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I believe an unlikable character can be sympathetic, although that's tricky. But can you go the other way? Can your character be likable but at the same time unsympathetic? I've been trying and failing to think of examples.

I mean likable to the readers, btw. I'd especially appreciate examples of characters you found absolutely likable but weren't sympathetic towards.

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Could you clarify the terms somewhat? Is the evil bastard you love to hate "likable (to the reader)"? Is he "sympathetic"? How about the Boring Nice Guy who's fallen for the female lead but isn't going to get her (e.g. Xander to Buffy) - we like him (though, let's be fair, probably not specifically for his romantic interest), but don't really want him to succeed; is that "unsympathetic"? –  Standback Sep 7 '11 at 8:32
    
I don't find Xander's unrequited affection "unsympathetic." I can sympathize (identify) with liking someone That Way and knowing it will never be returned even if I don't want those two characters to get together. If Xander likes Buffy and starts following her around and constantly sending her flowers even when she's made her feelings clear, that's "unsympathetic." –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 7 '11 at 12:10
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6 Answers

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You have two items to consider: what makes a person likable, and why you would sympathize with someone.

Why you find a person appealing is a matter of taste. But when you sympathize with someone, you are identifying with him or her; you are saying "yes, I could see myself in his/her shoes; I might have done what s/he did."

There are a number of scenarios I can think of where someone you like has made crappy choices which you wouldn't have made. Think of "tough love" situations, or "you've made your bed; now lie in it."

  • An intelligent, well-spoken addict who ends up in jail (current fictional example: Gregory House, MD in Season 8 of House)
  • An alcoholic co-worker who loses his license after too many DUIs
  • The pretty, popular high school girl who ends up pregnant and drops out of school to have the baby, and then complains because she has no more social life
  • Your best friend dates a jerk, and no matter how you tell him the guy is bad for him, he insists the guy really loves him... until he finds out his boyfriend cheated on him. Then he spends the next six months crying on your shoulder, wondering "what did I do wrong?" and saying how lonely he is
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House is a great example!!! –  Lynn Beighley Sep 6 '11 at 19:16
    
He is. I particularly want to kill him for the S7 finale, but he's still one of my favorite TV characters ever. –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 6 '11 at 21:01
    
Just to be a pain, but also because it is true, I find none of these characters likeable. I might however sympathise with any of them. It's not the actions themselves. It's the motivation that matters. –  One Monkey Sep 7 '11 at 8:31
    
Of course; everyone's mileage varies. I was trying to show examples of actions which I find off-putting or repellent (and therefore unsympathetic). In these particular instances, I see the motivation behind them as "thoughtless self-pleasure," without regard for consequence. I won't sympathize with these folks. You might, and that's fine. –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 7 '11 at 12:07
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I would say this is extremely common in comedy, and much more difficult in drama. And even in comedy, a likable character can win sympathy very very easily even if he's totally unsympathetic - in fact, the moment he does anything that isn't actively unsympathetic, we'll probably find him sympathetic.

The Magnificent Bastard

As extreme examples, consider Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, or Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space 9. They're very likable characters - we love them for their humor, their audacity, their ingeniousness. But at the beginning of both shows, we're not meant to sympathize with them, and we don't. They engage our interest, not our emotions. The way they're written, we're not saying "Oh, poor Barney!" or "Wow, Quark must be so nervous now!".

But once that's set up, sliding the characters into sympathetic territory is very easy. Season 1 of How I Met... has an episode where we discover Barney's past, which is hugely sympathetic. Later on in the series, his loyalty to his friends, his eventual love interest, his yearning for a father are all trickled in - and the mere mention of these, no matter how despicable Barney continues to act, and no matter how warped his attempts to address these issues are, are enough to convert him into a largely sympathetic character. That's because we like him so much - we're willing to forgive all his unsympathetic-ness as soon as we get the chance. Similarly, Quark has a long arc of growth through ST:DS9, and pretty much as soon as he starts having a good, soft, sympathetic side, and as soon as the show starts portraying him in a sympathetic fashion, he immediately becomes a sympathetic character despite his numerous and continuous misdeeds.

