So, you’ve written a great character. They’re smart, funny, and everyone in the story loves them. The problem is that most of your readers don’t. It can be hard to put your finger on what makes readers connect to a character, but if there’s a serious failure to launch these four things may be a good place to start troubleshooting.
Failure to engage
One of the easiest ways to make a main character unlikable is to have them fail to engage with the story. This tends to make them less interesting because they aren’t taking agency and making interesting choices. It also makes the story less interesting because when the characters closest to the plot don’t care what happens, that sends a clear message to readers that the outcome isn’t particularly important.
A more insidious version of this is the irrelevant character. This character appears to engage with the plot, but if you remove them from the story absolutely nothing would change. In other words, they’re along for the ride, but all that they really do is provide a lens through which readers can experience the world.
How difficult this is to fix depends on the severity of the problem. For a disinterested character, it may be enough to give them a personal stake in the plot, to give them a few opportunities to shape the plot, or to put their actions more in line with their motivations. For a main character who is irrelevant to the story, you may want to consider whether that character actually needs to be the main character–or in the case of a POV character, whether they deserve their own POV.
The Plot Gods’ Pawn
This is the character who participates in the story, but lacks their own motivations. Everything they do directly–and rather transparently–serves the plot. This may extend to the character “just knowing” or “having a strong hunch” that allows them to be in the right place at the right time in spite of lacking important information. These characters tend to come across as flat, underdeveloped, and inconsistent, especially because they will do things that are out of character in the name of moving the story along.
The best fix for this problem is to let the characters dictate the plot, and not the other way around. If you get to a point in the story where it would be a stretch for the characters to act the way that you’d initially planned, don’t be afraid to deviate.
Another option is to tweak the character’s motivations and to set up for seemingly out of character moments in advance. If an otherwise bloodthirsty villain lets the hero go, they’re inconsistent. If the same villain is given a few moments of humanity earlier in the story, they’re nuanced.
Character Shilling and Desperate Narrators
Character shilling is a term for when the cast of the story talk up a particular character. Everyone goes on and on about how great Alice is. This isn’t always bad, and can be used to build her up a bit so that readers know that her skills are truly exceptional, or so that they’re excited to meet her before she gets introduced. However, it becomes a problem if Alice never does anything remarkable on the page, and continues to be showered with praise. After a while it also begins to seem like a cheap trick to sell readers on a character while skimping on actual characterization.
This tends to go hand in hand with narrators who show a strong bias towards a particular character, and who repeatedly insist that the character is wonderful. They tend to lavish strong, highly subjective adjectives on the character to remind us of how pretty/smart/funny said character is. Unless you’re dealing writing in first person about someone the narrator basically worships, this is likely to create POV errors. It also just feels pushy, desperate, and inorganic as if the writer terrified that left to their own devices, readers won’t recognize how great the character is.
The best way to fix this is to trust yourself and your readers. Have faith that they’ll figure out how to interpret the character without a bucket-load of pointers. Step back and let the character’s choices and actions speak for themselves.
Refusal to Acknowledge Faults
A character either makes a large mistake, or consistently conducts themself poorly, but the narrator continues to insist that they are in the right. Often, the rest of the cast will also ignore this character’s faults or, worse yet, continue shilling them. The plot may also bend to prove the character right.
This usually happens because writer are afraid that a character with negative traits are harder to like—something that is not only counterproductive to developing believable characters, but also patently untrue. The main character does not always have to be right. Acting as if they are only serves to heighten the sense that something is amiss. Readers are smarter than this.
Meanwhile, acknowledging character flaws opens up opportunities for new plot developments, a wider set of interactions, and potential character growth. So flaws make your story more interesting. They also make characters more relatable, and thus more likable.
Note: I’m currently traveling, and staying in a giant Lincoln-log mansion that, rather inexplicably, has no wifi. Needless to say, it is difficult to post. Regular updates will resume August 5. Thank you for your patience.