When most authors begin a book, they like the characters they create. I'm no different - I love all of the major characters I've written onto the page...or do I? For Awaken the Senses I had to write Spencer Ashton, a mean, mean man who is a borderline sociopath and an unashamed narcissist. I didn't like Spencer as a person, but boy was he fun to write.
That's a writer's point of view but what about as a reader? Should an author always make sure that a book contains a protagonist that the reader can identify with, someone they'll like? I used to think so but I'm not so sure any longer. For example, I really don't like Scarlett O'Hara, and I know others who don't. And yet, Gone With The Wind is a book most readers can't put down.
I also recently read a very good thriller but the main detective was hardly a character I warmed to at the start - in fact, it took a good chunk of the book for me to like this guy. When I thought about it, there wasn't a single character in that book whom I liked from the get-go. But that didn't stop me from continuing the thriller, because the underlying story was excellent and it needed these characters to make it work.
So it looks like not all books need a likeable protagonist. However, I think the rules are different for romance novels. Because romances are all about two characters fighting through obstacles to find each other, we as readers, need to like them enough to cheer them on. If we don't engage with the character, we're not going to care whether they find true love or not. (In my opinion, Gone With The Wind isn't a romance but part of the wider 'love story' genre). Villains and secondary characters can be unlikeable in a romance, but the two main protagonists must be redeemable.
That leads me to another point - one unlikeable main romantic lead is actually worse than two. Why? With two of them, you can just say they deserve each other. But, for example, if the hero is a great guy and the heroine is a completely unlikeable character, then the romance becomes impossible to believe in. I've often found myself hating a book because I kept asking - what could possibly attract him to her? (Or vice versa of course).
Anyone else, readers and writers, care to weigh in on this topic?