I just came across a rather heated discussion about the likeability of characters in stories. One side of the debate claimed that the author has to make the main character(s) likeable so readers can be drawn into the story, while the other (more vehement!) side insisted that the characters are basically “who they are,” and the author is under no obligation to rewrite the story line just to make the readers like the people in it.
Here’s my two cents: they’re both right.
On the one side, yes, your story might fall apart if you alter the personalities of the characters just to make them appeal to a broader audience. There are a lot of really fantastic books, plays, movies, etc. about truly despicable people. But part of what makes those stories so intriguing is watching to see if a) the characters are going to grow into good people in the end and thus no longer be despicable, or b) are going to get what they deserve in the end, and therefore STILL no longer be despicable (because they’re on fire…or something like that!).
But I tend to lean a little bit towards the first group. I need to at least care about the characters I’m reading. They may be horrible people, but there has to be a compelling reason for their horrible-ness. Sure, your main character might be a mass murderer, but WHY is he a mass murderer? If he’s just an average ordinary person with no back story to explain his actions, then he’s just a jerk (and you might need professional help for writing a story about a pointless killing spree). But if there’s a strong and believable reason for what he’s doing, I may continue reading to see where it goes.
Important note: be careful of creating your characters’ back story by info dumping. Don’t hit me with it on page one and bombard me with a lengthy explanation of why this man is pure, unadulterated mean. Drop hints throughout that explain why he is who he is. Of course, this is true for your good-hearted characters as well. Let me meet these people, just like I would if they were standing in front of me.