Personally, I think being relatable is all about how convincing a character is as a person. All people experience emotions like happiness, sadness, love, hate, fear, anger, loneliness, so when we read about a character going through those emotions and it is convincing, then I think we recognise it and therefore relate. For example, a character in a fantasy novel with crazy magical abilities we could never even dream of possessing can still be relatable because we can read about them feeling scared or alone, and think ‘I have felt that too.’
However, I do feel like there are certain characters that we can all individually relate to more than others, even amongst characters who are all similarly convincing. So here’s a few of my thoughts on what makes a character more relatable, and I’d love to hear yours!
It stands to reason that people will relate more to people who are like them. For example, a teenage girl will relate better to a teenage girl character than to a forty year old male character. Hence why most YA protagonists are teenage, and more often than not female, because that’s the primary audience of that genre. Of course, we can’t really relate to a lot of the falling in love with vampires and being assassins/long lost queens that goes on in them, but in other ways we can relate to these characters that are like ourselves, as we still share a lot of the same struggles and uncertainties about our futures and our identities. Therefore when you do read a book that has a character who is like yourself but you find that you can’t relate to them in any way, it can lead you to seriously question what went wrong.
Fiction is absolutely full of people who are unrealistically tough and can win against overwhelming odds – fantasy in particular loves to have petite women characters that can defeat opponents several times larger and stronger than themselves (and as much as I love these kick-ass ladies, it just isn’t realistic!). I think even if I became some kind of martial arts pro (yes, the thought is laughable!), I still wouldn’t really stand much of a chance against someone bigger and stronger than me, or against superior numbers, because at the end of the day, I would still be 5ft 3 and have almost no upper body strength (I work on a deli counter and you should see me attempting to lift the big joints of ham onto the slicer!).
So how could an author make one of these seemingly indestructible characters relatable? Give them some kind of vulnerability! This could be a person they would risk everything for (which is a very, very common one), or an emotional weakness (a trauma in their past? a memory they want to stay buried?), the sudden loss of their indestructibility (eg. Jamie in ASOIAF, who becomes a lot more likeable following the loss of his hand…not because of that, but it certainly seems related!), or even just a negative personality trait that neutralises their general ‘perfectness’. Which leads us onto…
In theory, how could you not like someone who is perfect – after all they would look perfect, have perfect morals and ethics, and pretty much be the nicest, kindest person ever. Because you can’t relate, that’s why.
Perfect people don’t exist, so when we see them in books we can’t relate to them in any manner, or even believe that they could be real. Therefore, character flaws are an essential part of a believable and relatable character, and are often the fuel for the narrative – just look at Hamlet! The play would literally end not long after the ghost’s appearance if it weren’t for Hamlet’s indecisiveness, and I’d like to think most of us would also dither a bit before killing our stepfather on the say so of a ghost! Hence, he is relatable to us, despite being a 14th century fictional Danish prince, because he is imperfect.
- Problems and situations
Another way characters can be relatable is to have the same, or similar problems to us. Take the popularity of romance novels for example – maybe people just like to read a book and know they’re not the only person in history ever to have got dumped and been heartbroken, or to have struggled to meet the right person. And then of course these books offer reassurance, seen as usually the person that dumped them ends up not having been the One anyway, and then Mr Right eventually shows up. Hooray!
This also relates to my first point about similarity, as people who are of a similar demographic to ourselves will more than likely suffer similar problems. Teenage girls for example often suffer with self esteem problems, bullying problems, their first boy problems, school problems etc., so they can read about these in books and relate to them, and know that they’re not alone.
I also think this is why books like All The Bright Places and The Fault in Our Stars become so popular: people can relate to things like illness and mental health problems because they are the unfortunate realities of a lot of people’s lives, and it can be incredibly reassuring to read a book and know you’re not alone, and that other people have experienced what you have.
Maybe we can’t directly relate to some of the problems characters in sci-fi or fantasy experience – e.g.. your sister being taken hostage by an evil wizard or a crazy dictator imposing cruel laws and punishments on your society – but we can certainly think about how we would deal with some of the ethical conundrums they face, and hopefully relate to (or possibly disagree with) the characters’ decisions. And as for more realistic fiction, we can definitely relate to those characters problems, and therefore their decisions, whether they make good ones or bad ones.
So what do you think makes a character relatable?