Q&A

Is Relatability Actually Important?

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When talking about writing, a big deal is often made of how characters need to be “relatable,” how people prefer characters that they can identify with. But in all honesty, I have never once in my life experienced that, to the extent where I struggle to even comprehend the notion of liking a character specifically for being more relatable. When I think of my favorite characters throughout all of fiction, not a one of them is because of how relatable I find them. It’s the exact opposite; it’s how different they are that really engrosses me. (This is one of the big reasons I will always always always be immediately more drawn to nonhuman characters – given the choice between the human prince or the lizardfolk warrior, you can bet I’m far more invested in Scaleyboi Mcgee’s story).

I already know what I’m like; I value fiction – especially spec fic – for the opportunity to experience a different perspective and a different life. Am I just weird like this? Should I struggle to try and make characters more widely “relatable,” or is the whole idea of characters needing to be relatable in the first place – at least beyond the basics needed to make them feel like real people rather than amorphous concepts – really not all it’s cracked up to be?
-Arix

Hey Arix, thanks for writing in!

The concept of relatability is really broad, to the point that it often doesn’t even feel like a single thing. The short version is that, in general, people enjoy characters more when said characters’ decisions and motivations are understandable, meaning the audience can relate to the character. But it goes a lot deeper than that.

Sometimes, relatability has a lot to do with skin-deep traits. A lot of people will relate more to a character who looks and sounds like them, which is what Chris talks about in her article on identification. For a long time, straight white men have been assumed as the default audience for spec fic, which is one reason you so often see straight white male protagonists described as “relatable” even when they seem to do truly bizarre things.

But relatability can also come from how a character acts and is treated. A lot of people find the fish-man in The Shape of Water relatable, even though I don’t think any fish-people have watched the film. They find him relatable because he’s an outcast with needs that human society isn’t good at fulfilling, when the human authorities aren’t being actively cruel to him that is.

Of course, relatability isn’t the only factor in how well a character will be received. Novelty is also important, which I suspect is why you’re more drawn to non-human characters; they’re a lot more novel! It’s also possible you find something relatable about these characters, the way they act or think, despite the fact that you are (presumably) a human.

Ideally, a character has both novelty and relatability, depending on their role in the story. It’s all very well to make the hero of your story a sapient plasma-starfish, but if readers can’t understand why this strange alien does what it does, the character is likely to fall flat. But if readers can relate to the character, then the extra novelty of being a sapient plasma-starfish will be a real boon.

We have a few other posts you might find useful on this subject:

I hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I think it varies a bit from person to person how much they care about relatability. Me and Husband have pretty similar tastes in books, movies etc, but I’ve noticed I care more about relatibility than he does.
    To me, it’s HUGE when I find a character who’s very similar to me in the way they think (if there are inner monologues, for instance, and the way the character “talks to themself” is just like I talk to myself), weighs pros and cons in a very similar way in situations of choice, have very similar priorities etc. I just LOVE that! And it’s simply not as big a thing to Husband.

    When it comes to more superficial similarities, though, as if I would read a novel about a philosophy professor, I’d be more like “cool, this MC is a philosophy professor!”, but it wouldn’t be a BIG DEAL to me, in the way similar thoughts are.

  2. Vic

    I think there’s a bit of a misconception about what a character being relatable means. It doesn’t mean the character has to share traits with the reader, so that the reader can identify with them. If they did, and if all your characters are “relatable”, than wouldn’t that just mean that all your characters are identical to one another?

    Instead, what I think it means is that readers should be able to empathize (but not necessarily sympathize) with the characters, even if the characters have traits that are abhorrent to the reader. The reader should be able to understand the character’s world view, and how it shapes their actions. They should believe that it’s possible for a real person, given the character’s background and circumstances, to act like the character is acting.

    I love the character of Big Jim Rennie, from Stephen King’s Under the Dome. His mind is so warped by his religious obsession with power and control, and he is just so deliciously evil that he’s actually one of my favorite characters, period. And yet he has absolutely no traits that I can relate to personally.

    So don’t try to make your characters into mirrors for the reader to see themselves into; that’s self-limiting. Instead, strive to make characters believable and convincing.

    • Arix

      That’s basically my confusion. As I see it, relatability and empathy are very different concepts. Relatability is “I know, first hand, what this feels like”, whereas empathy is “Through spending time with this person, I understand why they feel and act the way they do”. The latter I find very important; the former, far less so.

      • Vic

        That’s exactly how I feel too, only I simply use the terms interchangeably (even though they don’t technically mean the same thing).

        Now, there is something to be said for the reader relating to a character through shared experience, but only if you zoom out on the experience and on what “shared” means, which is what I believe Oren meant with his fish-man analogy.

        For an extra example of this, consider that very few people are of short stature and happen to be the sons of great lords that are obsessed with the strength of their family and the respect that strength brings. But even if there is only one Tyrion Lannister, a lot of people can relate to having a strained relationship with their father and the feeling that they are never good enough in their eyes.

        • Arix

          Yeah, that’s basically what I meant by “the basics needed to make them feel like real people and not amorphous concepts” – if you zoom out far enough, almost anything can be “relatable”. If you can’t relate to Tyrion directly, then maybe you can to having that strained relationship with a parent. If not that, another family member. If not that, a close friend. If not that, the general feeling of inadequacy. If not that…

          You get where I’m going. At some point, the connection becomes too tenuous to really consider it “relating” to the character any more – it’s just a feeling that’s common to many people.

