enough to make thing happen for himself by making bold romantic gestures to try and get what he wants, as opposed to waiting for her to "come around." This simple observation has done wonders for making my once weak characters more likable.

Anonymous said...