House, IMHO, almost comes under this category. But not quite. Because House, almost always, has motives and desires that we have strong emotional reactions to. When he's being an ass, it's often to someone we feels kinda deserves it. When he's consumed by a case, sympathy with his obsession for truth and discovery is key to the show. And when he plays mind games with the people he cares about most, he's often cruel and baffling, but he also generally has a motive that the viewer is meant to sympathize with. I think the show is based very strongly indeed on viewer sympathy with House - and the tension between that sympathy and where House's life choices actually lead.

Nonhumor examples might include Littlefinger and Varys from Song of Ice and Fire.

The Likable Schlub

A less extreme example is sitcoms. Sitcoms are full of characters we like, who do stupid things. It gets the plot moving. We're not supposed to sympathize with these characters - their problems are exaggerated; deliberately goofy and blown out of proportion. We're not sympathetic to Ross when he forgets his kid on a bus, or to Seinfeld when he preys on a fresh divorcee, or to Marshall when he insists he's going to prove the existence of UFOs. We like the characters, but at the same time, in these situations we're laughing at them, not with them.

Toeing the Line

Making this work with less-exaggerated, non-comic characters seems to me very, very difficult. If a character is likable, then all he needs to do is act reasonably OK, or with some clear, comprehensible rationale, and he's sympathetic. If he's likable, even a previously-unsympathetic character turns immediately sympathetic the moment such a rationale is presented (or take on a new goal which is reasonable). The Magnificent Bastard can, if you choose, avoid this by simply never doing anything sympathetic. But I can't think of other strategies or examples for doing this differently.

We are willing to sympathize with somebody we don't like, but we're strongly inclined to sympathize with someone we do. Overcoming that, it seems to me, requires constant avoidance of sympathy, and (depending on the extent and the scope at which you want to avoid the character being sympathetic) that severely limits the type of character you can construct.

However, this does suggest a strategy for having such a character for a short stint - take a likable character, and have him serve as an antagonist or an obstacle for some portion of the story. Portray him as being difficult and perhaps villainous - don't provoke reader sympathy for him in any way; don't emphasize his motives or his emotions. For this portion, the readers will not sympathize with him; he is in their way, he is unsympathetic (right now). But he'll still be likable (and, in fact, you can even portray his "good features," things readers like about him).

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Your last paragraph describes like half of the villains in manga/anime. Most of those seem to become allies of the main character at a later point in the story, which I find interesting. –  JS Maxwell Sep 8 '11 at 18:28
    
Fans of Shortpacked! got a live demonstration of Instant Sympatheticization in today's strip‌​. Newcomers, don't bother - this only works as the culmination of years of character building and plot development. Though feel free to read the strip from the start :) –  Standback Sep 9 '11 at 7:52
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I think it is all a matter of perspective. You may have a character who is a drug dealer who uses his money to take care of residents in his neighborhood. He may provide protection from rival gangs, provide financial support, and go out of his way to keep them away from drugs. To the people in his neighborhood, he may have a personna that makes him very likeable, very respected, and perhaps even heroic.

However, outside the neighborhood, he may take on a completely different personna. Rivals see him as intimidating, police see him as a criminal, and in order to protect his business he may have to do things he would not normally care to do. He might even criticize a sibling for behavior that he himself exhibits. These particular behaviors may be so heinous that you find it difficult to be sympathetic with him, in spite of the traits that otherwise might cause you to like him.

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There's a character in the Dresden files like this "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone. Dresden starts off hating him completely but over time he finds out things about the character that make him, er, sympathise with Marcone's position a little more, leading to some respect. –  One Monkey Sep 7 '11 at 8:33
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There's a number of movies that feature criminals that are either the protagonist or a likeable character in some way. Like John Travolta's cheeseburger-loving assassin in "Pulp Fiction" or Bruce Willis in "The Whole Nine Yards" or Bill Nighy's reluctant assassin in "Wild Target".

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To answer your question it is best to look at the more commonly employed trope - not likeable, sympathetic - and see what would be required to reverse that.

In order to be sympathetic we must have some feeling for the things someone has done and the choices they have made. We can understand why something is but we may not like it. For example if a protagonist sees his parents and siblings murdered by gangsters and survives only by running, purely fuelled by instinct and adrenaline we may sympathise with them. If this incident is when we meet them for the first time we won't have enough data to know whether we like them.

