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Disclaimer: This is a troubleshooting guide, and it doesn't necessarily cover every possible solution. It's based on my own experience, and not every idea may fit every character or work. Please use your common sense and personal taste when applying this information. Thanks for reading!
It's every writer's nightmare: your characters, after all the things you've put them through and all the months or years they've inhabited your head, have been eagerly displayed to the public and received an unenthusiastic response. Your audience has not been enchanted. They do not drool, fall hopelessly in love, or draw fan art in droves. They don't even pick favorite characters or whine for more information! You've failed. Nobody understands your characters. Nobody understands you.
...Wait a second. Try again?
Deviants who regularly post OC stories and art are lucky: their relationship with their audience is flexible and optimized for feedback. If one thing doesn't work, they can try another. When they succeed, their friends applaud them. Relationships between the audience and the characters are built over a much longer time than those between characters in published stand-alone works and readers.
Regardless, many writers and artists wonder whether their characters are loved or not. I'm no oracle, so I can't tell you. I can, however, share a few strategies that may help you build a bond between your audience and your characters.
Show, don't tell.
You can tell readers about a character's personality traits, or you can show them. While telling works, showing is much more effective. I'll give you an example.
Rose is nice.
Okay... so apparently my character Rose is nice. Why do we know this? Because Luna said so. And we don't have any evidence suggesting otherwise, so we can probably take my word for it. But Rose is just some stranger who is apparently nice, so we don't care that much about her.
"Zaen? Zaen, where are you?" Rose called, turning around the corner of the house. Her eyes scanned the backyard. "Zaen?"Now what do you think about Rose?
"I'm up here." Zaen's voice drifted down from a tall tree.
Rose stepped under the canopy of leaves and looked up. Zaen sat on one of the branches about halfway up the tree. "Zaen, why are you in a tree?"
The boy looked away sullenly. "I wanted to be up here."
Sullenness. That was unlike him. Rose glanced at her pretty dress with a frown. Then she grabbed a branch, walked her feet up the tree trunk, and pulled herself up. "I'm coming up, okay?"
Rose climbed the tree until she crouched on a branch just below Zaen. "Why are you up here? Dark is worried about you."
"Dark is worried?" Zaen seemed to doubt this. He wiped his eyes, glanced at her, and then looked away over his shoulder.
"Of course he's worried. He has no idea where you are, and he and I were just looking for you. Would you like to tell me what's wrong?"
Zaen looked down.
"You don't have to."
Zaen sniffed. "We should go down. Dark should know that I'm all right."
"Okay." Rose climbed down a branch to give Zaen room to follow. "We can let him know that you're okay, and then if you'd like we can talk about what's upsetting you." She watched Zaen's face carefully as she spoke. "You and I could go for a walk. Just the two of us."
Zaen sniffed gratefully. "Okay."
You certainly know a bit more about her. She climbed a tree while wearing a nice dress so that she could see what was bothering Zaen, and she changed her plans to accommodate his emotional needs without hesitation. These two clearly have a positive relationship.
Our proof of Rose's kindness is much more concrete now. We don't think that Rose probably is nice because Luna said so and probably has some reason for saying that; we now have plenty of evidence in front of us. And empty words are easily forgotten, while memories of events are not.
So if you're itching for characterization, don't just grab for the old character questionnaire and tell your readers about your character's height, personality, or affinity for multicolored rubber bands. Try pulling out a writing prompt or comic idea and show your readers your characters' personalities in action. Your readers may grow to love and understand your characters a little more.
Show multiple facets of characters' personalities.
Sometimes writers can fall into the trap of showing only one or two sides of a character's personality. The nice little boy is always shown being cheerful. The smart girl is constantly doing intellectual things. While minor characters don't have much room for development, major characters definitely need to step beyond this.
Showing multiple facets of a character's personality is important in bringing them closer to readers' hearts. We don't love stereotypes; we love people. Dimensional characters are more relatable and realistic. We can't love them if we don't know them, and we can't know them if we only see them in one mood or situation.
You can fall into this trap even if you understand the idea and have developed characters. In published standalone stories, readers typically finish the work within a week (depending on their free time and the book's length). That's a short enough time for them to remember each character's personality pretty well. Online characters, however, are developed over months and years, so if you don't reinforce a character trait, your audience may forget about it. Allow me to illustrate with another one of my terrible anecdotes.
One day I posted an ugly picture called Fourth of July, in which my cynical, sarcastic character Dark is grinning in anticipation as he steps away from an enormous lit firework. Several viewers were surprised to see that he was actually smiling, and one even asked if Rose had drugged him.
