We often hear it is absolutely necessary for your protagonist to be likable. I take this advice not just with a grain of salt but with a huge chunk of sodium chloride. One of my very dislikable characters (according to a few) acknowledged that her friend was not very smart. But, she was willing to risk her neck for this friend. So, don’t try “the save the cat technique” and substitute a person of low intellect for the cat. The other female was even smarter and was accused of low self-esteem because she realized she knew more than 99% of the people in her small town. I believe it’s called high self-esteem if it’s true (and inflated self-esteem if it’s not). I have discovered that highly intelligent females are not high on likability, unless they are clueless about their own ability. Perhaps, they need to display a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. “Did I save the world? Oh, I was just lucky.”
Then, I realized the charge of ” unlikable character” was an easy thing to say when critiquing. So, a character not only doesn’t have to be likable, it’s not possible to get a majority of people to like any main character, if most people are honest about it. However, when it comes to favorite literary heroes, people aren’t honest. They really don’t know the major characters in these works are too embarrassed to admit it. Perhaps, they have only seen the movie and judge the protagonist based on their fondness for the actor playing the part.
The kind of character who readers will like depends on your audience. Some prefer heroes who are larger than life and insist women must be beautiful. But, most people actually prefer a character who is not perfect and is “broken” in some manner. A beautiful person who does not know that they’re beautiful, has a kind of perfection. A beautiful person who uses this trait to get what they want and manipulate people has a flaw.
The alcoholic person who seems very capable isn’t really flawed. The label alcoholic means nothing until this person passes out at a time when they need to be somewhere else or at a place where they endanger themselves. Then, they have a flaw. But, what if this is a flaw some readers dislike. That is a risk that must be taken. Different audiences may consider some problems to be repulsive. But, readers are just as varied as authors.
The character who gains the largest criticism from the public in general is the one who just does everything perfectly right. Pollyanna received criticism for her constant positive attitude long before Mary Sue showed up on the scene. So, it seems for most people, the likable protagonist must have an obvious flaw. Not the kind of flaw that you admit to when you’re having an interview, such as, I simply work too hard. Heroes need real problems, things they would never admit to during an interview.
The important traits in creating a character might not be those that make the character likable but those that make them human.