In the past, I’ve gotten lucky with exactly two characters (in a few different drafts). Enough to make a couple of my close readers put up with pages (talking 600+) of blooming awful everything in order to follow that characters journey. Seriously, only redeemable quality about those early drafts, since every other mistake was made and that one was luck.
As a reader, I’m a firm believer in character first. As a writer, I’ve been studying what it is about certain characters that make you lose a night of sleep for them.
A good article I found recently helped me break down exactly what it is that gives a character that addictive quality. Read that article, but I’m also going to offer the pointers here with examples I’ve noticed.
Humans are sympathetic creatures. If someone kicks a puppy, we instantly feel for the poor thing. Most books and movies start with a bullied character. It doesn’t matter if they’re late for work or had a slushy spill on their lap. The orphan trope is often overdone for this reason, whether he/she’s living under the stairs, with their evil Step Mother, or Aunt Mae, the victim character is a fast tug for the reader’s heartstrings.
The setting: broken family, oppressive society, crabby authoritative figures. We aren’t likely to relate with Harry Potter’s lightening scar or spell casting abilities, but obnoxious relatives? Getting homework done on time? (even if it’s cool homework). Totally relate-able.
You can still root for an a**hole character. Exactly how? They’re funny, smart, or simply good at what they do. In Six of Crows, Kaz scared the bleepity out of me, but I couldn’t help rooting for him. I mean, the kid was an orphaned genius. Sympathy didn’t cut it, it was more like an 'I-can’t-look-away’ fascination. Obviously, a puppy-rescuing, goodhearted character is easily likable too. Right now, I’m reading my youngest sister the Ascendance trilogy and she’s completely in love with Jaron. He’s witty, good to a fault, and brilliant at what he does. All three attributes = instant likability.
4. The Arc.
Even the nicest human can experience growth. We can’t root for someone who isn’t being challenged at a personal level. Whether its the villain feeling love for the first time or the protagonist asked to give up their thirst for vengeance. A steady character is an uninteresting one, we want to see them challenged at the core beliefs that make-up their character.
This is a trick that beginner writers (*slowly raises hand*) often try to utilize too soon. Pacing is key. If the story opens with a character hanging off a cliff, while the bad guy shoots at him, with scorpions falling down his shirt, I won't care. The character is a total stranger. Unless other addictive traits are tactfully included (humorous voice, ingenious quick thinking, etc.) Overall, this is a tricky character hook to use right away and it's best saved for once the reader is already invested in the character.
Luke Skywalker didn’t just sit in that room and wait for Obi Wan to disable the Death Star’s magnetic field, or stay safely at the rebel base while the Xwing fighters went to blow up said Death Star. If he did, nobody would like him. Even if your character is mostly active, chances are you can find more ways to make their roles bigger. If your character escapes from jail, it should be more than the guard accidentally leaving the keys too close to the door. Your character should do whatever s/he does best, whether it's smooth talking, kung fu, being clever or being a jerk.
Again, learn from my mistakes: I promise a passive protagonist is positively poopy.
Chances are, you’ve utilized some of these tricks intuitively. Perhaps you got lucky like I did, but the moral of this is: don’t be like me. Know what you’re doing. Go through your WIP and identify all the areas where your character is likable and why. Also identify where they aren’t likable. Make both intentional, and bigger. Use as many tricks as you can get away, but give them reason: maybe your character is funny because he’s burying a past hurt, or a kick-a** fighter because she was tired of getting bullied. Even (especially!) the villains need this dimensional quality.
Hope this was helpful. Good luck, and may the words be with you.