When is the likability of a character important?

Laura Linney’s character Cathy from the Big C qualifies. It’s a quasi-comedy. She’s the protagonist, she has cancer and, previous to the first episode she’d spent something like 15 years playing good teacher, good housewife, etc before rebelling. So you think it would be someone you could relate to. And she is nice and does nice things but underneath it all she is just so unbelivably hurtful and selfish. I mean really really selfish. But it’s not like “RAWR KICK PUPPIES!” evil, so I honestly can’t tell how the producers of this show want me to feel about her. I think we’re supposed to feel bad for her and her cancer but I, personally, don’t like her and I think that greatly influences how I view the show

He’s supposed to irk you. Hell, he rapes his rescuer. You’re supposed to compare his self-loathing with the sheer niceness of everyone in the Land.

This is exactly right; the reader/audience needs a way to enter into the story–without it the reader can quickly lose interest–and a likeable character is one of the easiest routes for that.

Character likeability is less important if there is another way into the story–say, the complexity of an intriguing and multi-layered plot, or a rich, engaging conflict of style/philiosophy between two or more otherwise unlikeable characters (like an argument that’s interesting even if you aren’t invested in either side winning).

It matters to me if I feel like I’m supposed to like a character - they’re treated by other people as nice or at least neutral, or have superficial traits of niceness despite actually being an arsehole. If someone’s an arsehole to all his GFs, for example, then I’m not going to feel much sympathy for him if he finds it hard to keep hold of them.

Sherlock is also very funny, which makes him likeable. For me at least a character can be genocidal and still be kinda likeable if they’re funny with it. Like, say, the Master in Dr Who - literally decimated Earth’s population but was frustrated by ordinary things, had a sense of humour, and was likeable. And that helped him be a more interesting character. Sometimes it works when a baddie is just all-round bad (Voldemort is a surpringly good example of this), but a lot of the best villains are very likeable.

I think, like most things, whether or not there needs to be a likeable character depends on other factors. A story doesn’t have to focus on its characters. There are character studies, and character-driven plots, and in those cases you probably need a likeable character to make the audience care about the characters, but if the focus is elsewhere, say, on the oppressive effect of propaganda in a totalitarian society, then the main character doesn’t have to be likeable or even interesting. Nobody cared about Winston Smith, except insofar as he represented the bleak outlook of the middle class in 1984. Nobody cared whether he got the girl, or if he would develop as a human being. That’s the reason the book stops and turns into a sociopolitical textbook in the chapters where other books would go into character development. Incidentally, that’s also why I disliked Avatar–for a movie that was supposed to be about an alien planet and its environment, it focused way too much on the main character guy, whom I detested.

Scott Pilgrim is a particularly interesting case because he is a metaphor. Just as everything in the books represent video game tropes, deconstructed, so he represents the generic game protagonist. He has to be a jerk, because that’s how most people play their characters in an open-world game. He has to fail at mundane life because that’s what happens in video games, and he has to get the best girl because that’s what happens in video games. So the author had to tread around that before he even began. I did think, though, that he became more likeable over the course of the story. He realizes why he is a horrible person, he starts to adopt responsibilities, he comes to terms with his tendency to run away from everything at the first sign of trouble. I mean, that’s a pretty conventional character arc. On Skald’s list, I think Scott Pilgrim is a #4.

While I agree with your main point - that liking characters is much less important in fiction that is plot-driven or guided by an idea where there characters are simply ciphers - I did actually like Winston Smith, and my love of 1984 is partly because I could really feel his terror in room 101 and his emptiness under the spreading chestnut tree at the end.

I think you guys are going about this wrong. All main characters need to be likable. And I don’t mean that just for me. Just because someone is evil or someone you’d hate in real life doesn’t mean you don’t find the character likable. The only characters that can get away with being totally unlikable are those who get their comeuppance in the end.

I’ll go ahead and address the usual example of unlikable characters. Seinfeld and the like are funny people. They’re funny, so you like them. Dr. House is likable because he’s always right and saves the day, even though he’s total jerk. I’m not sure which character is supposed to be unlikable in Scrubs unless it’s Dr Cox, and people like him because he’s just blunt about fixing things, something they can’t be in real life, but he can get away with it. Cartman: halfway between designed to be frustrated and likable because his evil is so ridiculous. Archie Bunker: designed to be frustrated, but also a sympathetic character because his environment has led him to believe what he does.

Any other classic examples?

Good points. The first two, yes, and Wile E. Coyote, as Thudlow Boink suggested (and Daffy Duck, come to think of it - “This is a closeup?” LOL).

Works for me! Thanks.

Humbert Humbert? Patrick Bateman? Tony Soprano? Maximilian Aue (from The Kindly Ones)?