I'm writing about this because, to me, characters are the heart and soul of stories. I can't write a novel if I don't love the characters I'm working with, if they don't feel real. Most of the time, the things I write are driven by my characters' instincts and actions; the plot I'm working around can take a detour.
Similarly, when I'm reading, the things I remember most about novels I love are the characters. The Time Traveler's Wife, one of my favourite books in the whole world, is firmly imprinted in my head. Not because of its plotting, or ingenious timeline, or clever devices, but simply because of Henry and Clare, the protagonists, and their amazing, difficult love story.
So what happens to a book if a key character, a central figure, is simply unlikeable?
(It's worth noting here that I don't mean villains, antagonists. Characters who are supposed to be despicable don't necessarily count, though even here there's a difference between loving a character while hating them as a person (all good villains are loved as characters, even if they're awful people), and simply detesting the character because he or she has been lazily executed or poorly drawn. Caricatured, one-dimensional villains are often unlikeable because they're simply not interesting.
Or because they're so cheesy you just cringe. I'm looking at you, every Power Ranger villain ever written.)
So back to the question of unlikeability.
This is a sticky one. How does a writer work out whether or not they're writing bad characters? How does a reader sit back and say 'yep, this book is full of unlikeable characters' when other people might tell you how amazing they are? Reading, writing and characters are so subjective, it's almost impossible to put your finger on what, inherently, makes characters unlikeable - and how, as a writer, to avoid it.
These things turn me off instantly:
1. Selfish characters. A certain amount of selfishness doesn't bother me. Especially not if the character realizes they've been selfish and starts to grow and evolve into something better. But when a character is consistently self-absorbed and selfish and refuses to see this or change, that drives me crazy. For me, it's not about a character I'm supposed to dislike. It just feels like the author's done a shoddy job making me like this person.
Example: I recently read a book in which the heroine, a dying teenager, is completely irresponsible, selfish and downright inconsiderate of everyone else's feelings: it's as if she feels entitled to everything because she's been unlucky enough to have cancer. The last 30 pages of the novel were amazing; the rest just made me grit my teeth and think 'stop being such a selfish ****, I honestly don't care that you're dying!'
Which, you know. Isn't what you should be feeling about your heroine/narrator.
2. Stupid characters. I've mentioned this before, but I will again. It's not about characters who are handicapped, or silly, or not very intelligent; it's characters who are mind-numbingly stupid. I.e. Page Ten: Character Two tells Stupid Main Character not to do something and tells him why doing that something would be very, very bad (and it's an excellent reason, by the way). Page Twelve: Stupid Main Character does the thing he was told not to.
(Note: in most circumstances, this wouldn't actually be an unlikeable character. Just an annoying and painfully frustrating one. But it might be enough to turn you off reading the rest of the book, as it has done for me in the past, so I thought it worth mentioning.)
3. Perfect characters. You know the ones I mean. The ones whose virtues are constantly being pointed to: 'Richard is so kind', 'Richard only wants what's best for the people', 'Richard is handsome', 'Richard makes me laugh', 'Richard never puts a foot wrong'. And even when Richard makes a colossal mistake because he's actually a bit of a dolt, it turns out well, so Richard's still a brilliant hero.
These are characters you just want to smack in the face. It's impossible to admire them, because virtues mean nothing if there aren't any flaws to contrast them with. It's impossible to sympathize with them, because we, the readers, aren't perfect. It's downright hard to like them.
These are just three qualities I've found in characters I don't like, but it's not always easy to put it into words. There are characters I simply can't stand, but couldn't really tell you why. They're simply unlikeable.
How do you measure unlikeability in a character? Is it an instinct that tips you off? Or is there a concrete quality that consistently irks you?
And do these characters put you off reading a book entirely?