The greatest favor a writer can do is deliver the world a memorable character.
The second greatest favor a writer can do is deliver the world a likable character.
The worst favor a world can do is deliver the world another jerk bathed in their writerly projections, neuroses, and anxieties. Writers have daddy issues, man. Mommy issues are less common. Unpack that ball of yarn, why don't you?
Creating a likable, memorable character that is not simply A Jerk / Author Surrogate is a huge challenge. Like email, social media, or blogging, knowing how to write likable characters is honor bound by a simple rule: never skimp on the details...
Likable characters in movies and books aren't always nice. Likable characters in movies and books aren't always jerks.
Stories are often escapism. They involve characters that are rule-breakers: the simplest character archetype for reader-projection. They're impulsive or clever. Their environment denies them their rightful place, despite that. Stories about being unjustly locked in an oppressive venue afford huge opportunity for a escapism and delicious defiance.
If you want to know how to write likable characters, remember the most attractive character is often the one with a distaste for authority. A rebel. A rebel with unaccounted talents is a fantastic archetype for an audience to project upon. A rebel can also be justifiably cruel.
You, the audience, is down there with this character, feeling the environment shrink around the character and choke them. The best thing this character can do is defy: to fight back. There's no place for niceness in an oppressive environment. Right?
There is a difference between an avatar and a memorable, likable character. An avatar is often not much more than a projection of the author's crystallized emotion on a subject such as:
The exact emotion doesn't much matter. Knowing how to write likable characters means the author can hold these feelings inside themselves and attempt to process them through their writing.
However, it becomes difficult when this feeling has become too much a part of who the writer is. It becomes more fun, or safer, to play with the emotion than contain it and present it. The emotion stays a ball of yarn instead of becoming a sweater.
There are, of course, cases when actual trauma and pain can seem too great for a writer to fully comprehend, and in the face of that, tremendous courage is demonstrated and some of the greatest stories ever put to the page are revealed. You cannot ever forget those cases, whether the story is fiction, non-fiction, or dramatization.
The likable characters referred to here in this piece fall mostly in the popular fiction sphere.
To write a likable character, a writer must truly strive to exercise their feelings on a topic. The character must be crafted from a feeling into something that can move, feel, and live. Holding a character in place to keep them focused on a singular emotion is an empty gesture. It makes a character an avatar of hate, desperation, or anything to justify operating outside the usual boundaries. This isn't a likable character. This is just a passing thought with two legs and dialog.
To write a likable character, a writer must empower their character with the ability to overcome an obstacle they perhaps have not, and in succeeding, grow. Knowing how to write isn't enough because emotional intelligence is so integral for floating that ability to the surface.
This growth is identifiable and makes the character likable because they do not simple tromp around as a singular-minded wish-fulfillment, isolated in a moment. They succeed in overcoming the simplicity of wish-fulfillment.
Han Solo might be a jerk, but he didn't become likable until he came back at the end of Star Wars and helped save the day. George Lucas, god something-him, had lived enough of his life at that point to know how to write a jerk's story arc. Lucas knew that until Solo came back did that, he was just a mean gun for hire who saved the princess and made a lot of money doing it.
Always consider that when trying to make your character likable. Let them grow, perhaps in ways you, or your audience, haven't been able to.