Let’s get one thing straight right now — I love my characters. I love every single one of them. The villains, the heroes, the love interests, the best friends. And why wouldn’t I? In some way, each of them has a piece of me in there. Whether they’re based on my dark side, on my husband, or doing something I think is important, they carry with them a piece of me.
So when I received feedback that readers did not like my characters, it was like a knife to the heart. Gasp. How do you not like my characters?
Well it happens. And as an editor, I have often had to give another author that horrible news: your character is just not all that likeable.
And it is bad news. Readers will typically put down a book over characters they don’t like faster than any other reason. So when that feedback comes in, it’s important to find out exactly what the problem is and fix it, fast.
1. Go over your character’s backstory and make sure you know it by heart.
Most of this information won’t be told within the story itself, but it will come out in other ways. Motivation, reactions to certain situations, how that character will behave in a relationship, interactions with other characters. An orphan will react to situations differently than a character who grew up in a loving home. A riches-to-rags character will have particular mannerisms that a rags-to-riches character might not have. If you haven’t already solidified the character’s backstory in your mind, do it now. Then read through every scene containing that character from his or her point of view and determine whether or not his or her actions are true to that personality.
In Heir of Elendri: Destiny’s Lure, Celyna was orphaned at eight years old and then sold on an auction block to Xiuhcoatl. Eventually, he taught her magic and trained her to be a wizard with the promise of two things: 1) she would never hurt again and 2) she would eventually join the governing body in the country of Enbra – the Council. These were her two motivators for everything throughout the story. She wanted to be strong so no one could hurt her again, and she wanted Xiuhcoatl to be proud of her.
2. Use the backstory to develop your character’s strengths and weaknesses.
Is your character a strong leader? Does he or she have trust issues? Cocky? Fast learner? How does that all play into the story?
Celyna was motivated by desire to be powerful. Powerful enough to stop anyone who would try to hurt her and powerful enough to get onto the Council and make Xiuhcoatl proud. Much of her childhood is based on things that happened in my own life: fast learner with a fear of punishment for getting it wrong meant top of the class. But it also meant extreme stress over small mistakes. And the desire for one person’s approval meant ignoring positive feedback from others and remaining blind to that person’s bad points. Celyna didn’t see how Xiuhcoatl was using her to further his goals. She didn’t see him as a bad guy at all.
3. Don’t go overboard, and pull back if you need to.
Lean too heavily on the character’s strengths, and it’s hard for readers to relate to the characters. Lean too heavily on their weaknesses, and they become annoying.
The whole point of any story is to have the character react to situations. And through that reaction, the character will change. In many ways, these reactions are more important than the plot of the story. It’s how the character grows. How villains will receive redemption, how heroes will rise above. Characters need time to process what’s happened, but can’t afford to dwell on them for too long. This was where I really went wrong with Celyna during my earliest drafts. After the destruction of her village, death of her father, and being sold on the auction block — my alpha readers were sympathetic and could understand her confusion. What they did not like was how she just trusted Szandor and Xiuhcoatl without question. I completely glossed over the trauma of Kennon’s destruction, yet still expected that to drive much of her arc. And I learned the hard way — that doesn’t happen. During the next rewrite, I allowed Celyna time to focus more on the tragedy and process that information. But the feedback was that I had overcompensated too much. She went from strong and precocious to whiny and irritating.
4. Flaws and weaknesses don’t have to be obvious to anyone but the reader.
If you have a hero who is already perfect, there is nowhere for him or her to go. Nothing to grow on. The antagonist doesn’t have to be able to pinpoint those flaws, but the reader does. Otherwise the readers don’t see the growth and won’t appreciate the progress the character has made. This is true for all characters, not just the protagonist.
When I wrote Xiuhcoatl, my biggest fear was that he was going to be dumb. I wanted to avoid the typical downfalls so many villains become. The talking too much, revealing too much of their plans, or the hero catching a lucky break and noticing his Achille’s heel at just a right moment to bring him down. More than that, I wanted him to be powerful. I wanted him to be strong. I wanted the reader to meet him and immediately think that he was impossible to beat. Money, power, intelligence. I wanted him to be overpowered. And that was one of my downfalls. The feedback that I received was that he was “just a villain.” I had made him so powerful that he was boring.
5. Remember that you character is right.
Even villains who want to take over the world do so for a reason that they believe is noble. And they won’t be alone. Someone will see the good in that villain. Someone will believe in that villain’s noble cause. Putting these motivations into the story will help your readers believe the villain’s actions. And it gives them a better idea of what your protagonist needs to overcome. It’s one thing to have to stop a villain from taking over the world, quite another to have to stop a villain from saving the world.
For me, this goes a bit further, too. Szandor and Lucien both had to see things from Xiuhcoatl’s point of view to help him. More than that, they had to believe in his vision. And they had to inspire others to believe in his vision. To do otherwise would leave them flat, mindless drones. And while mindless drones might be okay for the peon guard at the bottom of the pyramid, when it comes to being Xiuhcoatl’s most trusted friends, mindless drone didn’t work. They had to believe him and believe in him.
What are some of the biggest pitfalls you’ve come across when it comes to making your characters likable? And how did you fix it?