I rambled about likable characters back in November. This post expands on the topic by splitting likable down the middle, resulting in two categories: admirable and sympathetic. It's my new theory (not entirely mine), based on some reading and discussion lately.
To be clear, I am using the informal definition of the word “sympathetic”, meaning the characters draws sympathy from the reader.
We admire strength of character, intelligence, competency and wit. Find what makes your character noble, strong or cunning, and show it early in the manuscript. We admire goals and motivations similar to our own. We admire action, the character that sets out to fix a problem, and does so with determination and resolve.
Look, for example, at Sherlock (BBC). He's an ass, right? But he's brilliant, and he uses his intellect for good goals—even if his motivations might be questionable at time. (Note that I haven't watched the show in a while, and I haven't seen Series 3, so forgive me if I'm off on that.) He displays competency, wit and intelligence.
Next, Walter White from Breaking Bad, in the early seasons, Walt is a guy to look up to. He has a noble goal: care for his family's needs. He's in a profession with noble goals, too. He's an educator. He's competent in his field, and passionate. Yet, he does some dark things, and viewers still loved him. They continued to love him for a long time as he grew ever darker, but he always aspired to a single, noble goal of caring for his loved ones. He often looked out for the little guy that kept his nose clean. And he acted with honor in his dealings with most people. For a lot of viewers, their love with Walt ended in a single moment, when he admitted to his wife that he had never been in it to help his family. He admits he did it for power and because he was good at it. Suddenly, he's not so noble—not so likable.
Even crass or dark characters can be likable characters if they have nobility, competency and intellect. Look at Batman. Look at Hannible Lecter from Silence of the Lambs—evil incarnate, yet his intellect, competency, and sharp wit prove compelling. Does his willingness to help Claire make him a little easier to swallow? Perhaps for some. It's the classic love-to-hate character.
The danger in such characters is that the dark or crass side is all too easy, while true strength, nobility, intellect and honor may come out feeling fake or forced. If that happens, the character is left looking like a villain—often a two-dimensional, cartoonish villain.
The sympathetic character suffers unjustly. If they only suffer, then they are to be pitied. Such a character is often static, a fixture. They tug on heart strings, but they hardly inspire us. When the suffering character rises up and struggles against his oppression, he gains a note of nobility and strength. If he persists against immeasurable odds, that nobility only grows stronger.
Yet, there is a danger also in this character. What's the difference between a character who suffers unjustly and a character that is weak and pathetic? Attitude helps. Self-respect. Lack of action is dangerous too—let the character wallow a little before rising up and saying, “Hell no.” Great. Let them wallow for page after page? Ouch.
Aside from the approach of sympathy or admirable, readers tend to seek out the familiar and identifiable. In either vein, the every-day hero is endearing. The high-school teacher, humble public servant, the man who cares for his family, the guy who just wants to be left alone—all traits and situations the average reader can find familiar and, thus, likable. Like wallowing, it can't be left alone. It must struggle and rise up.
Take another look at Batman. He's intelligent, competent enough to rub shoulders with would-be gods, wealthy, loaded with impressive weapons and gadgets, determined, strong, etc.
But can we identify with him? He's a billionaire. He's a vigilante. He's a CEO. He does nothing but pretend to be a playboy, train for kicking ass, and then kicking actual ass. All very impressive, noble at times, but how many readers can see something of themselves in the guy? That's why, in my opinion, Batman is not as powerful and compelling a figure as he could be.
Superman? He's also strong and loaded with powers. But he's also a good ol' boy at heart. He's a middle-american, middle-class, humble guy just trying to get the girl. (This comes out more when he's Clark, and mostly vanishes when he's Superman.) That's better.
(Note that with both Batman and Superman, they've had dozens of writers over the years. Some got their characters right, others went off the deep end and mucked around in all kinds of material, so my comments on them have to be taken in the light of “when they were done correctly”, which is of course entirely subjective.)
I added this to my list after reading Donald Maas's The Fire in the Fiction. It's simple, and I'll not rehash what that author already covered well. The short summary is this: we, as readers, are drawn to characters that impact the story, the other characters, and the world they live in. A character with no impact lacks luster. Why does he or she exist anyway? It's generally going to be wasted material.
After making a character likable on one (hopefully more than one) level, a character wants to be remembered. When I design characters, I look for that one thing that will make them memorable. A by-the-book Jersey City Police Detective? Lot's of potential, but what will make her stand out from any other by-the-book cop? There isn't a formula—this falls back on Character 101: don't make character's bland.
In longer fiction, I always keep a sheet for each character. I list several things, but among them is a question of what will make them stand out and be memorable.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.