The Cardinal Rule for Creating Cool Characters—And How to Pull It Off


DetectiveWhy are characters so important?

To answer that question more vividly than I ever could, imagine you’re at a party. A few minutes in, you realize all the guests are churlish bores. Completely dislikable. Or, worse yet, mind-numbingly dull.

What ya gonna do? (No, not call Ghostbusters . . .) You’re not going to waste a single minute coming up with a great-sounding excuse and getting out of there. Right?

The same thing happens when someone is reading your book. If your characters are ill-bred, impolite, screamingly dull, or just plain not nice, your readers are going to do just what you’d want to do at that party: they’ll stop reading and never look back.

You want your novel populated by characters that pull the reader in for the long haul. And here’s the cardinal rule for doing that: Make the readers care about your characters. They need to care—deeply—whether your characters win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die.

Okay, you’re thinking, so how do I do that?

Simple: make your characters charismatic and likeable.

Let’s start with charisma. Your characters need it. That doesn’t mean they have to be good-looking (though that never hurts). Nor does it mean they have to be bright and eloquent and witty (though those things never hurt, either). It does mean there needs to be “something about them.” They electrify the room. You can’t take your eyes off them. Face it: if your character can walk into the room without being noticed, nobody—including the reader—will notice them either.

Once your characters are oozing with charisma, move to the next step: make your characters likable. How? You’ve got plenty of experience to help you do this. Think about the people in your life that you instantly take to—and compare them to the ones you slink into the next aisle to avoid. What makes the difference? Thousands of things . . . but Novel Writing Help has created a couple of snappy lists to help (you can find them at The First Rule of Creating Fictional Characters):

Readers tend to love fictional characters who:

  • Atticus FinchAre dependable.
  • Are modest.
  • Keep their promises.
  • Play fair. (Not that they won’t break the rules, but they will have a strong moral code to keep them from crossing the line.)
  • Don’t see themselves as being better than others.
  • Help others for no personal gain.
  • Have a sense of humor.
  • Are courageous. (Not that they won’t show fear—in fact, it’s better if they do—but they must always overcome it.)
  • Are willing to make sacrifices for the greater good.
  • Have goals we can sympathize with.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Are level-headed.
  • Are smart—in a street-wise, common-sense way, not an academic one.
  • Are even-tempered.
  • Are kind and generous and compassionate to others.
  • Are the victims of an injustice.
  • Are uncomplaining.
  • Are volunteers—willing to put themselves forward to do whatever needs to be done without being pressed into action.
  • Are cool under pressure.

Readers tend to dislike fictional characters who:

  • Scarlett O'HaraCannot be relied on.
  • Are immodest braggarts.
  • Break promises and let people down—without even caring.
  • Play dirty. (Not only do they break the rules, they break the “unbreakable” rules.)
  • Think of themselves as superior to others.
  • Are self-serving.
  • Are humorless.
  • Are ultimately cowards.
  • Are selfish—only out for what they can get for themselves.
  • Have goals and dreams and ambitions that don’t seem worthy.
  • Tell lies.
  • Are insane—a little or a lot.
  • Are overly intellectual.
  • Are inconsistent in their behavior and suffer from mood swings.
  • Are bullies, even sadists.
  • Are responsible for injustices against others.
  • Whine and complain about their own problems.
  • Never volunteer but have to be drafted, and even then they help out grudgingly.
  • Panic under pressure.

A few things to keep in mind. First, these lists aren’t exhaustive ones. But they should provide a good idea of at least how to get started.

Second, don’t give every single one of the characters in your novel every single one of these traits. Your main characters should certainly have two or three or four of them in varying degrees, because they’re the ones your readers will spend the most time with. Other characters might have only one. Use your judgment and instinct.

Third, all the characters in your novel shouldn’t be likeable.


Darth VaderWhat about the villains?

Readers shouldn’t love everything about the villains, but they should still care about them. For starts, the reader will care that a villain gets what’s coming to him.

And speaking of villains, make sure that your good characters aren’t too good you’re your bad ones aren’t too bad. Every hero needs faults, and every villain needs a few redeeming qualities—something that makes readers sympathize just a little.

If a hero is pure and noble with no flaws or imperfections whatsoever, readers, far from loving them, might go to the opposite extreme and hate them for being too saint-like. Before too long, they will want to see that character’s halo knocked off!

In the same way, if a scoundrel is wholly evil with not a single redeeming virtue, he might end up more like a pantomime villain—hated, yes, but in more of a comic way. Your readers need to be able to relate in some way.

When it comes right down to it, don’t think of your characters as heroes and villains. Think of them as powerful characters who have opposing goals, each of whom is right in his or her own mind.

Sad womanFinally, make your characters—all of them—a little unhappy. Seriously. Each character should be a little lonely, bereaved, broken-hearted—something along those lines—so the readers will be sure to sympathize. So the readers will care.

What you want is a little shard of ice in the heart. What you don’t want is to go way over the top. If your character starts wallowing, your readers will likely think, Oh, my gosh! Pull yourself together and get over it! (Be honest. You’ve known people like this.)

The bottom line? Life is full of troubles, and characters in novels face more troubles than most of us. In the real world, we can get away with sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. But fictional characters can’t, at least not for long—not if they want the readers to care about them.
Whatever problems a character in a novel faces—and he will face plenty—too much self-pity or stoical suffering isn’t an option. Readers expect him to do something, to take some control, to fix things—and readers want that sooner rather than later.

(Photos: detective,; Atticus Finch,; Scarlett O'Hara,; Darth Vader, IGN; sad woman,



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