Characters We Like

— March 04, 2009 (10 comments)
Last week, Nathan Bransford talked about what he feels makes a character sympathetic. He gave this formula: "charisma - action = redeemability" and suggested that if a character's redeemability dropped below a certain base line, that character would lose the sympathy of the reader, and if that character is the protagonist, or any other character that's supposed to be likable, the story's in big trouble.

It's a good way of looking at it, but from this author's point of view it's a little too vague to be workable. So I present to you this almost-checklist derived from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint.

10 Things We Like in Characters
  1. Courage: Does what's right even if it's risky.
  2. Fair Play: Doesn't cheat. Isn't sneaky or underhanded.
  3. Humility: Doesn't brag. Is modest or shy about praise. Doesn't argue to defend themselves when criticized. Takes responsibility for their mistakes. Doesn't whine or complain about their problems, but tries to solve them.
  4. Draftee/Volunteer: Related to humility. If a job requires great courage, but won't bring much glory or reward, the sympathetic character will volunteer for it. Conversely, if a job will bring glory and reward, the sympathetic character needs to be drafted.
  5. Dependable: Keeps their word as much as possible.
  6. Clever: Thinks of smart solutions to difficult problems.
  7. Victim: We pity a character who is a victim of suffering or jeopardy, but you have to be careful. Too much of a victim seems weak; after all, a real character would do something about it. This works best if we know the character has tried their hardest and still can't get out of the situation.
  8. Savior: Rescues those in need. Readily defends someone who is being criticized unfairly.
  9. Sacrifice: A character who sacrifices themselves for something is hugely sympathetic, but only if the sacrifice is necessary and if it's for something important and worthy. Otherwise, we'll think the character is just stupid.
  10. Goals and Dreams: In general, sympathy will increase with the importance of the character's goal and the amount of effort they've already expended to try to attain it.
Of course, there are no hard rules in writing. Like everything else, these are guidelines.

It's also not a checklist. If you try to imagine a character with all these qualities, you may find yourself sickened of them. A perfect character becomes unbelievable and unlikable. The best characters - our very favorites - are ones who are mostly sympathetic, the ones who have some small, understandable flaws that make them real and (strangely) lovable.

There's also a very fine line for some of these. For example, a character who is clever is likable, but a character who knows they're clever, and acts like it, is just the opposite. I'll talk about that a little more in the next post: Characters We Hate.

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  1. That's a great list. Definitely things to keep in mind.

  2. Great post, Adam. I'm going to look for Orson Scott Card's book - I'm unfamiliar with him, but from your checklist he sounds like a must read for this writer.

    Looking forward to the next installment - characters we hate (and I'm assuming that these are the villains and not our hero or heroine who just happens to tick us off that day :)


  3. So I'm reading this list and I'm thinking "we love Han Solo - but he really doesn't fit the list." And then I remember, but he came back & saved Luke, so maybe he does fit the list with the understandable flaws, as you note at the end of your post. I think he fits the "redeemability" equation very well, which is probably why we love him so much. Even if he did shoot first.


  4. Great post. I think I'll pick up a copy of Orson Scott Card's book - thanks for the recommendation.

    To Andy - yes, but Han's charisma was off the chart. :)


  5. Janet: Orson Scott Card is a science fiction author, best known for Ender's Game (which I consider a must-read for sci-fi fans).

    He's also written two (that I know of) writing help books. Characters & Viewpoint contains a lot of really good information. The other, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy is shorter, but has some really useful tips for wannabe speculative fiction authors.

    Andy, Hil: Han Solo was actually the exact character Card used as an example for the "mostly sympathetic" characters. In the end, he shows himself to be courageous, basically fair, dependable, clever, a victim (owes a debt to Jabba the Hutt), and a savior - but he's arrogant as heck. It's his arrogance, Card says, that makes him so lovable.

    And he totally shot first.

  6. You're quite an advocate of Orson Scott Card, Adam! I must admit I've been mulling over picking up a copy of Characters & Viewpoint for a little while (since reading your glowing references to it actually) and I've been getting closer and closer to hitting that buy button. I’ve also taken a fancy to Ender's Game so I think I’ll have put these two at the top of my shopping list.

    Great post.

  7. It is a great list - if heroes are your faves. I tend to like (and root for) the bad guy in most books.

  8. Then I hope you like the next post, Captain.

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