I'll admit that I'm the first one to root for a sarcastic, aloof, sometimes even violent, leading man. The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Gregory House and Wolverine are all some of my favourites, even though any intelligent woman would have to seriously question her life choices to actually enter into a relationship with any of them.
So why do those characters work? Why do we like them despite their meanness and occasional homicidal tendencies? I found myself pondering this question as I read several books over the last week with heroes who didn't manage to cross over to the likeable side of the equation.
We've all read heroes and heroines we had a hard time connecting to. And then there are the ones we just plain don't like. I have two prime examples: a hero from a Victorian historical romance who spent the entire novel divided between his proper fiancé and the lively and passionate lower class heroine; and a heroine from a contemporary romance who spent the first two thirds of the book demonstrating her shallow narcissism by insulting people and focusing exclusively on how everything affected her and her aspirations of fame.
Heroes and heroines are expected to have some flaws, but authors need to take the timing into account. By the time the halfway mark of the book rolls around, we need to see the main characters making some psychological progress. In the case of the historical romance, it would have been perfectly acceptable for the hero to have some romantic conflict between his fiancé and the heroine in the first half, but having him continue to actively pursue both women throughout the course of the novel makes him into a cheater rather than a hero. For the contemporary romance, the girl can be shallow and narcissistic but she needs to start showing signs of redemption for the reader to connect with her.
When Roxanne St. Clair came to speak to ORWA, she mentioned a rewriting challenge she'd had with one of her books. Her beta readers kept telling her they didn't like her hero and she realized it was because of a moment two thirds of the way through when he left the heroine in a difficult situation to pursue the bad guys. She explained that she could have had that scene in the first half of the book but by the second half, she couldn't have her hero acting unheroically.
So how does one achieve the balance to create a flawed by likeable hero. There are a number of techniques to get the audience on a character's side:
1) Put them in danger. We all root for the underdog. Even an unlikeable character can garner sympathy if he or she is in immediate danger. However, if a character is too unlikeable, then the audience can begin hoping for the danger to finish them off. For example, Ioan Gruffudd's character in San Andreas is a jerk throughout the movie, which makes us hope that the earthquakes and tidal waves are going to kill him.
2) Make them funny. I have a button which says "Tact is for those who haven't the wit to be sarcastic" at home. Characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. House are enjoyable in part because of their incomparable wit and eloquence.
3) Show their elite skills. We can admire a highly skilled assassin, thief or gangster even though those aren't generally skillsets we encourage. Arrogance isn't as offputting when a person really is as good as he or she thinks.
4) Sympathetic backstory. Sherrilyn Kenyon does a marvelous job of this with several of her characters. She introduces them as unlikeable secondary characters and villains and then gives them their own books and turns them into heroes. We discover the pain hidden behind the arrogant masks, how they became unlikeable to keep others from hurting them.
5) Touches of humanity. Robin Hood is a thief who uses violence to rob travellers, but we like him because we see him taking care of the abused peasantry and protecting them from the corrupt nobility. Context is everything and showing that a character isn't all bad makes it easier to accept their flaws, particularly if those flaws are addressed through out the course of the story.
The more of these techniques an author uses, the more he or she can get away with in creating a potentially unlikeable character.