Dark can be prickly and solitary at times, but he can also be very positive and fun-loving. Both sides of him are visible in the book and in my various posts, but apparently I haven't been showing enough of his good side recently.
Luckily, failing to show multi-faceted personalities is easily fixed. Just pull out a piece of paper and display a little of that third dimension. Readers will quickly adjust to the change and incorporate it into their knowledge of the character.
Don't be afraid to share even the smallest little quirks! They can be funny and enjoyable, and readers may enjoy the tidbits. Colorful, surprising character traits are fun, and they really pique readers' interests. Similarly, habits can be memorable too, such as a guy biting his lips when he's nervous, or a girl writing and graphing interesting polar equations on her notebooks to show her little brother. They may be things that readers remember when reflecting on your story.
Give your character real flaws.
I have a character named Athryl who has a bucketload of flaws. He's wimpy, incredibly shy, naive, submissive, fragile... And somehow he has managed to gain enough fangirls to give him nightmares for five months straight.
Flaws, when placed in moderation, improve characters. It makes them more realistic and relatable. Flaws can even be endearing. (A shy boy's stuttering can be cute, even if his shyness is a serious problem for him.) When used carefully, they can also elicit a degree of pity.
Flaws are especially powerful when characters recognize them and try to overcome them. For instance, Jo from Little Women has a terrible temper and sometimes hurts her sisters' and friends' feelings when her anger becomes unmanageable. She realizes this, and readers cheer her on as she tries to control her hotheadedness. We know that it hurts to hurt those we love. Her hope becomes our own, and so does her triumph as she grows throughout the story. Nothing elicits sympathy more than a fellow human trying to overcome weakness.
Remember, though, that definitions of flaws can vary. Clumsiness, for example, is generally considered a flaw. However, if your cute little character constantly knocks things over and receives pity, reassurance, and forgiveness, that's not much of a flaw. It seems more like a way to make other characters pay attention to her. "Real" flaws tend to be ones that cause real problems for the character, such as harming their relationships, self-image, or ability to engage in certain activities.
Flaws can also lighten up a story and generate humorous interactions. Don't be afraid to poke a little fun at a character here and there! Readers may laugh as much as you do. (Here, I'll toss you an example.)
Don't worry—a few humorous flaws will not make your readers love or respect your characters less. They just know fun little facts about the characters that let them love them even more. For example, my dad has a bald spot the size of the sun, and I don't like him any less for it. If anything, it has improved our relationship, since it's something we both can joke about. (He, like me, is quite capable of laughing at himself.)
So yeah. My dad is not my character; he's a real person. But you get the idea. Humorous flaws don't hurt.
Show the character being happy or doing good deeds.
Chances are, you've probably noticed the flood of dark and broody characters pouring in from manga and vampire lit. Most of them thoroughly irritate me, and I usually wish that the nicer, more normal guy from the love triangle ends up with the girl. Why? More often than not, dark and broody equals mopey. And despite the glamorization, mopey guys are emotional black holes: they'll suck away your happiness and leave you deflated.
If a character sits around being dark and broody most of the time, he or she is not going to be very interesting. Your readers are taking their time to hang out with your characters. Who wants to be around a grumpy person? While it's true that fangirls swarm around dark and broody characters, their love is for the superficial: he's handsome; he's mysterious. Too often that's all he has going for him.
It's natural to have your characters upset some of the time. Of course your characters will feel upset if the bad guy kidnaps their sister, their friends ditch them at lunch, or their pet goldfish dies. However, having a bad day or two is different from spending weeks sitting gloomily in their room, staring out the window at the rain, and listening to Mozart's Requiem on repeat until their MP3 player dies. That's... not a very fun character to spend your time with.
Make sure your readers see your characters having fun and doing good things. People like to spend time with positive people, and your readers are choosing to spend time with your characters, so make them feel good about that decision. Let your characters be a positive force in their world. Let the quiet handsome guy play with his little sister and make her laugh. Let your lonely protagonist have fun reading at the beach or volunteering at a homeless shelter. Moments of kindness and happiness build likability.
The number one way to be likable is to be nice. So let your characters have fun! Chances are, your readers will have fun with them.
Have morals in common.
It's scenario time.
