I like them. But I fear I'm in the minority.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchior is full of unlikeable characters, brutally so. Even though it is full of violence, scenes written to disgust, characters who evoke miserable pity at best.It was one of the most phenomenally compelling and beautiful books I read last year.
I also find that often in book groups my co-readers often dislike 'unlikeable' women, but I find myself drawn to them, or even relating to them. Most notably: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil.
A few years ago I read "Serena" by Ron Rash. An incredibly nasty human being but I found the story intriguing. At least she got her due in the end...it just took a long time. I find most of the characters in Jonathon Franzen's books unlikeable to the extent I do not want to finish the book because I do not care what happens to them.
Bret Easton Ellis gets the award for obviously actually being an asshole and writing metafiction about how much an asshole he is. Patrick Bateman of American Psycho is of course not great company, but how I enjoyed his reviews of Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis. Also, everyone in Franzen's Corrections is just *awful* ( except Denise) but the scene between Chip and Alfred at the end properly had me weeping.
I recently read "Vladimir" by Julia May Jonas. It's definitely a play on Nabokov but it was an interesting novel narrated by an unlikeable character. It's about a female professor whose husband has been caught up in sexual misconduct scandal. She doesn't even care about his victims! She thinks they're wimps. Her main resentment is how this all affects her life. Meanwhile, she begins an unhealthy obsession for a younger professor, Vladimir, who has just joined the college. I loved the book, and tore through it. But .... I immediately eliminated it as a book to suggest for my Book Club for the reasons you mentioned. A common refrain when criticizing a book at my club is "I couldn't relate to the character". I just feel like people don't understand what the homework assignment is! I feel that is a limiting view of what fiction can be. I want to read about characters for which I have nothing in common with. But like you said, people don't like those types of characters. And they mostly don't want to read those kinds of books.
I am also a fan of Succession but I was astonished seeing how small its audience is in relation to the hype in the media about it. I guess it's like golf. It has the right audience. But its genius is to get you to engage with truly loathsome characters over and over again. I get few takers to watch the show with me!
When people say that a character is 'unlikable' I feel that what they actually mean is that the character is not understandable. If we didn't understand where Walter White was coming from Breaking Bad wouldn't have been such a big hit. Unlikable is fine as long as we learn why they are that way.
Thank you for the most truthful and hilarious comment I have read today (and I read 2 excellent papers):
Tucker Carlson is an asshole!
That just covered the cost of the subscription. The rest of the column is icing.
I struggle with unlikeable characters on the whole, but one book that came to mind for me that I loved was Notes on a Scandal. The narrator was so delightfully nasty.
Having just reread Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, I confess I'm intrigued by the idea of Tucker Carlson fiction, perhaps from the point of view of a more sympathetic character. But I guess the reason that worked is that GWB has some redeeming/likeable qualities as a human being, just not as a president--probably not true for Tucker.
P.S. I wish I could get back the hours of my life that I wasted watching Breaking Bad.
I think the key to writing an unlikable character is thoroughly understanding the character - why he acts like he does, why he thinks the things he thinks, etc. Your description of Tucker Carlson as a white supremacist Qanon whatever (white people LOVE talking about white supremacists for some reason) is completely has been spoonfed to you by MSNBC and you swallowed so much of it, you internalized it and are writing characters based on it. But what will likely happen is you write a boring cliche character that doesn't really make much sense because it's not inspired by anything real. I could be wrong and the character is great, despite the misguided inspiration.
I run a few book clubs and a recurring viewpoint of readers is a need to “like” the “likeable” characters. I usually say that some authors seem to weave magic and nudge you to identify with bad people. As you say, such people are often so interesting, something I’ve also found in life. I adore Succession but go further than most, saying that I do “like” (in some sense) all three of them. My most recent example of the “bad” character comes from the magnificent novel The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. All my book clubs have read it and universally they all hate amoral Duchess, whereas he, to me, is not only most fascinating character but someone I found myself wishing I could be (if only for a moment).
I think we're actually supposed to like him and identify with him somewhat, based on how the text presents him, but Goethe's *Faust* is an entertainingly unlikable character (at least, until you reach the second part of the play).
It's been fascinating to read the mirror of this commentary among video gamers in recent months as the indie video game developer Project Moon included a genderswapped version of Goethe's Faust in their latest game, *Limbus Company,* and people familiar with the form of the game but not the developer nor the source material are wildly upset to discover *Faust is a terrible person.*
I seem to gravitate to unlikable characters!
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
The Visitors - Jessi Jezewska Stevens
Call Me Zebra - Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Stephen Florida - Gabe Habash
most of T.C. Boyle's characters
I'm probably forgetting so so many at the moment!
I find it hard, like a guilt trip, when a deeply unlikeable character in fiction is played on stage or screen in such a way that you can't help laughing with him or her. Eg a production of Richard 3rd I saw played by Anthony Sher that had the audience in stitches at his evilness. For the most part, I think unpleasant characters are far more interesting, as long as I don't have to spend time with them in real life.
On the subject of Lolita, I wrote a book review on substack saying I found it so horrible that I couldn't finish it, and several female readers urged me to do so.
Some I've seen written off as unlikeable, but that I loved, include Normal People by Sally Rooney ("miserable"), The Secret History by Donna Tarrt ("pretentious"), The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo ("Evelyn sucks"), Gone Girl ("horrible"), and anything now described as "toxic masculinity" like Bret Easton Ellis, mentioned already in the comments. I've read plenty of books with characters I didn't like, but most of those tend to be (I have now discovered thanks to you) Upmarket Fiction.