Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, June 30, 2014

Editing with the Elrics: 10 Methods to Make Characters Likeable

Over the winter Holidays, my sister-in-law and I watched Les Miserables. It was her first time seeing the latest film. And when it was over she said, "Every character in that movie made an emotional connection to the audience." She's right. Valjean, Eponine, Cosette, Marius, even Javert--we felt something for all of them.

Later, I was watching this show called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and my brother asked me how it was. "It's getting so crazy," I said. "There are like 12 main characters (I might have exaggerated a bit for effect), and they're all in different battles at the same time. And they all have different goals."

"12? I thought it was just that guy in the red coat who was the main character," he said.

"Well, it started out that way, and then changes as he meets more people."

Not gonna lie. When I started Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and met some of the characters, I wasn't impressed with them. But by the climax of the story, I was in love with all of them! I wanted everyone to win, even though some of their goals completely contradicted each other's. Like my sister-in-law said, by that point, "Every character made an emotional connection to the audience." It's not just the protagonist's story anymore. It's everyone's.

How do you create that? In the writing world, authors often talk about making characters "likeable." We have to like the person before we are going to connect with them on an emotional level.  Here are 10 ways to make your character likeable, with examples of each from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.

10 Methods of Likeability

1) Pet the Dog/Save the Cat

This method might be the most well-known. In movies, it's used to get the viewers to like the protagonist immediately. Show your character doing something kindhearted for someone else--"petting a dog" or "saving a cat" to make them likeable. The audience realizes, "Hey, that guy is a good guy: He saved that cat!" or, "She gave that homeless guy money!" In short, show us that your character is kind. In Hollywood this technique is literally called "Pet the Dog" and "Save the Cat," because back in the day, that's what they had their characters do--remember that cliche of saving a cat stuck in a tree? Yup. That's it.

In Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, I think Alphonse Elric is the kindest character of the cast. Where Edward Elric is often abrasive, Al is apologetic, polite, and caring, and sometimes selfless to a fault. He's kind, so we like him. He also has a habit of literally "saving the cat," since he often picks up stray cats and hides them in his armor.

2) Intriguing Backstory

I love character backstories. Probably more than the average writer. Give your character a tragic or interesting one and it goes a long, long way to making an emotional connection. Look at Snape in Harry Potter. Everyone hated him through almost the entire series. Then, once we got his full backstory, people started saying he's one of the best written characters of our time. Fans seem to have completely forgotten that Snape actually was a jerk.

One of the first things that drew me into Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was Ed and Al's backstory. Two kids use alchemy to try to bring their mother back from the dead. Using Alchemy on humans is a taboo, but they do it anyway, because she was the only family they had. Not only is the actual event freakishly horrific, since they do manage to create some kind of humanoid, but they also lose parts of themselves as toll. Ed loses and arm and a leg to in the process. Al loses his entire body! And they see "God" too. Because what they did is a sin, they try to hide it from people they meet.

Are you kidding me? That backstory could be a whole story in and of itself! (Much like Snape's could.)  It's killer! Also, did I mention Ed and Al are kids? How can you not want to know more about them with a backstory like that?

3) Understanding

That last one leads me to another point. When readers understand the character, they're connected to them. That's why everyone loved Snape after the Harry Potter series. We finally understood him. You can create that understanding through a backstory, but it's not the only way. Reveal to the reader why a character is the way she is through a scene of dialogue, internal thoughts, or action. When readers understand someone, they care more about her.

I think at the starting of FMAB, a lot of viewers hate the character Scar, mainly because, well, he's killing people and we see him as a villain. But when we hear about his backstory and learn about his people being slaughtered because of an extermination order, we understand him better. We get why he's going around killing alchemists, because alchemists killed his whole home and people.

This also goes with Van Hohenheim. We have ill feelings toward him because he abandoned Ed and Al and didn't help him out when their mother died. But when we fully understand why he did that, we like him more.

4) Cool Factor

Heighten your character's cool factor. We like characters who are cool. I mean, we like characters who are nerdy too, but we don't not like characters who are cool. Give your character a "super power," or give himself something that gives your audience wish-fulfillment, so that as an audience, we wish we were him.

Major Mustang is a Flame Alchemist--he can create explosions of fire with a snap of his fingers. The show makes it look extra cool by contrasting the firy explosions with the simplicity of snapping fingers (an action everyone can do). He's cool! The moment I saw him in action, I was interested in him. I'm invested in him.

But super powers don't have to be supernatural. Make your character cool with an exceptional talent. It can be materialistic (she's an amazing guitar player) or internal (she's a natural leader). Make your character embody a wish. Does every boy have a crush on her? A lot of young female readers wish boys were like that with them. So they care about the character.

To me, Ed's internal super power is that he is very determined with a drive to be self-reliant. Even at the climax of the series when he has to figure out how to bring Al back, he's fully determined to do it, and to do it on his own. He doesn't want outside help. While I don't always agree with him in that regard, I like it.

And of course, you can look at how Ed is cool in a bunch of different ways, even his character design has a cool factor. How attractive your character is can make him likeable. And "attractive" doesn't have to mean romantically attractive, but rather that we're just attracted to his appearance.

