A much-debated question among writers and readers is whether characters in a story have to be “likeable”. Some people can’t enjoy stories where they don’t like the characters. Others enjoy the complexities of flawed, unpleasant characters. But I don’t think likeability is the real issue.
Readers aren’t necessarily very good at describing why a book doesn’t work for them. It’s one thing to be able to sense that a story isn’t working for you, and another thing entirely to accurately diagnose the reasons for that. I think when readers complain about characters being “unlikeable”, it’s often a surface reaction, but the underlying problem is something different. After all, unpleasant characters can be compelling in the hands of a skilful writer.
Severus Snape is a classic example – he’s horrible to Harry and friends, and he’s not someone I’d want to go out for a pint with. But he’s one of the most fascinating characters in the series who we come to understand and care about over the course of the series. As a person I find Snape very unlikeable, but as a character in the story I love him for his complexity and shades of grey, for that mix of cruelty and weakness on one hand, and genuine courage and strength on the other.
Supposed “unlikeability” is usually a failure of the story to create empathy for the characters, and/or to interest the reader in the characters. To empathise with characters, we need to understand their motivations, and to see how their actions are driven by motivations in common with our own.
Good writing gets deep to the jumble of conflicting heart motivations that boil and surge within us all. It’s not the character’s specific actions or goals that matter – those can be monstrous, but we can still care if we understand what drives them. For example, I would struggle to directly sympathise with a character whose goal doing whatever it takes to make a load of money, but what does money mean to them? It might be security or status or recognition, all of which I do desire in different ways.
If a story makes sense of a characters’ motives and perhaps shows me how my heart is not so different, that’s when a character connects for me.