Sometimes it’s a quirk, sometimes it’s a wound we all share. Most often it’s an attitude. Too many authors spend tons of time working up a detailed history of the character’s life, but usually that’s a waste. A character with an attitude is always more interesting than a character with a history.
Think about the people you like to hang around with in real life—those same traits are often present in fictional characters we like to spend time with.
Just as in real life, we prefer people who are fun to be around (rather than whiny and self-pitying), adventurous, engaging, vibrant, unpredictable and ready to admit their mistakes rather than pretend they’re better than everyone else. In his book Writing 21st Century Fiction, Donald Maass suggests that we imagine creating characters that we would want to take to prom. That’s good advice.
I also think it’s the inconsistencies rather than the consistencies that make characters interesting. So, for example, if a character is mature in every way, she’s boring, but if she’s intellectually mature but also emotionally needy, she becomes a character who’s intriguing and multi-layered.
New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni suggests that to create empathy in readers we give the character an undeserved misfortune, put him in jeopardy, make them compassionate and nice, funny or witty, make them powerful and altruistic.
Sometimes I’ve started watching a TV series and then just abandoned it after an episode or two because, honestly, there just wasn’t anyone I felt like I could cheer for, no one I wanted to spend time with. When you’re creating characters, you need to create ones that people would rather spend time with than do anything else. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to grab their attention long enough for them to become engaged in your book, and enthralled enough to stick with it.
Even if a character doesn’t always play by the rules or has undesirable traits, if he’s someone intriguing and fun to be around, he’s going to be the likeable character who will attract readers.