Author Claire Messud was asked about whether or not she'd like to be friends with her character, Nora, from her book, The Woman Upstairs. She gave the interviewer an earful: "For heaven's sake, what kind of question is that?" She rattled off several unlikable fictional characters of popular books and finished by saying, "If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibility. The relevant question isn't 'is this a potential friend for me?' but is this character alive?"
Messud isn't the only one asked (in a way) to explain why her female protagonist is so unlikable. Other authors, like Edan Lepucki, has said that her female protagonist in California, gets more flack from readers for being unlikable than the male character who is equally flawed. It's a literary double standard that many authors grapple with. One blogger summed it up by saying, "It would seem that when it comes to female protagonists a Goldilocks mentality applies--to be a likable female protagonist, you must be neither too lonely nor too independent, neither too aggressive nor too ambivalent, and that's a very tough like to walk."
Gender issues aside, I think we often confuse unlikable with uninteresting. The reason readers can have difficulty connecting with a character is simply because the character fails to engage the reader. If a character doesn't influence change in her situation and is too passive to warrant concern, the reader won't be interested. It's not that she's unlikable; she's boring. Chuck Wendig, author of 13 novels says, "The audience doesn't have to like the character. They have to believe in, care about, and be willing to live with the character for as long as the story exists." On the other side, a character who sets herself up for conflict and engages the reader with her rudeness and repulsive behavior, is one we'll keep reading about. Think about those train wrecks we just can't pull our eyes and ears away from.
These are the Donald Trumps. It's been shown that the nastier politicians are to one another and to various groups of people, the higher their numbers climb in the polls. Sad, but true. (I'd much rather see these folks in works of fiction, wouldn't you?)
So perhaps we shouldn't worry so much about creating likable characters as we should be about creating interesting ones. It's dangerous to assume that readers only relate or connect to likable characters, because chances are, they don't--even if they won't admit it.
Which fictional characters do you love to hate?