What makes a character relatable?

17/09/2015 Discussions 18

What makes a character relatable?One thing that can really affect how much you like a character is how relatable you find them, but what does that actually mean, and what exactly is it that makes a character relatable?

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!

  • Similarity 

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.

  • Vulnerability

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…

  • Imperfection

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.

  • Actions

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.

What makes a character relatable?

So what do you think makes a character relatable?

18 Responses to “What makes a character relatable?”

  1. Lola

    I think for me the main thing that makes a character relatable is how much they are similar to me and how realistic they are. I don’t like perfect characters as no one is truly perfect, so I like characetr to have some flaws too. Then there are some characteristics, like being a control freak, planning things or loving animals that make a character instantly relatable as those are things I am/ do too and that makes it easier to relate to a character. I feel that a character doesn’t especially needs to have the same problems, although that certainly helps, but more a similiar way to deal with things or react like it as myself. Great topic, I often use the term relatable, but never really thought of what that means.

    • Laura

      Similarity is probably the most important one, as I think it’s easier to imagine yourself in the character’s place if you’re more alike, especially if you have the same characteristics.
      You definitely make a good point about how characters reactions to situations being important in terms of relatability as well. If the situation was one that I obviously couldn’t relate to (something out of science fiction of fantasy for example), then I do think about how I would deal with it, and how similar it is to how the character reacts.

  2. Jee Ann

    Ooh, such a nice topic. I had to wrestle with this one when trying to come up with a “flaw”. After I read Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker, I asked what makes readers want to root for a character, stick to their journey, and relate to them? It wasn’t just the fact that they’ve got the Most Unique Attribute in the Story, but that they can be prideful, too frank, apathetic, etc. I like to see MCs who are afraid of something, who are unsure about saving people or solving things. Inversely, I like to see side characters who are whole and cool. What is wrong with me? ;P haha

    • Laura

      I totally get what you mean! I think main characters need to have a lot of inner conflict to keep things interesting, but side characters generally need to have it a bit more figured out so they can point the main character in the right direction, or offer up a comparison. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

    This is a fabulous topic! And I agree with you, your list sums it up perfectly. I cannot handle a perfect character, so imperfection is KEY. And yes to similarity- or even similarity to traits you wish to possess. Another thing for me I think is just the voice in general- sometimes the voice of a character is very open and inviting, and sometimes not so much. And I agree with you about the actions. Because no, we won’t be in that actual situation, but we probably have some way we’d like to think we’d react, and therefore want the character to also. This is great!

    • Laura

      Imperfection is definitely one of the most important ones for me, and I think even having the same imperfections as a character can make them really relatable.
      And I totally agree that voice is a really good way that characters can be more relatable. I find that there are certain character’s voices that I just connect with more easily too, and some that I don’t. Sometimes I can’t even pinpoint exactly why!

  4. Sarah H

    For me, it would be how realistic they are. I don’t expect a fantasy hero to have similar experiences as mine, lol, but if he reacts to what is thrown at him in a human way it’ll be easier for me to identify with him.

    There’s nothing worse than flawless characters.

    • Laura

      I definitely agree with you. An unrealistic character who acts in a weird way to a situation would be pretty much impossible to relate to.
      And flawless characters really are the worst!

    • Laura

      Vulnerability is definitely so important! I think it can trigger a lot of sympathy with a character, which in my opinion can only make you like them more.

  5. Daniela Ark

    love this post! Imperfection would have to be my top one. I’m a sucker for character flaws and then a close second vulnerability which is closely related to their flaws. Great post (oops I had already said that but I really like it 🙂 )

  6. J. V. Speyer

    I think a lot of what makes a character relatable is how they react to the situation in which they find themselves. If we can follow their thought process, and understand why they make the choices they do, we can probably relate to them. In Star Wars, Luke is a pretty normal young kid. He’s reluctant to leave Tattoine until his aunt and uncle are killed, no matter how exciting the offer Ben makes. After that, not only does he not have anything to stay for, his understanding of his own danger is greater. We can’t relate to having the Force, but we can relate to being scared to leave what we know.

    • Laura

      That’s such a good point, and a really good example! We definitely need to be able to relate to their feelings and the decisions they make, even if we can’t relate to some of the more fantastical elements of a story, like them having powers etc.

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