For writers, one of the most important things about a character is whether your readers like them. It is also notoriously difficult to manage. Readers will love a character that was intended to be a one-off cameo or a villain, and complain that the main character is boring or annoying. Sometimes character responses can be so different from the writer’s intentions that they change the whole course of a series: a minor character will become major, a villain will develop a redemption arc (sometimes, perversely, changing the character such that readers don’t love them as much.)
There are a lot of ways to think about character likeability, but in general I find myself using a simple two-axis system. One axis is how much you want the character to succeed, and the other is how fun they are to watch. These factors are pretty independent of each other, except at the very far extremes (more about that later).
Originally I was using acronyms for these two factors, but those are harder to remember and keep distinct, so I’m calling them Flash and Finish-line. The flash factor is how fun a character is to watch: usually some combination of being charismatic, surprising, clever, and entertaining. Examples of high-flash characters are: Sherlock Holmes, Captain Jack Sparrow, the Joker, Amelie. Audiences enjoy watching these characters go about their lives and pursue their goals, regardless of whether we support the actual goals. They are fun to watch because of their style, their unpredictability, their wit. (Attractiveness, in visual media, also tends to create an immediate boost to a character’s flash factor.)
The finish-line factor is how much we want a character to succeed. We might want them to succeed because we identify strongly with them, because their goals align with our values, or because they’ve suffered so much. Regardless of how interesting we find their journey or their approach, we want to see them reach the finish line, and there’s a satisfaction when that happens. Examples of high-finish characters are: Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Jean Valjean, Lucy Pevensie.
Many readers orient strongly toward one factor or the other. Some strongly prefer characters who are high-flash, even to the point of rooting for characters whose goals are reprehensible and whose success would leave the world worse off. Others strongly prefer characters who are high-finish, and will staunchly defend characters who strike others as boring or irritating, because they are invested in seeing them succeed.
In theory, a character could end up at any point on the flash/finish grid, but there are interactions that make certain spots more likely than others. There are some qualities that tend to increase a character’s flash appeal while decreasing their finish appeal, or vice versa: being unusually skilled, brilliant, or superpowered may make a character more fun to watch, while decreasing our investment in whether they succeed (either by making them harder to identify with, or making their success feel inevitable, or both.) The well-known problem wherein villains are often more interesting or exciting than heroes has its root in these dichotomies. (Lane will be going deeper into these in a follow-up post.)
On the other hand, a rise or fall in one factor can raise or lower the other in correspondence. For two characters whose natural finish-line qualities (relatability, morality, pathos or history of suffering) match pretty well, we’ll generally root harder for the one with a higher flash factor, just because we like that person more. And for most readers, there is a morality line past which a character stops being fun to watch no matter how brilliant and charming and entertaining they are. That line will vary from person to person, but, for example, once a character starts torturing puppies on-screen, no amount of charm will win their hearts back from most viewers.
As a writer, I think it’s useful to think not only of how much you want your characters to be liked, but in what way you want them to be liked. Plenty of writers have been perturbed by how much readers attach to a character that they never intended to be likeable, and frequently this comes down to flash appeal.
More to come on flash/finish, including a more detailed breakdown of the way they each correspond to other character factors.