Making Your Hero Likable

Rob Parnell
4 min readFeb 2, 2024

I’ve heard authors say that in fiction, the future will be dominated by heroes of questionable ethics and/or moral ambiguity. I’m not sure this is true. My instinct tells me we want heroes to be ourselves on our best days, not our worst…

Many of us can readily relate to a loser, especially if they’re a winner in disguise, something we wish we were, or could be.

It’s the difference between the function of classic heroes against the appeal of anti-heroes. When it comes to creating fiction, there’s likely a time and place for both. The trick is to know when and why…

The classic fictional hero has a template: he or she is strong-willed, motivated, attractive, morally sound, and, in the context of a story plot, driven by a worthy agenda.

It’s interesting that women are more likely to be flawed these days. In The Girl on The Train, for instance, the heroine starts out as a sad drunk with an empty life who, through her investigation of a mystery, becomes focused and smart, enjoying a life with purpose. Classic hero’s journey stuff.

In my own fiction, I’ve always wanted to create antiheroes, probably as a reaction against characters like Superman, Luke Skywalker, and the white-hatted cowboys of my childhood. I never empathized with classical clean-cut heroes. I prefer real people with flaws. But I realise now that even a total loser should have the necessary traits to help complete their hero’s journey.

Tony Soprano and Walter White were great role models for writers because they represented dark characters with lots of potential for violence, intrigue, and drama. Plus, as a surprising bonus for the creators of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, these characters turned out to be engaging and exceptionally likable.

Marvel has always tried hard to make their superheroes likable. Tony Stark (Iron Man), Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Peter Parker (Spider Man) worked because they seemed like real people who just happen to be “super”.

Comic book origin stories work because the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary and we can see ourselves making that transition.

Superheroes generally have a flaw, a kryptonite of some kind. Some authors I know call this “the wound” that represents the terrible secret we hide from the world. I don’t believe it’s entirely necessary for a rounded character. Look at Harry Potter, Jack Reacher, Robert Langdon, James Bond, no wounds there. Their adversaries however have a few gaping sores…

Making heroes deliberately unlikable seems clever but is ultimately self-defeating, even if your real purpose is to add more realism to your stories. Perhaps since Marvel and DC took over the movie industry, the whole idea of heroes has taken a back seat to spectacle.

Disney is always trying to define new heroes but has been failing recently. People simply don’t want those kinds of stories anymore. Barbie worked well but self-awareness is a novelty that can wear off quickly.

Sympathy for a fictional character is usually created by showing extraordinary behavior during a stressful situation. Making your hero the eye of the storm.

My feeling is that being normal under pressure is the true definition of heroic.

Readers like to ‘wear’ fictional heroes. To inhabit them and experience the world the hero lives in. People want to become the hero and be in that world for a while, surrounded by an environment that is not their own.

The hero is always the reader. When people read about a strong good-looking hero they see themselves.

Just because writers often need to suck people in with a spectacular opening, doesn’t mean that’s going to work for the average person who is not yet invested in the characters. People have to like the characters first before you subject them to anything readers can relate to. Creating this empathic link with a lead character is probably more important than any other piece of storytelling. Best of course if you can combine both, by describing the hero going about their daily business in the context of a gradually unraveling plot.

In male oriented stories, we may see action with a character at the center but there’s perhaps little to like about him except his manner. This is why characters are often described as good-looking because you have to do less work to make your reader like them.

Men who are tall, strong, handsome and talented inspire our respect in fiction in a way that would be impossible in real life. When we meet perfect men in real life, we’re often suspicious, cynical, threatened, even outright hostile.

When it comes to women too we can be jealous of beauty and perfection, especially in social situations. But in fiction, we associate good looks with approachability, warmth, even friendliness.

I think it’s simply this fact: we are prepared to be intrigued by a “perfect character” for longer than we would a “normal” person. And what we’re actually doing is fusing ourselves into the role that character represents. We are becoming the hero. We do this in books by imagining the hero or heroine in our minds. We embark on a certain leap of faith, which is the expression of a psychological empathy that’s based on our innate need to identify with an inspiring, aspirational, personality.

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Rob Parnell

Bestselling Author and Owner of Rob Parnell’s Writing Academy