Almost every review or discussion about a particular book includes some sort of comment - some in brief, some in detail - about whether a character was likable or unlikable. Often times, negative reviews result when readers find that a character was unlikable. Others, such as myself, can find enjoyment in a novel regardless of an unlikable character. Neither view is 'right' or 'wrong,' but it does lead the question: does it matter if the protagonist of a book is likable or unlikable?
First, it's probably useful to figure out what we even mean by a 'likable' character. Is it being able to relate to and empathize with a character's actions and emotions? Is it having a character that always tries to do the 'right' thing by following a strong moral compass, or it simply someone who has a strong, entertaining personality? Defining what makes a character likable is tricky, and probably differs according to each reader, but in general it seems to combine aspects of everything mentioned above. "But wait," you say, "isn't that just the definition of a well-written character?" Although yes, all of the former aspects are appreciated, it's not necessarily crucial for a character to hold strong moral values or have relatable qualities to be considered 'likable.' One example of a book in which I love the characters is Six of Crows, which is largely due to the incredibly charismatic personalities each character exhibits.
Conversely, what are unlikable characters? And this is where it gets really tricky, because there is a fine line between characters that are unlikable because they are poorly written and characters that are unlikable because of their own personal character. I've seen people lament the dislike of a certain book due to it having characters that made poor choices, had bad moral values, didn't care about right or wrong, or just simply didn't 'click' or relate with a reader. These are all completely valid points to make, but I don't think that means you have to automatically dislike a book because of an unlikable character.
Personally, I don't need to like a character to enjoy a book. Does it help? Sure, sometimes. But in general, if a character is interesting enough, I don't care if I think they are the most amazing person ever or a complete and total asshole. There's a difference between characters that are strongly developed with consistent character/personality and are unlikable versus characters that are unlikable due to their poor development and lackluster character. There are numerous book where I found the main character, dull, rude, annoying, or just plain stupid, but the mark of a good author is apparent when people still read and enjoy said book. Sometimes unlikable characters are supposed to be that way, and I still want to read the story. But sometimes they are just plain obnoxious (Falling Kingdoms, I'm looking at you..), and I can't keep going, so I DNF.
One reason I actually enjoy unlikable characters is because it allows us, as readers, to read about a wide variety of human nature. Some people just aren't inherently likable, but that doesn't mean that there is no story to tell. I mean, even many famous figures - Steve Jobs, for instance -- weren't exactly 'likable,' but society as a whole is still generally extremely impressed with him and will continue to read about him and buy products from his company. This brings me to the argument that likable vs unlikable characters also comes down to pure judgment: do we dislike a character and therefore deem their entire story unimportant? Or do we consider reading past and seeing what else is there. Again, this all depends on how the character is written, but I'm writing this with the assumption of strong, well-developed characters and not characters who are unlikable simply because the writing is bad.
Overall, I fall into the category of readers who do not think it matters if a character is likable. If the story is well-written and I'm still finding myself intrigued and not hating the book, then I'll keep on. It's always nice to read about characters that we can personally connect with, but I rarely try to see myself in characters in books, so perhaps that's why I don't mind so much. I would love to go into more depth on this topic -- maybe with more examples -- but since I don't want to go on for ages, I'll leave it here.
So now I'm curious: what do you think of likable vs. unlikable character? Does it matter to you? Will you read a book even if the character just doesn't work for you?