I'm about one-hundred pages in to Garth Nix's YA novel Clariel. One purpose I have in reading this book is to discover how Nix gets us to invest in a story with a gruff and unlikable heroine who consistently resists the call to adventure. That's a tall order for any author, but Garth Nix seems to have pulled it off. So here I am, pen in hand, taking notes on how he does it. Since it looks like I'll have quite the page of notes by the time I finish Clariel, I've decided to share my thoughts in several installments. What follows takes us through the first one-hundred pages, or right up to her first lesson in Charter Magic. If you haven't read the book yet, you may not want to continue reading.
1. To make an "unsympathetic character" "sympathetic", establish what they love and what their goal is early on. Give them something they want that the audience can sympathize with. For Clariel, it's a desire to go back to the Forest and be a Boarder. Within just a few pages, Nix makes sure that we know what Clariel loves, hates, and wants.
2. In order to hook the reader and help them through their initial distaste for the main character, use a prologue that introduces the threat. This shows us what the cost will be if the main character refuses the "call to adventure". In the case of Clariel, we start off with a Free Magic creature possessing an old junk collector. We don't hear about it again until around page ninety-nine, but the knowledge that it's out there adds an undercurrent of urgency to all of Clariel's sturm und drang.
3. A character like Clariel can make up for being gruff and angsty by demonstrating exceptional competence in one area (in Clariel's case, her wood-lore and survival skills). They need not be competent in other important areas, but if they are not weak, then we can at least respect them and maintain our interest.
4. In order for the character to remain an "unwilling hero" and not simply become "wishy-washy", they must remain ardently focused on achieving their own goals (back to the forest, back to the forest, back to the forest). This gives them an understandable reason for resisting the "call to adventure". They cannot resist the call permanently and still have much of a story, so at some point they will need to try and wrench the "call to adventure" to their own purposes. For Clariel, this seems to be a matter of "I do this and I get to go back to the forest".
5. Following point four, it is important that something from the world of the "call to adventure" threaten the hero's own goals early on. This keeps the hero engaged with the "call to adventure" even while in the midst of trying to refuse it. In Clariel's case, this comes when Mistress Ader tells her that unless the king resumes control of the kingdom, the Boarders will be disbanded.
6. Give the character friends and allies that are maximally invested in the "call to adventure" and who can help the hero see how it applies to the hero's own goals. Let them help the hero remove an obstacle to the hero's personal goals while at the same time pushing them to accept the "call to adventure". For Clariel, this process begins at the Academy where she is introduced to the conspirators who are seeking to block Governor Kilp and destroy the Free Magic creature that is using him to gain power.