So let's say that I believe that being kind and patient with your children is a good way to raise them. One day I'm walking in a park and I see two dads with their little girls. The first little girl asks her dad if they can go to the candy shop after the park and he says, "No. I've already told you that you have enough candy at home. I told you, don't ask questions that you've already asked." Later, the second little girl asks her father if they can go to the toy store, and he says, "No, we're not going to the toy store today. New toys are for birthdays and special occasions, remember? We can play at the park for a little longer, and then we'll go home and eat lunch, and we can play with Legos afterwards if you'd like."
Given that I believe it's a good idea to be kind and patient with your children, which dad do you think I would like more?
Appealing to morals is an easy way to make characters much more likable. While each reader may have slightly different beliefs (maybe you think that parents should be blunt and stern), a lot of readers share common beliefs. Many of them are propagandized in books and the media. They include:
~Being kind and considerate towards others
~Being true to yourself
~Helping those in need
Almost everyone believes these things are good.
We love characters who believe in the same ideals that we do. If Rose is kind and considerate, she's displaying an ideal that we like, so we like her. By the same token, if Rose is ever mean or rude, we'll like her a little less. This goes for real people as well as characters. You can use common values to appeal to your readers.
Be warned, though: if you constantly advocate good morals through a certain character, you may end up with a Mary Sue. Nobody is perfect, so that irritates readers. Generally likable characters share many ideals with the reader, and exhibit most of them but perhaps fall short on one or two. (For example, John might be kind and open-minded, but also procrastinate his work and finish in a rush.) That way they're definitely good, but usually not too perfect or preachy.
Previously unnoticed characters can quickly become likable by advocating or displaying good morals, especially if they're helping someone in need.
The following section covers suggestions for characters on deviantART (or Tumblr and other sites) and is aimed for those who take a more casual, interactive approach to the internet.
The fangirls are after Athryl? Don't worry—he has an escape plan. Nobody is going to hug him to death or pinch his cheeks if he can help it!
You're allowed to have fun with your audience. While I wouldn't recommend putting jokes about fangirls into your books (unless your character is a superstar or something), deviantART can be a fun place to remark about popularity (imaginary or not), fun side stories, and how your characters would react to you.
This stuff can be fun for readers. How tempted were you to click the link above? Given that I made it, it's probably full of lame jokes, but most people are intrigued by a chance of humor. Similarly, sharing these things with readers can attract them and cause them to grow to love your characters even more.
It also helps to post regularly. That way your characters and story stay fresh in your audience's minds. If you don't post for three months on end, they're likely to lose some interest, while new watchers may not know anything about your characters.
You could even choose to allow your readers and viewers to interact with your characters. A question box can be fun once your audience is familiar with them and their personalities. You can draw your characters having fun with your friends' characters, or draw a character's humorous reaction to a deviant's remark. Draw their carefully planned strategies for fending off fangirl hordes or reaching those cookies your friend placed on a high shelf. Draw whatever makes you happy!
The internet doesn't need to be a place to display your work and sit around waiting to get noticed. You gain fans by sharing information they can love.
Excitement and Growth
This section focuses mostly on stories.
Most writers begin as readers. From a young age, we are caught up in the fantastic worlds of wizards and pirates, dastardly villains and daring deeds. Escapism becomes our life, and we grow up wrapped in the worlds painted in printed text. It's only natural for us to begin creating our own.
A character's world can make the story all the more attractive. Think of the success of Harry Potter and its magical setting. Is your world interesting? Will readers and viewers hear whispered promises of adventures and excitement every time they pick up a book or click on a deviation? An immersive world can make add interest to your story.
If your characters live colorful, exciting lives, readers and viewers can vicariously enjoy it. Everyone has a secret longing for adventure, but few people find it in real life, so they turn to stories to experience it.
Readers love to watch characters overcome challenges. They might be internal, such as a psychological or physical problem, or external, such as poverty or an invading army. As readers partially step into your character's shoes, these problems become their own. When the character suffers, readers empathize. When the character grows and overcomes the challenge, your reader will feel like he or she has grown a little too. People bond when they face hard times together, and the same thing can happen in a reader-character relationship.
Enchanting worlds, gripping challenges and dynamic character growth can make your story all the more attractive. While your characters drive the plot, let the plot change them and make them grow. Your readers will walk away inspired and carry a piece of your book in their heart.
The more you characterize your characters, the more they will be loved. Characters are people, and they have room to grow and change. If they aren't where you want them to be, you can move them to the place you want them. That's the beauty of controlling your own stories.
So go on. Don't waste your time reading my ramblings. Get some paper! Go have fun!
For those of you who may have actually taken interest in my characters, you're welcome to find out more about them here!
Need inspiration for characterization?
