Fictionaut posed this question to author Daniel Handler, who has written, among other things, the “Lemony Snicket” series of books. His response:
For one thing, I’m always mystified by discussions of likable characters. Characters are in books; you’re not going to have lunch with them. Moreover, the best books are full of trouble, so the characters are either in trouble or causing it. Most people aren’t likable in such situations.
Even if by “likable” we just mean “characters we enjoy reading about,” rather than “characters who seem like people we’d like,” then we’re not really talking about characters at all. Otherwise, the characters would be fully portable, and readers would find Lady Macbeth equally compelling in a Harlequin novel and in Macbeth. (I suppose there are people who consider Han Solo to be an equally compelling character in Star Wars novels #12 and #43, by separate authors, but, um, give me a break.) It’s like saying that the great thing about Kind Of Blue isn’t Miles Davis, but the trumpet itself. Such a compelling instrument!
Thus, character is bunk. There is plot, and there is voice, and they conspire to create an illusion we call “literature.” It is a glorious illusion and a compelling one. When a writer tells me they’re worried about a character they usually mean there’s a flaw in the plot, or the prose just isn’t pulling things together.
I disagree. It might not matter whether one individual character is more likable than another, but I’d argue there has to be at least one likable character per book. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing or reading it?
Two of the classics I have not care for at all are “Wuthering Heights” and “Great Expectations.” I didn’t like a single character, so I didn’t care what happened to them. That made it extremely difficult to finish reading the books. So there has to be a redeeming quality in at least one of your characters, or else no one is going to want to read your work.