A friend of mine recently said that she's been frustrated with much of YA lit lately because she's been struggling to relate to the protagonists. That line really got me thinking about unrelatable and unlikable characters.
Here's some honesty for you: The number one factor that determines whether or not I like a book is if I like the book's protagonist. If I can't relate to a story's protagonist, or if I really disagree with her choices, or if I just flat out don't like her character, it's hard for me to enjoy the rest of the story.
For example, I am one of very few people who didn't like The Scorpio Races. I can appreciate much of that story (the atmospheric writing, the world building, etc.) but I didn't care for Puck. I gave that book a low rating. (Puck was not the sole reason why, but she didn't help.)
And, conversely, I gave The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (read before the birth of Bookmark Dragon, so no review to link to) a really high rating simply because I adored Flavia. I wasn't totally sold on the plot, but I loved her character.
I don't think I'm alone in this line of thinking. It's understandable. If you view an entire story through the lens of one character, and you find you dislike that character, you probably won't want to listen to what they have to say.
This is pretty common among books. It seems to me to be particularly common among YA books, simply because YA books almost always feature teenagers as protagonists. And, lets be honest, teenagers are often dramatic and self-centered and can be difficult to be around for long periods of time. So if a YA story's protagonist sounds anything like a real teenager then she'll probably be dramatic, she'll probably think first and foremost about herself, and she'll probably make mistakes along the way that you, in all your adultly wisdom, would never make. (Since, you know, adults NEVER make mistakes. Ha.) But this world is filled with teenagers. They are as funny and as genuine as they are annoying, and despite all their awkwardness they really are trying to figure out how to grow up. Navigating a teen's world is tricky business. High school would make anyone cranky. They need all the help they can get.
So lately I've been trying to be more open-minded about books with less-likable and/or less-relatable characters. I have a teenage sister who is one of the most lovely human beings on the planet. She is neither unlikable nor unrelatable. (I really lucked out in the sister department.) But sometimes when I meet her friends I wonder if they've beamed here from another planet. But whether they're related to me or not, they are a human being, and as such they deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. (Yes, teenagers are people, too.)
I think one of the purposes of reading is that it can open your mind to how other people think. How often do you get that experience? How often do you get to glimpse inside the minds of people totally different from you - different backgrounds, different experiences, different goals, and so on - and show you their motives, desires, fears, and dreams? Learning how other people tick is a powerful and valuable thing, and, in my opinion, a worthy pursuit. If you understand the battles other people are secretly fighting, you're more likely to be kind to them. If you know what challenges someone else has overcome, it's easier to respect them. Reading books about unlikable and unrelatable characters (or about anyone at all, really) teaches compassion and empathy and understanding and forgiveness. And goodness knows we could all do with a little more of that in the world.
So next time you're halfway through a book and find you have absolutely nothing in common with the book's protagonist, or that you just don't like him or her, think about giving that book a few more chapters. It just might teach you something you didn't know. And you might become better for it.