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Though I disagree that characters need to be likeable for a story to be good, I certainly do not think it hurts - nice people in stories serve as redeeming factors and give the occasional "tingle down the spine".

Are there any general principles which one can use to allow the reader to emphatize with the personalities in the story?

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This may help you: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2323/… –  Craig Sefton May 11 '11 at 8:28
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You should ponder why you like the people you like. What kinds of things do they say, what do they do that makes you like them. –  Lynn Beighley May 12 '11 at 19:40
    
Then again - why is the character to be a nice guy? The only answer what is occurring to me is: let that likeable person to do something really repulsive to question some bias. For this purpose, a guy holding (well-adjusted) views of majority (on alcohol, tobacco, lifestyle, ...) is good enough. –  Nerevar May 13 '11 at 11:18
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6 Answers 6

I would say the number one method is to give them a great obstacle that they deeply desire to overcome, then show us the story of them overcoming it.

There is also the "Pet the dog" or "Save the cat" scene where you see them doing something nice. Similarly, a character who loves someone is usually more sympathetic. If you have a guy who is a jerk to almost everyone, but he would do anything for his little sister, then he just got a lot more likable.

It also helps if the character has to deal with everyday crap that many people can relate to. The opening scene of Office Space comes to mind, where you immediately empathize with the character just by watching him wrestle with changing lanes in a traffic jam. Other common examples include getting dumped, having an annoying co-worker, being sexually frustrated, or an embarrassing moment like discovering an unzipped fly.

Make the character active. No one likes the damsel in distress. No one likes the character who whines and moans. The ones who stand idly by while bad things happen to other people are the worst. People love the character who gets up and does something about the situation.

Simple, but not easy: give the character a unique personality.

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Recalling moments watching "Die Hard" movie first time. The scene where the "tough guy" is lamenting and moaning in his cover is the one of my most favourites. I am afraid that statements like "no one likes the damsel in distress" or "people love the character who gets up" are a little bit prejudical. –  Nerevar May 12 '11 at 11:39
    
I would venture that rather than being prejudicial it's more precise to say "nobody likes a whiner" and leave it at that. People do love pro-active characters, not only that stories love pro-active characters, they keep things moving. –  One Monkey May 12 '11 at 15:05
    
@Indoril Nerevar, I admit I have not seen that movie, but I would bet the "tough guy" still does things, or else I can't imagine he would be considered the tough guy in the first place. That doesn't sound like a passive guy who just whines and never actually does anything. –  lala May 12 '11 at 15:25
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@One Monkey, there are some stories where even the main character actually does very little, and rather just has a lot of things happen to them. I believe these can actually be good stories, but it is very hard to make such a character likable. –  lala May 12 '11 at 15:28
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If you want a hard blueprint for ensuring that your character is likeable the following should help if applied properly:

  1. Your character should be shown to be capable. Readers like characters who can do stuff well and they don't tend to mind too much what stuff. Incompetence is shorthand for moral sloth in fiction so a doctor should be a good doctor (look at what people let House get away with because "OMG great doctor"), a cop should be good cop (even if he's not, you know, a good cop, see Vic Mackey of The Shield for details), and a forensic scientist should be a good forensic scientist (see Gil Grissom of early CSI: Vegas for details).

  2. Your character should, perversely after 1, be shown to be vulnerable. People like to know that into everyone's life a little rain must fall and particularly when they are such sickeningly competent heroic noble types.

  3. While we're at it a character should have excellent scruples and/or a clear and consistent code of ethics. They are not cheats, even if they have a vice like too much drinking or whatever. If they do something we morally disagree with they can be somewhat redeemed if it is consistent with the character's code of ethics (as long as we agree with those).

  4. And on that subject giving your character a few human failings is fine as long as the only person who ends up hurt by them is the character themselves.

If we try to make a character heroic we should play these rules really conservatively and make the character a regular scout. On the other hand the more we bend the rules the more we venture into the realms of a character not everyone will like but who inspires strong loyalty from fans.

So really, it depends how many people you want to find the character likeable as to how much you lay this on thick.

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Adding to, rather than disagreeing with, any of the previous answers I’d like to observe that sometimes storytelling issues can masquerade as character issues. When you think about it, fiction is filled with some pretty terrible characters that audiences never the less find compelling. Few will admit to ‘liking’ Michael Corleone (he’s a mobster and a killer after all), but let’s face it, they do. Audiences tend to like whatever protagonist the author places before them IF the story structure correctly supports the character and vise versa.

In any story, the protagonist is imperfect; he or she seeks some goal to satisfy a need driven by a flaw. This is the character’s motivation that drives the story. As the protagonist actively seeks to satisfy this need, he or she drives events forward – causing the story to happen. Often, (and I’ve struggled with this myself) my nice protagonists are nice only because I’ve not worked out their flaws and needs. This makes them under motivated. The surest sign of this – things happen to the protagonist rather than the protagonist making things happen. Other answerers made mention of the unappealing ‘damsel in distress’ character.

The point of all this, is that audiences usually like protagonists that they can understand and they understand protagonists only when they comprehend what they seek and why they seek it. If they can’t figure this out, the protagonist comes across as mysterious, passive, unpredictable, or inscrutable – all characteristics that we tend not to like in real-life people.

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What I do, is not necessarily make them likeable but make them able to be related to. What people want in a good character is to be able to relate to them or relate them to someone that they have had a strong emotion for in the past.

So what I would suggest, along with giving them obstacles to over come, is to develop the reality of who they are.

Say if it is a beggar on the streets, maybe he comes up a few times in the story before he becomes a major part ofthe story, and each time he comes up he has a different sign or a different ailment. This is something that many people can relate to.

You want them to have a strong feeling, good or bad, not likeable or not.

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There really isn't a way to make your characters likeable. It all depends on your character's natural finesse. however, if you really want your character to be likeable, make him or her REAL. if people can identify with the character because of their realistic attributes, then they tend to like the character better. At least, that is what I have found when writing. REAL = LIKEABLE.

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Likeable characters have a flaw of some kind.

Also, give them a super human ability. Not necessarily being faster than a speeding bullet, but make them amazing programmers (Zuckberberg - Social Network) or amazing Poker Players (Mike McDermot in Rounders). Give them an ability that the average person probably doesn't have or perhaps does have but isn't amazing at it.

The flaw is extremely important as it makes them relatable since no one views themself as flawless.

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