On the panel at ChessieCon about attracting female readers (as I mentioned last week), the topic of unlikable protagonists came up. One panelist remarked that the statement "Your heroine is unlikable" is a too-frequent basis for rejection. She complained that male viewpoint characters are allowed to be "unlikable," while female characters aren't.
I replied that I don't enjoy reading about unlikable protagonists of either gender, at least not in full-length novels. I can tolerate such a character in a short story but don't want to live with him or her for an entire book. Yet I admit to making some exceptions. I'm a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware mysteries, but I dislike the snarky tone of Dr. Delaware's cynical observations on the Southern California milieu. The character has enough appealing traits otherwise, though, to override that drawback. I found Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake very unpleasant, prickly and constantly picking fights with people whether justified or not. I stuck with the books because of the world-building and ingenious plotting; I gave up on the series only when it turned into one menage sex scene after another. (Yes, I sometimes write erotic romance myself, but I didn't find most of Anita's lovers interesting and didn't like seeing a horror / urban fantasy series baited-and-switched into erotica.)
In short, a protagonist who's unlikable in some respects can be tolerable if he or she has enough interesting qualities to rivet a reader's attention in spite of the negative traits and, especially, if the character's positive traits override the negative ones enough to make the reader sympathize with and root for him or her. Although I enjoyed many of Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski mysteries, I eventually abandoned the series because I just didn't like V. I. very much. The absorbing plots and the sympathy the author generated for the heroine couldn't compensate for what I saw as her unpleasant personality. One of my favorite "cozy" mystery authors, Susan Conant, whose dog mysteries I've read over and over with delight, started another series on which I gave up after the first book; to me, the heroine came across as an irresponsible ditz.
On the subject of editors not allowing female characters to be "unlikable," two prominent counter-examples of "unlikable" heroines of bestselling fiction come to mind: Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND is not only a not-very-nice person, she's selfish and amoral. She's such a vivid, passionate character, however, that the reader can't help but sympathize with her, and the fact that much of her manipulative behavior is motivated by the preservation of her beloved home and the survival of her family makes us root for her. Lt. Eve Dallas in J. D. Robb's "In Death" series of futuristic police procedurals is abrasive, foul-mouthed, and antisocial. Yet her fierce devotion to justice and her deep love for her husband and a few close friends make her a thoroughly good person at heart, whom we can sympathize with and cheer for.
From a writer's perspective, an author may intend for a character to be sympathetic and likable, then learn to her surprise that readers don't perceive the character that way. I once had a story with a preteen protagonist rejected because the editor saw her as a whiny brat, when I sincerely meant for the reader to empathize with her and view her grievances as entirely valid. How unpleasant does a character have to become before you can't accept him or her as a protagonist? Are there particular "trigger" traits that make you dislike a character at first glance? What kinds of positive qualities are required to override an initial negative impression and make you embrace a character despite his or her flaws?
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt