Many writers, and I’ve done this myself, spend a great deal of energy making their protagonists jump through hoops in order to make them likeable. And admittedly, many readers demand that the protagonist be sweet and charming, or at least someone they can adore.
Yet, many of literature’s most interesting and often most beloved characters are despicable rogues. One of my favorites is Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs series of films. He’s a coldblooded killer, with no remorse at all. Yet, he fascinated me. Without Lecter, those movies would have been unbelievably boring. His dark character brought them to life. He stole the show. Look at any movie directed by Quentin Tarantino. I’ve never seen a likeable character in any of his films.
So what makes us cheer for a contemptible character? As a fellow writer, Damon Suede, put it: “Unlikeable behavior is not what makes a character unappealing, but rather the context of that behavior. We often want these characters to behave awfully, and take pleasure in the wreckage they generate. So I don’t think it’s actually likeability that’s the issue.”
What readers need is a way to interface with a character. Hannibal Lecter, for example, was in fact a ruthless killer, yet he became very protective of Clarice Starling. That protectiveness was a thread the reader could relate to. He also was a competent artist and loved classical music, two more threads. When talking to Clarice, he had impeccable manners, another thread. He was not at all likeable, yet he had elements that most viewers could relate to. The writers gave him traits that viewers found accessible.
Another great example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Selfish, conniving, ruthless. But going from riches to rags and living through the devastation of the war, we understand her perfectly. We connected, and we even sympathized.
So go ahead and make your characters all assholes. Just be sure that within the context you place them, give them traits that will be accessible to the reader. Place them in mounting conflict that explains why they behave badly. And it always helps to make the villains more despicable than the protagonists. :-)
If you find that your characters have become annoying rather than enthralling, then revisit how the context, stakes and escalating conflict affect their values and behavior, rather than trying to make them more likable.