In the past week, the question has arisen several times about the main character of your novel - how likeable do they have to be? Is it possible to have an unlikeable mc? What will make your reader like your character from the first couple of pages? Is this important?
I'd say yes. Very important. It rates up there with voice and story questions. When someone picks up your book and reads the first couple of pages, what is going to keep them engaged? Voice and tone play a big part, and more particularly, creating confidence in the reader that you can tell a good story. Story questions create hooks - the reader wants to know the answers, wants to be intrigued.
But the character element is vital. We often talk about "going on the journey" with the main character, and how if the reader doesn't care about the mc, then they won't keep reading. How do you create the caring? An overly sarcastic narrator might put a lot of readers off. A wimpy, passive character may well do the same. We often read with the hope that events will change the character for the better, but we don't want to wait too long for the first positive signs.
Some of the character traits that personally put me off a book from the first couple of pages include: the whiny YA narrator who feels life is totally unfair and everything sucks; the character who is a total victim with not even a smidgin of guts showing; the twisted character who promises nothing but gore and blood and no empathy; the twee character for whom everything is full of light. Mostly I want to see some clue as to how this character is going to deal with the disasters the writer is going to inflict on them. Some sign of intelligence and gumption, even if it's only through thoughts at the beginning.
Which brings me to the book I'm reading right now. Reading so fast (because it's really good) that I'll probably finish it tonight and then be sorry I was such a glutton and couldn't slow down. It's The Two Pearls of Wisdom by Alison Goodman. (It's called "Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye" in the US, though why they'd want to create confusion with Eragon, I don't know.) The main character of this book is, firstly, a cripple. A boy who is about to compete with eleven able-bodied boys for the role of apprentice dragoneye.
What immediately engaged me with this book was that this character is no wimp. Despite obvious disadvantages, obvious fear and obvious lack of skills, we know straight away that Eon is not a wimp. He's going to give it his best shot. People are relying on him. And he's spurred on by the reality of what he'll be sent back to if he fails. He grits his teeth against the pain and keeps going. But most of all, Alison Goodman gives us a deep insight into his thoughts and emotions in such a way that Eon springs from the page and into our minds. We're on his side.
Then we very quickly discover that Eon is a girl. I'm not doing a big spoiler here - you're told this quite quickly, and then it becomes an even stronger reason to cheer for her. She really is going against all odds. No girl has ever even attempted to compete for the dragoneye. But she has special talents that you know will either make all the difference or be the death of her. The stakes are raised to higher and higher levels, and each time it serves to connect you more to the character.
Even if you insist you don't like fantasy (and this is based on Chinese mythology more than anything), you might want to read this just for the characters.