From Crime Reads:
Writers of “unlikeable” protagonists have it tough. They have to make their central character complex and interesting, and their story so compelling that a reader will put up with someone objectionable leading it. In real life, we might not be able to avoid the people we dislike: the narcissistic mother, the backstabbing boss, the professor with the personality disorder. But we can easily close a book.
An unlikable protagonist might be psychopathic, vain, silly, naïve, foolish, selfish, self-deluded, arrogant or, if you buy into a more superstitious notion, just plain evil. There are supremely unpleasant characters in literature—and not just in genre fiction—whose antics and boldness are so impressive that we can’t look away. It’s not just that they contrast so vividly with their supporting cast. We simply have to know what they’re going to do next. That’s when the story gets good.
The technique of employing an unlikable narrator didn’t begin with Gone Girl. Classic literature is full of them.
. . . .
The Grandmother, A Good Man is Hard to Find (short story), Flannery O’Connor, 1953
Narcissist, hypocrite, fantasist. The grandmother at the center of O’Connor’s classic short story initiates a dramatic chain of events that gets her entire family, including her grandchildren, murdered. She believes that everyone around her should bend to her beliefs and whims, and she shapes her self-righteous commentary and arguments to (in her mind) represent herself as an important, respectable, and piously Christian woman. Her desperate need for acknowledgement results in a fantasy that takes her vacationing family down an unfamiliar road where a freak accident will leave them all at the mercy of a notorious killer. While the story is fraught with religious and moral implications, it’s also a perfect gem of a read.
. . . .
Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, 1955
Psychopaths aren’t necessarily unlikeable, and Tom Ripley has a flattering, swindler’s charm that often works on his fellow characters, as well as many readers. His most prominent qualities are similar to those of many psychopaths: he’s remorseless, arrogant, charming, deceitful, and manipulative. He’s also murderous, but he murders with purpose, particularly when someone threatens his enjoyment of the finer things in life. On a list of unlikeable protagonists, he might be the least unlikeable, second only to the more recent Dexter Morgan, of Jeff Lyndsay’s Dexter series. At least Dexter keeps his murders focused on serial killers, and doesn’t project Ripley’s highly irritating arrogance.
Link to the rest at Crime Reads
Other unlikeable protagonists: