Oh, the people you’ll hate

I love reading fiction. I also enjoy non-fiction, but a well-written piece of fiction is at least as instructional, and often more enjoyable for when you don’t want to have to work too hard or to be too depressed at the state of reality.

Lately, though, I’ve found that a lot of books I’ve read have a common theme: completely unlikable characters. Given that a lot of it has been dystopian or apocalyptic sci-fi, this shouldn’t be too surprising. When society crumbles, I expect that a lot of the least likable people are going to be the ones that survive. Also, they make for interesting stories and situations because they’re willing to do things that decent people aren’t.

Case in point, I just finished reading The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s a very well-written look at the collapse of the American southwest as the water dries up and various entities begin fighting for control of its flow. Considering current events in California, and the dependency of California, Arizona, and Nevada on water from the north, it’s not only a believable storyline, it’s almost certainly a peek at our near future reality. Paolo paints a picture of drought, dust, and desperation extremely well, and in that regard, The Water Knife is an outstanding example of proper situational world-building.

Because of that, I found myself a little disappointed that there are no characters in this book that I like or can root for completely. I realize this is a bit of a disingenuous complaint, given my recognition above that end times make for jerky humans, but still, I’m not a huge fan of finishing a book and realizing I don’t care if any of the main characters live or die. Some of them I’d probably be just as happy to see perish, to be honest. It’s not like they haven’t earned it based on the scale of misery they’ve inflicted on others.

I realize that I’m about to ask a question on a website that doesn’t allow comments, but when you read a work of fiction, how much are you invested in liking at least one of the main characters in the book? Do you care? Does it matter to you, or do you care mainly about the believability of the story, and if that requires 100% of the characters to be people you’d love to push off a cliff, so be it?

Let me know on Twitter what you think.

Edit: If you don’t mind a couple small spoilers, here’s my review of The Water Knife on Goodreads.