Lately I’ve been reading books with unsympathetic characters. This is not a new habit, but since finishing the draft of a novel whose characters are imperfect but, I hope, likeable on the whole, I’ve been thinking more about what makes a character likeable, and what the difference is between likeable and admirable. Fiction (to say nothing of history) is full of protagonists we might not like but can still respect and admire. Heroes whose achievements we celebrate but whom, given the chance to sit down and have a beer with, we’d just as soon avoid.
I’m not thinking either of the truly reprehensible—antiheroes like the talented Mr. Ripley. Though I must say that Patricia Highsmith’s ability to make a reader care about a serial murderer deserves admiration in itself.