Relatability: What Makes Relatable Characters?

A New Yorker article that made the rounds a while back questioned the merit of relatability in characters. “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” by Rebecca Mead is a great think piece. It goes into a brief history of the word “relatable,” takes some pot shots at Ira Glass, and completely denounces the concept of relatability as the act of readers or viewers demanding “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, The New Yorker. You look a little tense. Take a seat, loosen your tie. Would you like a drink? You seem a little … peaked.

relatable characters, relatability
Young readers want relatable characters who validate their own experiences; who hold up a mirror and say, “This weird thing you’re going through? Me, too.”

I Still Believe in Relatability

I’ll be the first to admit that I talk a lot about the concept of relatability as it, ahem, relates to writing fiction, especially for picture book, middle grade, and young adult fiction readers. And no, I did not have an epiphany reading this op-ed piece about how that’s stupid and “hopelessly reductive” to advocate. I still believe that relatability is very important when targeting younger readers, because one has to take their mindset into consideration. Today’s MG and YA readers, especially, thrive on connection and are going through a lot of stuff that they don’t have the facilities or life experience to process yet. Good stuff, and negative stuff. And a lot of the time, they run into problems when they feel alone. They are bullied, they are abused at home, they feel like they have no voice, something secret gets out about them and they feel like they have no control over it, etc. etc. etc. Readers in these age groups want to read to form relationship.

Weird is Relatable

And relatability is a natural extension of wanting to capture a readership that craves connection. Do we make each character an Everyman meant to emulate and capture the widest possible audience by having the most generic (more relatable?) traits possible? No, nobody said that. I would argue that even the more quirky or odd or unsympathetic characters in fiction are relatable by virtue of how weird they are. Because we all have, at one point or another, felt like a profound freak. And even if they’re not the same kind of profound freak, we find solace in their freakishness.

One of my favorite “weird” characters is Beatrice from Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye In Robot. I have a lot in common with Beatrice and a lot absolutely not in common with her. But something about her is so damn relatable that I can’t stand it. Why? I believe it’s because the character is so specific. She feels real. A lot of detail went into her creation. She is the very opposite of the wide net Everygirl trying to be all things to all people. And yet she’s one of the most relatable characters I’ve read.

Relatability Isn’t Necessarily Bland

Rebecca Mead says that relatability is a pox because it somehow demands that a work to “be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… (who) remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Again, I disagree. Those works that pander to the audience and try to grasp the loose concept of relatability might fall to this flaw.

But when Natalie Standiford was writing Beatrice, I don’t think she was coming from a place of “I have to construct this girl to appeal to all.” Writing character development, for Standiford, meant creating a quirky and TRUE character. Now, what’s true about Beatrice to you might be very different from what’s true about Beatrice to me. And that’s okay. The fact remains that there’s just so much there to choose from about this rich and complex characterization.

Instead of producing a cookie-cutter character and a one-size-fits-all book to strive for Rebecca Mead’s portrayal of relatable characters, Natalie Standiford created a work where relatability was a natural byproduct of a lot of tough, honest, and incredibly specific characterization and plotting (see the difference from relatability and boring characters here). Nobody cut any corners, in fact, I bet it was harder to write someone so nuanced.

Young Readers Need Connection

Long story short, I think that PB, MG, and YA readers are precious. And if they’re anything like I was in those age groups, they are searching. They crave connection. If the idea of relatability urges writers on to write even better characters and stories for readers who will very much flourish when relating to the work, I’d say it’s an amazing thing. Let The New Yorker see the glass as half-empty, I see it as half-full of great inspiration and potential for writers.

(Also, and not to ruffle any feathers with my off-the-cuff attempt at humor, I am a damn theatre major and I think that a lot of Shakespeare sucks. It’s a rigorous mental exercise, and a lot of fun to perform, and it revolutionized the English language, and all that is fine and good, but, as a modern woman, I’m happy to leave it at that without putting it on a pedestal. I’ve read the complete works once, when I was young and full of idealism. And you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

Working on character relatability? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

4 Replies to “Relatability: What Makes Relatable Characters?”

  1. Christina C. says:

    LOVE this post!! You’re completely right, both about younger kids and teens (and might I add adults) needing to feel connected especially when they feel alone, but also about how characters who are individuals create relatability.

    I think if you see someone who’s completely different from you in terms of quirks or interests or reactions or whatever, but who feels in many ways what you feel, it’s instant relatability. At least for me.

  2. I wonder if you and Rebecca Mead are actually saying the same thing. She is saying that making all characters the same is a betrayal of art, and you are saying that making all characters the same is a betrayal of relatability, since idiosyncracy creates relatability.

    I think ‘relatable’ is a very dangerous word, because by being all things to all people the word can be used as a weapon. Unrelatable can simply mean ‘I didn’t like it much.’ And the reasons someone didn’t relate to it may be simply that they weren’t open to seeing things from a different perspective.

    I was surprised that neither of these discussions brought up the issue of portrayals of race. I think that many people reject ‘other’ perspectives on the basis of relatability when, in fact, they are simply saying ‘I don’t want to see the world from this perspective.’ People claim that their characters are quirky or unique, but they ignore real differences, and all of their differences are surface differences, simply dressing.

    I think it’s true that younger readers are looking to connect with characters, though, actually, from personal experience, I was looking to fall into other worlds and hear stories about impassioned people involving themselves in dramatic events. But I also think that younger readers have a much greater capacity to connect with different kinds of characters than adults. They don’t have to see themselves in them at all, because their sense of self is not yet formed. What they need to see is possibility – not who they are now, but who they could become, emotionally, ethically, etc.

    So yes, individuality is important, but individuality doesn’t mean another cookie cutter character with different sprinkles. It means taking a risk and showing a person who may be completely other, and yet be understandable, so that you can feel what hurts them and what motivates them, even if it is alien to you. And that’s where the stakes comes in.

    I felt that Ira Glass’s most damming tweet was the ‘no stakes’ one. Honestly, I hate King Lear. I think it is a stupid play and a stupid story and just because I read it in the original Middle Welsh doesn’t make the basic narrative better. But it is also a totally character-driven play. And all of the stakes are entirely about Lear. I don’t know how you can praise someone’s performance as King Lear and still say the play has no stakes. If you don’t feel for Lear and feel his dilemma, then the performance wasn’t doing what it needed to do, which is elevate the play, beyond its foolish plot, and reveal the character – who is wrong, alien and blind – to be someone understandable, someone who makes sense.

    Relatability is an oversimplification. What we want is not a character who is instantly ‘just like me’ but a character who makes sense. And those characters may not be relatable, not at all, but still be interesting. We like to say that you can write relatable characters, but we don’t say that you can write a character that all people will feel connected to, when actually they are the same thing. Creating a character that all people will feel connected to is impossible, because people are different and will connect with different things. So why not just create a character, one who has wants and needs and fears, and acts in accordance with them, and let the people who relate relate, and let the people who don’t just be interested and satisfied that the character is solid?

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