I watched a movie on Sunday. It felt like a big deal because it's one I've been waiting to see since last Christmas. So I watched it...and I hated it. It wasn't necessary the amateurish singing, the casting choices I thought were bad, the inattention to wardrobe or even the lack of dialogue (which is my favorite part of any story). It was the characters. About halfway through, I realized that none of them were likable. I felt really unhappy with every moment of it after that. Making your readers fall in like is essential if you want them to keep being your readers.
The Middle of the Road
Notice I didn't say that readers should fall passionately in love with your characters. That's hard to do for even the most brilliant of writers, and it's polarizing anyway. Think Twilight and Gone With the Wind. Both stories have very strong male leads that make female readers swoon, but the female leads are not well-liked by their reading counterparts. Scarlett O'Hara and Bella Swan are both incredibly unlikable in different ways, and it's only tempered by their way-too-sexy literary co-stars.
I'm not asking you to capture lighting in a bottle...or on the page. You'll have a much better chance of creating a character that's just plain likable. Think Harry Potter. You probably aren't in love with him (I never did like a man with shaggy hair, myself), but you probably like him and want him to win his battles. He's a little bit clumsy and inept at times -- aren't we all -- and he's no romantic hero. He's just a likable guy who makes mistakes but wants to do the right thing.
And he sold billions of books, so don't tell me that likable isn't good enough. It is. By far, likable is a lot better than having characters no one can like. So now it's your job to create characters that people like. For writers, who tend to be introverted loners who are focused on what's happening in their heads, this can easily feel like an insurmountable task. But don't fret -- there's a formula to creating a likable character (and I happen to know what it is).
- They're relatable: Your character can live on a space station or in a house behind a white picket fence, and still be relatable or not. Make your character one the reader can identify with. Give them flaws, give them dreams, give them fears and hang-ups and crushes and bad memories and inside jokes. Make them feel real, and I will be able to relate.
- They fail: The reader is supposed to root for the hero to triumph, and that's fine. But sometimes, the hero should fail. People fail sometimes, so people in books should also.
- They try: Heroes don't have to do the right thing all the time, but they should want to. They should regret it when they do the wrong thing. They've got to try, because that's all anyone can do. Effort makes characters likable.
Your characters don't have to be gorgeous and they don't have to be perfect, because most ordinary people are not these things. They simply have to be real people who attempt to succeed at being good. Do this, and I'll be falling in like with your book.