In the following scene we skip forward fifteen years. The same character is now shown torturing some low-level pick pocket type for information about the whereabouts and defences of a major crime lord. We understand why this chracter might have become twisted this way, we sympathise with the situation but if the torture is extreme enough we may not like the character for it. In addition we could have another character who we can both like and sympathise with attempt to intercede on the pickpocket's behalf and get summarily dismissed perhaps physically by the not-likeable but sympathetic character.

In order to reverse this we need to not really understand why someone does something, or how they ended up in trouble but nevertheless find ourselves rooting for them. In this case I would argue that the Indiana Jones of Raiders and Temple of Doom makes a pretty good example. In fact many pulpy Saturday morning serial type characters are in the same vein. Indy is a likeable guy, flawed, sure, but he's on the side of the light. We are rooting for Indy, we like him. But when he finds a snake in the cockpit, is being chased by Nazis or finds a stone ceiling descending to crush him we are thrilled but we don't really sympathise... we can't really see why he would put himself on the line in this way, the fact he's this adventurer archaeologist is actually kind of ridiculous.

Sympathy in Raiders is used as a tool to make us like Indy and it's quite disposable. When Belloq takes the golden idol from him we are expected to sympathise in an everyman kind of way with the situation. But do we really sympathise with Indiana Jones specifically? Not really. He's a cipher, he's never more than a two-dimensional hero who's given some nuance by a skilled actor but as written he just is some heroic dude through whom we can live vicariously. We're almost pushing him into these crazy encounters just to get our safe audience based thrills. If Indiana Jones didn't do all this crazy exciting stuff then he would, essentially be of no further use to us. Any emotional investment we have in him is entirely selfish and not based on sympathy.

This is because Indiana Jones, and heroic characters of his type, do not appear to need our help. They are beyond us and above us already. We can only bask in their glow. Sympathy is about companionship, about helping, about realising we are together. These heroes seem untouchable, if they cannot do it then we certainly won't be able to manage it. We can admire them but we can't ever really stand in their shoes, only aspire to.

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This is a common character archetype in Manga/Anime. After so many great responses from other users, this is the only input that I can think to add. Standback, The Prolific Bastard, gave an fantastic reply. Toward the end of his answer he said this:

However, this does suggest a strategy for having such a character for a short stint - take a likable character, and have him serve as an antagonist or an obstacle for some portion of the story. Portray him as being difficult and perhaps villainous - don't provoke reader sympathy for him in any way; don't emphasize his motives or his emotions

I will stick with a very popular example. In the manga Bleach there is a character that appears fairly early on named Zaraki Kenpachi that serves as a major antagonist and obstacle for the main character, Kurosaki Ichigo. He is painted as a pure killer. His motivation is to seek out the strongest opponents he can find. His joy comes from the fight. He is hard to identify with, but very likable. He is simple.

For the entire encounter you know nothing about his motivations other than his love of fighting. The story leaves you with a ton of questions and next to no answers. He is likable, insane and very unsympathetic. It is clear that dying while fighting an opponent stronger than himself is something he would find satisfying. It is hard to have sympathy for him on any level, largely because of his lack of complexity.

Standback goes on to say:

For this portion, the readers will not sympathize with him; he is in their way, he is unsympathetic (right now). But he'll still be likable (and, in fact, you can even portray his "good features," things readers like about him).

This is exactly how Kenpachi is written. When you learn some of his back story you may feel some sympathy for him, but it will probably be short lived. Another character in Bleach with a similar setup is Kuchiki Byakuya. Byakuya is much more complex than Kenpachi and is motivated by a complex mass of conflicting emotions and obligations. When he first comes on the scene he is intensely cold and completely unrelatable. Byakuya is seemingly the polar opposite of Kenpachi.

If I keep this up I'm afraid I am going to grow a name for referencing Manga/Anime in my answers. Owell, could be worse. This type of character is so common in manga that it is expected most of the time.

I found this link to be interesting about the magnificent bastard archetype. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/SoYouWantTo/WriteAMagnificentBastard

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