When a reader is unable to connect to a story, a common reason is that he finds the characters unlikeable. Even if he enjoys the writing style and the plot, if he dislikes a character enough the entire book becomes unbearable to read. Scan through enough Amazon reviews and you’ll find numerous rants along this vein.
Which begs the question: Is a writer obligated to create likeable characters?
Before we can answer the question we have to define what it means to be unlikeable, because to different readers it means different things. If by unlikeable the reader means merely irritating, the answer is maybe. In general, I would say that liking or not liking a fictional character is subjective and the author is entitled to her creation. However, if enough readers find the character too unpalatable to spend any time with, the author ought to take note and consider toning it down a bit.
If by unlikeable the reader means morally repugnant, I would say that no, the author is absolutely not required to change her character. My feelings about this are along the same lines as the use of profanity in literature—in order to examine life’s big questions, sometimes it’s important to go to the dark side. The greatest conflict in the universe is good vs. evil; to ignore that fact by populating a book with only nice characters is absurd.
However, even if a reader is willing to accept that an immoral character is worthy of her attention, he may still find the character unlikeable if he is unsympathetic. Once again, the writer is not required to change the character’s moral code for the sake of the reader, but I do feel that she has an obligation to evoke a little sympathy in the reader or at least give the reader some understanding into the character’s motivations. Giving immoral characters a sympathetic turn is one of the great hallmarks of skilled writing—especially when a writer convinces a reader to set aside his own moral code just long enough to root for the bad guy.
A character need not be immoral to be unsympathetic. Sometimes his motivations are simply obscured; the reader will then find his actions puzzling and illogical. Without the transparency of motivation, the reader may find difficulty connecting with the character.
Next Time: The Secret to Creating Sympathetic Characters