A couple of months ago I watched Perfect Couple, a Chinese historical screwball kung fu soap opera. One minute the hero and heroine were doing slapstick comedy. The next minute assassins were attacking and everyone was flying through the air on wires. Then hearts were breaking, main characters were dying, and people were sobbing in the rain. Then everyone went on a picnic.
In other words, it was amazing.
I noticed, while skimming the comments on DramaFever, that many people didn't like the hero. As is often the case in East Asian dramas, the writers gave the hero many flaws in the beginning to leave room for growth later. He started out conceited, petty, and pampered. The writers played up his over-the-top arrogance for laughs, then slowly made him grow up and become more serious and sensitive.
The hero's immaturity didn't bother me, since it was obviously deliberate and I've seen the same pattern in many Korean/Chinese/Taiwanese shows. But other Western viewers were very annoyed. Many comments followed the vein of, "It's been ten episodes already and Jin Yuan Bao is still such a jerk! I want Qi Ling to end up with Liu Wen Zhao instead. He's so nice to her, unlike Yuan Bao!"
Let me tell you about this Liu Wen Zhao, the hero's cousin. He secretly works for the evil Second Prince, who plots to steal the throne from his elder brother. Wen Zhao attempts to kill the hero and heroine multiple times. He organizes a human trafficking operation that kidnaps young girls and sells them to brothels. He murders innocent bystanders left and right and literally stabs his allies in the back.
But because Wen Zhao is very good at pretending to be sweet and humble, many viewers love him. They say, "Oh, he's not really evil. He's just blinded by his hatred for Yuan Bao, and can you blame him? Yuan Bao is so mean to him!" They're willing to overlook little things like strangling the maids because he suffers Yuan Bao's verbal barbs in silence and gazes at the heroine with the eyes of a lovelorn puppy.
On the other hand, you have Yuan Bao rescuing the kidnapped girls, helping poor villages by forgiving their tax debts, and saving the heroine from execution for murders Wen Zhao committed. But because he speaks sharply and sometimes bosses the heroine around, viewers don't like him.
People often judge others by their words and interpersonal behavior, not by their actions. They identify with characters who are likeable on the surface, even if they're rotten to the core.
Here are some examples from Western fiction.
Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lecter is a sadistic psychopath. He gets off on seeing others in physical and mental anguish, and he doesn't feel an ounce of guilt for literally eating them alive. But audiences root for him because he seems to treat Clarice Starling as an equal, unlike the macho guys she works with, and he seems to be the victim of bullies like the odious Dr. Chilton and the bumbling police.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lisbeth Salander is a horrible, horrible person. She tortures, manipulates, and steals without compunction. But she seems like a vulnerable little girl ruined by The System, so people call her "a strong female character."
Gone Girl: Amy is a demented woman who hatches a malicious plot to frame her husband for murder; who stabs her old boyfriend after having sex with him and lies that she was raped; and who even drinks antifreeze, throws it up, and keeps the vomit as "proof" that her husband tried to poison her. But because she acts gumdrop sweet, she fools not only the characters in the book, but the audience as well. Readers and movie-goers proudly announce they're on "Team Amy," and journalists write disturbing headlines like, "Gone Girl Offers Feminism a New Hero."
I don't believe that people root for these characters because they have poor morals. Everyone knows lying and stealing and murdering are bad things to do. But people identify with certain aspects of these characters, so they relax their moral codes temporarily out of sympathy.
Examining characters like these can tell you a lot about what really makes a character "likeable" in fiction, whether they're heroes, antiheroes, or villains.
People feel sorry for victims and underdogs, even if they're not really victims or underdogs. Hannibal Lecter seems like a victim because we see him trapped in dark, tiny cells and belittled by his keepers. Lisbeth Salander seems like a victim because we see her raped by her parole officer and persecuted by a corrupt government. Amy seems like a victim because we see her husband badmouthing her and sleeping around.
A quick and easy way to get the audience on a character's side from page one is portray him/her as a victim of bullies or circumstances. Cozy mysteries often start with the heroine fleeing to a new town after discovering that her fiance cheated on her with a pretty young seductress. Romances and children's/YA books often start with the protagonist trapped in the house of a domineering, unappreciative family. Books that feature male protagonists often start with the hero recovering from the death of his wife or enduring a life of poverty and abuse he longs to escape.
They hurt people the audience doesn't like or care about.
Hannibal's and Lisbeth's and Amy's victims are all unlikeable or downright terrible people, so readers aren't too bothered when they're killed. Liu Wen Zhao's victims are mostly bit characters who appear for one or two scenes only, so viewers don't care much about them.
If a hero is awful to a bully, audiences root for him. But if a hero or heroine is awful to someone likeable, audiences immediately dislike them. Jin Yuan Bao, the aristocratic hero of Perfect Couple, entered the viewers' bad books the moment he said unkind words to the cheerful peasant heroine, Qi Ling.
