Unlikable Characters: How to Make Them Work
For many readers, the first thing that hooks them when they open a book is the main character. They are looking for a character who is multi-faceted, has their own agency, and who grows and changes over the course of the novel.
But what about unlikable protagonists? This is a hot topic in the YA community, especially when it comes to female protagonists, who are often held to higher standards of behavior than male protagonists. Does your character have to be likable?
Short answer: NO.
But your character does have to be understandable.
Let's take a protagonist—we'll call her Sarah—who steals $100 from their best friend's purse. This is probably not a person you'd want to meet for a cup of tea (and if you did, you would keep a close eye on your wallet). But let's consider why Sarah stole $100. If Sarah has a reason for taking the $100—maybe she needs it so her sister can submit her college application—the reader can probably understand why the money was taken even if they don't agree with her choice. Maybe Sarah even takes the money for a less virtuous reason, like a prom dress. If we are shown WHY Sarah is driven to an action like this, we can start to understand Sarah's behavior even if we don't condone it. Understanding Sarah's emotional state when she takes the money will go a long way in being able to root for her even when she's doing something dishonest.
It all comes down to character motivation. If you can get your reader to understand WHY your protagonist is doing the things they do—both good and bad—you will have created a protagonist that your reader can support and root for, even if they're performing actions the reader might see as "bad." But if you write a protagonist who does terrible things without any reason, you're likely going to have a character who readers can't understand and root for.
Go forth and write unlikable characters! Write complicated characters, both male and female. Write characters who are flawed and messy, like we all are. Just make sure that you write characters that your reader can understand, because those characters will captivate your reader from the first page to the last.