It’s a common complaint in book reviews that the characters in a book are unlikeable. My question is, do we need to like the characters in order to like the book? My answer is, generally, no. It may depend on genre. For example, if you don’t like the hero of a romance novel, you won’t care how the story ends, while you might enjoy a cast of unlikeable characters in a thriller because as suspects they could all get what they deserve. Besides, ‘likeability’ (if such a term exists) is subjective. If it were not so, surely we would all have the same friends – assuming one likes one’s friends – eat the same food, watch the same TV shows, etc.
The most interesting characters are flawed. Sometimes that makes them relatable and, possibly, likeable, even if they don’t possess qualities considered likeable. A villain can be likeable if the author portrays them as such. An author’s intention can also backfire, if they try too hard to make the hero likeable and in doing so, make us root for the villain instead.
Sometimes, unlikeable characters can contribute to my negative impression of a book, but only if I expected to like one or two characters, or at least the protagonist. However, I don’t think this has ever been the main reason I haven’t enjoyed a book. There are always other factors, such as issues with pacing or writing style. An added complication is when a book is character-driven, rather than plot-driven, in which case the characters are the most important element. They could still be unlikeable but the writer has to work hard to keep the reader invested in the story.
Do you think fictional characters should be likeable? How important is ‘likeability’ to you?