And once audiences form their alliances with characters, it's very difficult to break them. Many want to keep liking whom they liked at the beginning and hating whom they hated at the beginning, regardless of what the characters do later. They get upset when their favorite villain does villainous things and they can't sympathize with him anymore. They say, "I really liked Wen Zhao until he strangled that maid! He and Qi Ling would've been perfect together! I wish the writers hadn't ruined him!"
They're likeable on the surface.
I once watched a documentary about Al Capone. People who'd met him said he was the nicest guy around. He acted kind, generous, and neighborly. He was stylish and vivacious with a quick sense of humor. Because of this, he was very popular with the public and the press throughout the Prohibition era, despite the fact that he was responsible for brutal acts of violence—assassinating rival mobsters, intimidating voters to put "the right people" in power, and gunning down anyone who got in his way.
Like Al Capone, each of the villains/antiheroes above appear likeable on the surface. Hannibal Lecter is intelligent and refined. Lisbeth appears meek and quiet. And Amy, the master manipulator, is brilliant at acting the part of the chipper and naive young housewife. Compared to the misogynists, rapists, and philanderers around them, these characters practically wear halos on their heads.
Audiences identify with characters who are sympathetic, cool, or fun, even if they do terrible things. They don't identify with characters who are irritating, even if they do nothing wrong.
The whiny Holden Caulfield and vapid Bella Swan top the lists of "Most Annoying Book Characters." People dislike the meddling Emma Woodhouse for being a snobbish busybody, though she has kind intentions. They roll their eyes at the melodramatic Marianne Dashwood, though she doesn't do anything worse than cry herself sick over a fickle boyfriend. And they hate the mopy Tess Durbeyfield, not because she murders a man at the end, but because she's infuriatingly spineless and passive for five hundred pages before that.
All of this is totally natural.
Readers who like charismatic villains and dislike annoying heroes aren't shallow or immoral. They're just human.
Imagine you have two coworkers. One is an outstanding employee, but she's authoritative and demanding. She criticizes every imperfection in your work and often "helps" by taking total control of your projects.
The other is lazy and irresponsible, but she's sweet as apple pie. She forgets half of her promises and she never finishes her work on time, but she bakes cupcakes for every birthday and gives compliments freely.
Whom would you rather work with? Probably not the bossy one, even if she's objectively the better choice for your career. She might improve the quality of your work, but she'd also annoy you to no end. Most people would prefer the useless one, even if she makes life harder for everyone around her.
In essence, when people choose their friends, lovers, and leaders, they base their choices on how pleasant and charismatic he/she is, not so much on the quality of his/her character or skills. Audiences evaluate fictional characters the same way.
So how can we create complex protagonists with many flaws, like Jin Yuan Bao, without ticking readers off?
Put your character's best foot forward.
Here's my favorite word order test again, which I first included in my 2012 post "The Permanence of Snap Judgements."
Read this list of adjectives and decide whether you like the woman described.
Now read this one and do the same.
Most likely, you didn't like the first person, but you did the second. You imagined the first as a cold fish, but the second as an underdog. They're the exact same characteristics, but order is everything.
If you introduce your protagonist as likeable on page one, you're more likely to get away with slipping in the unlikeable traits later. But if you try to be artsy and show the protagonist at his/her worst on page one, readers will probably put the book down without buying. Establish your characters as heroes first, then delve into their complexities.
Make your villains really villainous.
You don't have to make saintly protagonists if your antagonists are Satan's spawn. As evidenced by Lisbeth Salander, audiences will cheer for even the most dubious of "heroes" if the enemies they're abusing are the scum of the earth.
Take some cues from Dexter, The Godfather, and other stories that make us feel sorry for murderous psychopaths. We feel sorry for them only because the "bad guys" are much more despicable than they are.
Even if your protagonist isn't a murderous psychopath, to be on his or her side the audience needs to see that the other side is much worse. Is your heroine vain and acid-tongued? Make her rivals insufferably selfish and sly, her work superiors arrogant and petty, and the Big Bad Guy inhumane. MaryJanice Davidson's comedic Undead series provides a good example of how to pull off a mean, prickly heroine by making the other characters truly awful.
Make up for "bad" characters with good writing.
If you really, really can't shape your character into someone the audience will like, your only remaining recourse is to make up for their shortcomings with language.
People tolerate aggravating protagonists in classic books like Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray because the narrative voices are lively and seductive enough to make up for the annoyance of watching flawed characters make dumb, destructive choices. Like a sprinkling of sugar on grapefruit, excellent writing can sweeten the reading experience just enough to redeem a bitter story.
Of course this is the most dangerous of options, because you're probably not equal to Oscar Wilde. If you think you're equal to Oscar Wilde, you're definitely not equal to Oscar Wilde.
So until a significant number of strangers compare you to Oscar Wilde, I suggest writing likeable protagonists. You can show the dark complexities of humanity through villains and side characters.