If this resource really made you want to write or draw your characters, but you're lacking ideas, try jumping to the Art Block Banisher or "Beating the Block." Both resources have helped me in the past, and hopefully they'll help you too! You may also want to visit *Kitsunechann's OC Exercise, which gives you some writing ideas that focus on characterization.
...and most importantly...
As always, only follow my advice if you think it's good for your story.
I have no other links! I couldn't find a thing on deviantART about this... which surprises me, really.
I take suggestions for additions to this resource or future Writer's Guides! I don't always use them, but I love to hear your ideas and insights.
However, this read was good at encouraging me to continue and showing me how to write good characters and their stories - including the rule that no character's story should be too terrible otherwise it ruins the lot.
This is a useful tool for anyone writing or wanting to display characters through manga or by stories. You just gotta believe!
What vision's bigger than helping out budding authors??
Will use what I need, thanks for this!
Sometimes I can't help but feel like my OC characters are...lacking something that makes them likeable. But then again, it could be that, or my writing skills...problem is it is very hard to get constructive criticism in Fanfiction.net. Have gotten some but wish I had more. I've joined Archive of Our Own too, since its newer, and I like how the comments section is set up, one can provide feedback.
Will continue to write and experiment, that's how one improves. And one always has the option of going back and improving their old fanfics once they make some great leaps and bounds in improving their writing.
Now if only there was a guide for characters that are too "exotic" or "alien" for the audience to understand.
This guide is meant to cover the basics, and a likable anti-hero/villain is one of the more advanced techniques (and specialized enough that I didn't want to cover it here). But I'm glad you brought this up, because writers who feel up for the challenge should definitely consider trying it! A character doesn't have to be angelic to be intriguing.
Is it odd that you've captured my thoughts in a perfect way with that?
Somehow reading it, at instant, I felt it was so true!
Regardless, the stamps proof correct in every way; As long as you appreciate your work, your thoughts, your means and all that, it shouldn't all matter too much.
It's really been an interesting read, I've managed to pick alot of these points up in the past months as well, so it's good to see thoughts are also common and shared.
Thank you for this in any case, I'm hoping all the things I'm picking up will pay off in the following days, and perhaps than I'll finally see my characters gain what I intended them to have, appreciation
I hope that it will pay off for you too! It's a great feeling to see other people connecting with your characters, and I hope you get to experience that.
Now I found her and changed. Now she is Aleksandr Tatarsky aged 56, nice, but a bit strange person. Because he's dressing just like a girl. And nobody likes him now
Characters who aren't entirely moral are most definitely fun to create, as it gets you as the writer or drawer, to push the boundaries of what is right or wrong at least a little. c:
I appreciate the response! Really? I always thought it was the opposite- that Mary Sues were almost a result of being devoid of flaws and being unrealistic because they were too perfect- at least in terms of being nice “good” people. Flaws were sort of my way of setting my characters apart from most characters, as most characters have few flaws because flaws can damage popularity. Of course I don’t know the concrete definition of a Mary Sue. XD
I totally agree there! It can also be good for humor (at least sometimes).
Hell, some of them are designed to be so politically charged that they can be considered evil and good by the same person.
However, I think they all need work. I think at least one of them seems bipolar.
So on that note, I'd say I especially agree with your 'lighten up' point. I'm using that approach, modified for the never-ending novel I've had going since '06 Initially my wording was rather formal. I also write in first-person perspective; with two main characters, it got to the point they could be interchangable they were so alike, despite being different genders XD Humor and fleshing out an entirely different personality for one, as well as chucking the aforementioned formal-ish writing has really brought the writing to an entirely new level.
Enough of my babbling... +fav for this Cheers~
It happens to me a lot because I write characters based off a slice of my mind and not off of someone else.
Thanks for sharing your story; it was good to hear.
*There are probably other important things, but I don't know what they are. I've never handled guns or written books involving them myself.
I'm sure you can find plenty of helpful websites with a simple Google search. There are probably a lot of them dedicated to helping new gun users (and thus also ignorant people like you and myself ). Otherwise, if you have a friend or relative who is knowledgeable about guns, I'm sure he or she would love to tell you all about his/her area of expertise.
I know this is what you were hoping not to hear, but sorry... the best way to make people believe what you say is to make the things you're saying believable.
For this deviation, I used this technique, but you can also use this one.
If you'd like to keep this comment in your inbox for reference, you can do it this way. Otherwise, you can just search "how to submit lit deviations" in deviantART's search bar and these will be the first two results.