Certain television networks have a simple flaw in their understanding of what makes us like a character. Thinking they'll appeal to the young masses, they flood their dramas with good-looking people. At least they don't fall as low as making the villains ugly—unless they're generic villains of course. No, no, we have to adore the villain too. And the love interest must be torn between these two hunky men.
If they go beyond classic good looks, their attempts to make us like a character follow Blake Snyder's weak Save the Cat advice, perhaps literally. What's the problem with saving a cat? Nothing—it's a nice gesture. But it costs nothing. The hero does a good thing for someone, but he does so without sacrifice or risk. That may act as a primer, giving the reader or viewer a nudge that says, "Hey, this guy is supposed to be likable." But if the story doesn't quickly prove that point, it's an empty gesture and the writer doesn't understand human motivation or what makes a character endearing.
What do I really want? I've talked about this in the past, but here is a summary:
How about an example. I love the character of Walter White in the opening season of Breaking Bad for a couple reasons. He's brilliant and well-educated; he's passionate about something: chemistry and teaching; he's a working guy trying to pay the bills; and when he begins to go bad, he confidently says he is doing it all for his family. He's going to die and he wants to make sure his family has everything they need. Who wouldn't love this guy? He sticks to that reason as he gets worse and worse. You can see after a time that even he doesn't entirely believe he's doing it all for his family.
Through the seasons, enough back story is revealed to show he regrets a greatness and fortune that was lost. It's not just about money. By the last season, he comes clean. He wanted the empire. He wanted the power. He's still brilliant right up to the end, but he's dropped the familiarity and the nobility. He's hard to like, yet some viewers still root for him all the way to the end. And that illustrates a final point: much like Humbert Humbert, there is a difference between liking a character, empathizing with a character, understanding a character, or simply enjoying how well-written or well-acted a character is.
What About Flaws?
We'll often hear how a character has to have flaws. A character just can't work without flaws.
I think it's swell advice, but perhaps easily misunderstood. What are flaws? Do we mean a character has to have a moral flaw? A physical flaw? An existential flaw?
Superman has weaknesses. No, not just kryptonite. I often hear folks claim it's his only weakness, and they're dead wrong. Most Superman movies stumble on this and rely on the green (or red) stuff to raise the stakes.
Superman's biggest flaw is his humanity. He refuses to kill even the worst bad guys—at least he's supposed to. He's blindingly loyal to his friends. How many times have his villains chided him for being predictable after using Lois or Jimmy as bait? He has too much faith in humanity and it's ability to reform. And he tries too hard to be one of us. Given a choice of two evils, Superman will tear himself up trying to find a right choice. Not just the lesser evil of the two—but he's desperate for a way out of the conundrum.
So Superman is perfect—and the perfection is his flaw. (At least, when he's written correctly. He's had over a hundred writers over the last 8 decades, and only some understood how to write him.) When I hear people say that he's boring and ask why, they refer to the boring writers who only understood one thing: kryptonite, not Superman. I think his enduring popularity is a testament to something likable at the core of the character despite writers who get it oh so horribly wrong.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.