When a hero or heroine sets out on The Quest, are we supposed to like them? I find myself wanting both things at once. I want my protagonist to be likable enough that if she loses her way in a dark forest or breaks her arm from a fall, we experience empathy. I want people to want her to win.
In my attempts to make a charismatic character, I sometimes find that I make them too “vanilla” because I’m worried that something “rough” about my character might force them to sacrifice the reader’s loyalty.
However, the more I write, the more I realize that my reader will be loyal to my character, no matter what the character does, just so long as that character is honest. Sometimes, it’s the painful honesty that strikes a chord within the reader (‘Oh yeah, I’ve thought about doing that, too’). A habit of stealing, or even of violence, which comes from a desperate upbringing is not repulsive. The thief or bully who has no signs of a history of an abuse is much less compelling. So when I study my villains and my heroes, I must study their families, the house where they were born, their first love, their beliefs about death, etc.
Suddenly, my characters begin to take on flesh and blood, and worries about empathy no longer exist. After all, what hero walked around in their stories and thought, “I sure hope whoever reads my life story will like me”?