In last Saturday's NY Times, Alessandra Stanley wrote an article The Modern Woman, Ambitious and Feeble, which points out the devolution of women’s roles in television comedy from competent-but-flaky into a hardened basket case. Similarly, the scuttlebutt being tossed at writers at conferences, on the web and in workshops without any further exploration is this: the main character has to be likable, even lovable.
Though quirky, compassionate , likable characters are an easier read and an easier sell, it might not be true to what you are writing. I've known writers to take off rough edges their protagonist, when in fact, the character was more resonant before.
Earlier this year, I was talking with novelist Frank Schaeffer. He said that the character needn't be likable, but it must be compelling. In other words, they need to be fully fleshed in thought.* And indeed, there's really only one character who you'd want to take out for lunch in his bestselling novel, Baby Jack. Likable is what mystery writer Marcia Talley would call a "moving target." It's too subjective.
An example of an unlikable main character that held an entire novel together was Rhoda in Joan Silber's Household Words. I didn't love this character --and neither did Ms. Silber, but Rhoda was portrayed so fully and her circumstances so well wrought, that eventually, I could empathize with her. Household Words won a National Book Award in 2005.
Rebecca, in the Anne Tyler novel, Back When We Were Grownups makes a lot of cold moves. She's a pragmatist, searching for what to truly care for, she's a handful of unrealized desires. At times she's detached from her own feelings, and most definitely, those around her. But her thoughts are so well expressed, the circumstances and settings so fully described, we follow her.
Hubert Selby, Jr. made his career creating psychotic characters, the type of people you'd watch from afar, then turn to flee. But again, his power to bring you into the machination of their thoughts was utterly hypnotic. You didn't want to read, but you also couldn't put it down. Pick up Waiting Period and read about a crazy man wanting to poison the masses, Requiem For A Dream for a glimpse of cross-generational addiction. Flawed characters, but utterly human and watchable. (Someday I'll tell you my hilarious HS Jr. story).
In non-fiction, Barbara LaSalle expresses outright desperation and outrage in Finding Ben. Perhaps hers is the most resonant voice of any book written by a caretaker of someone who has autism. La Salle doesn't want you to feel sorry for her, and while she was going through the hurdles, her circumstances were tough, her life was hard. Yet, I followed her quest to take care of her autistic son. (Having met her, I can attest she's a wonderful person).
What I've learned from all of these authors is that while the protagonist might not be likable, the writer has deftly given them a compelling inner life. Their inner thoughts resonate and their circumstances are well wrought in order to make them someone we can follow. Their characters don't make any false moves and the story told is meaningful and poignant. This craftsmanship is the writer caring very much about their unlikable protagonist.
*the feedback that was most helpful in my nine-month workshop with teacher Les Plesko was "more thoughts," and "make her less self-congratulatory." Similarly, Peter O'Toole once said that whenever he sees something getting too ornate, to go deeper, not broader."