Also note that Lan Fan and Fu's unmatched loyalty is their "super power," and we respect and like that about them.

5) Vulnerability

We care about characters who are vulnerable, damaged, or hurt. In FMAB, Ed is all three. He's a kid caught in the middle of adult dilemmas and worldly horrors. He's missing an arm and a leg. And he's emotionally hurt from his father walking out on his family, his mother dying, and by what he himself accidentally did to his brother. We care about him because he's vulnerable and in pain. We like Al for similar reasons.

On a side note, what I love about Ed though, is that he doesn't waste his life away sitting around and crying about it.

6) Give them Worthy Goals

When characters have goals we can relate to or that are at least goals worthy of having, we want to see them succeed. We want them to fight for it. The goal can be primal, like Katniss's in the first Hunger Games. She wants to survive. Or it can be a burning interest like in August Rush, where the protagonist yearns to compose great music. Or you can pair them up; August also wants to find his parents. Show your readers how bad your character wants this goal.

Ed and Al want to get their bodies back to normal. We can sympathize with that. It's a worthy goal. And we see how bad they want it by what their willing to do to get it and by how much they talk and think about it. In contrast, wanting to kill a whole people to create a single philosopher's stone for self-gain isn't a worthy goal, and so we don't like the person.

7) Let them Grow

Show how your character grows into a better person over the course of the story. We care about people who change for the better, after all, don't we all hope we can change for the better? Can you really hate the Grinch after how much he's grown by the end of the story? His heart enlarged by two sizes! And look at the insights we get from his experiences.

I think we get to see almost all the main characters in FMAB grow, but one that comes to mind is Winry. Winry has an important role to play in the story because she works to channel Ed and Al's suffering for the audience. Ed and Al won't sit around crying for themselves, but Winry will cry in their behalf. In a way, it makes their pain more potent--they won't cry for themselves, which makes Winry hurt for them even more. She has to cry for them. I think as an audience, we need to see that. Winry helps us remember how tragic their situation is. But eventually Winry chooses to overcome her tears for Ed and Al's sakes. And she also grows in her perception and relationship with Scar, going from wanting to kill him to finding some kind of meaning to his life.

8) Humor

Make your character funny. We love being with characters who make us laugh. I'm going to talk more about this when I dissect Trigun, and I'm working on a blog post that gives a dozen tactics for making something funny in your story that you can read in the future.

For FMAB, we get our humor every time someone calls Ed short. He hates it so much, and he hates being short, and so those conversations and his reactions to them make us laugh. Also his hatred of milk is hilarious, especially when it's paired with how short he is, with characters telling him he's short because he didn't drink his milk growing up. We also get humor when his automail breaks.

We also get humor with Armstrong consistently thinking his physique is the sum of all things beautiful, Al hiding a cat in his armor, and Ling pretending he doesn't speak the country's language.

9) Make Your Character Liked by Others

When we see other people like a character, we feel like we should like her too. We like characters who are liked. 

Since Winry likes Ed so much, we like Ed more. Since Ed and Al like their mother so much, we like her too. Lan Fan and Fu are willing to spend their whole lives serving Ling and are willing to die for him, so we like Ling more. If people are willing to die for someone else, then we conclude they must carry some value--they must be a great person. That's obviously not always the case, but you get the idea.

10) Self-Aware of Shortcomings and Weaknesses

Make your character aware of her own shortcomings and weaknesses, that makes us more forgiving of them, and we can relate, because none of us are perfect. 

While we don't like that Van Hohenheim walked out on his family, he realizes that he's a terrible Dad, and he feels bad about it, so we feel bad for him. Hohenheim is aware that he's been involved in some evil alchemy, and it torments him, so we have sympathy for him. He's aware of his shortcomings and sometimes punishes himself for them, so he earns our compassion. If he wasn't self-aware, we wouldn't like him as much.

Your Characters

Your protagonist, by the way, should fulfill a number of these to increase her likability. The main character in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Edward Elric, fulfills all of them at one point or another. He wants to help people, he has an interesting backstory, we grow to understand him, he's cool, he's vulnerable, he's driven to reach his goals, he grows to be a better person, he's funny, and he's liked. He even fulfills the last method subtly, or at least a variation of it.

Be careful not to use the same method for all the characters in your ensemble. Feel free to use them all on your main character, if you want, but don't use all of them on every important character. Pick one or two or three to focus on per character, and switch it up from character to character. What I'm saying is, don't try to make a connection with your reader by giving, say, every character a tragic backstory. Sometimes you can pull it off, but sometimes it can be overkill. Image a story where every character was liked by a crowd of people. Not realistic. Instead, give one character a tragic backstory, another one a sense of humor, another one a physical vulnerability etc.

You've now got ten to pick from, so use a variety, and go make some likeable characters!

Want to add any methods to the list? Leave them in the comments.

More tips from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood coming next week.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Yeehaw, examples from my fav anime of all time.

    To me, the most favorite character in it is Roy Mustang, especially in the end, when he say to his crew "I order you to not die."
    It was amazing, and the order he had given his lieutenant on the backstory, "From now on your job is to watch my back. But when you find it straying, shoot it."
    You have given me an excuse to actually re-watch it, so I can learn from it more. ;)


I love comments :)