  3. Dave L

    >Should I struggle to try and make characters more widely “relatable,”

    No

    Any time you have to “struggle and try” w/ ANYTHING, the result will almost certainly be stilted, uncomfortable, and unable to compete w/ stories written by authors to whom that comes naturally. It may also be so frustrating as to turn you off writing altogether

    While there is value in trying new and different techniques, and writing in general can be difficult at times, if your attitude is “struggle and try just because I think that’s what my audience wants”, you will have problems

    There is value in “relatability “, but if that tool is not in your toolbox, then concentrate on those cool novel characters instead

    Even if the target audience is smaller, the increase in quality will result in more readers in the end, particularly if that target audience is underserved

    • Arix

      I’m not totally sure I’d agree with that. It kind of implies that you shouldn’t write anything you find difficult. But, well like you said, good storytelling is difficult, regardless of familiarity. I think the difference is that some things are important enough to be worth the struggle, while some, like you say, will damage both the work and your own motivation for not nearly enough gain. My query was basically which side of the line does relatability fall on. Given how often we see people say things like “Thing X is good because it’s relatable” or “Thing Y is unrelatable and therefore bad” as though relatability and quality go hand in hand, it always made me wonder.

  4. LazerRobot

    The biggest thing for me personally is emotions. Even if a character is absolutely nothing like me, if their emotions are conveyed well, I can empathize with them. For example, I’m not a very angry person, but I still know what anger feels like, so if a character is very angry and is motivated by their anger, I can still find myself understanding what they’re experiencing and find it relatable.

    It certainly helps if I know why they feel the way they feel, though. And watching how they respond to their emotions is important too, which ties back into the whole motivation thing.

    P.S. I also love nonhuman characters, which is why I choose to play as nonhumans in videogames 100% of the time when given the option. I’d gladly read a story about a lizard person or a robot or a plasma starfish any day.

  5. LeeEsq

    This is a big issue in historical fiction. Since people in the past really did act, believe, and think differently than most people living in the present regardless of political beliefs, if you make your protagonist too of the time then the audience might not really like them that much. If you are going for mass market appeal that isn’t a good thing. So authors often make the protagonists more modern thinking than others or just ignore a lot of what made the past really weird for most modern people.

    • Dave L

      Particularly in matters of social justice

      • Jeppsson

        If people want to write historical fiction with authentic characters, it’s probably best to do research by reading tons of texts actually written at the time. I mean, you can’t do that for any time period, of course, not if you write about, like, bronze age characters. But insofar as it’s possible.

        It’s so easy for people to err in the other direction too. Like, they think people in the past weren’t social justicy by today’s standards, so instead they make them like today’s conservatives or bigots. But today’s bigotry and conservatism are ALSO different from past beliefs in numerous ways.

      • LeeEsq

        I think most people living in developed countries will be disgusted around the amount of entertainment involving cruelty to animals in the past. You generally don’t have too many characters into cock fighting or bear-baiting even those were considered good fun until the 19th century at earliest.

  6. Jeppsson

    I think relability can be a trade-off thing too.

    When I had beta readers for my first and so far only finished book, one of them commented:
    “I don’t get why the MC sometimes thinks about things that are completely irrelevant to her situation. It doesn’t add anything to her character or the plot, so I think you should cut that out.”
    Another person, who did have criticism about other things, wrote:
    “What I like best is that the MC is so relatable, she feels like a real person, more so than any other character I’ve ever read about! Like how her mind races when she’s stressed and under pressure; that’s just the way people react in real life.”
    I wrote her like that because that’s how I am under pressure, and presumably beta reader no 2 as well. Whereas people who don’t react like that found it weird.
    In the end I toned it down a little and added a bit more self-awareness on part of the MC, but I largely kept this quirk of hers as is.
    I think a lot of personality issues might work in similar ways; you win some and lose some.

    Or what do you say, more experienced authors on this blog? Please chime in.

  7. Cay Reet

    For me, relatability is down to understanding the motivations of a character. I don’t have to agree with them or think their motivations are good, but I can relate better to a character, be it a human, a lizard, or an evil-minded shade of pink, if I can see where their actions come from, why they do what they do.

    The more traits a character shares with me, the more I can relate to them, too, but it’s less important for me than to understand their actions. Even a character who is absolutely not like me can be relateable, provided I get to understand why they do what they do. And, again, I don’t have to approve of their actions – with villains, chances are high I won’t -, but I need to understand where they’re coming from.

    • Arix

      Yeah, that’s like my comment above about the difference between relatability and empathy. Empathy – understanding why characters act the way they do based on what you know about them – is super important, or you end up with a bunch of amorphous concepts running around doing things with no rhyme or reason. Relatability – knowing first hand how they’re feeling based on your own personal experience – is what I wonder about.

      • Cay Reet

        The problem with the two expressions Empathy and Reliability is that they actually have a lot in common. If you can relate to someone’s trouble, because you’ve had a similar problem, you find it easier to empathise with them. If you are very empathic, you’re good at extrapolating from your own experience and can relate to someone in a situation only somewhat related to what you’ve been through yourself. Over a certain age (such as my 45), that includes almost everything which could happen to a person.

        Also, if you’re a woman and have consumed a lot of western media, you can easily ‘transpolate’ from the situation of a male character to that of yourself, even though you don’t share gender – simply because the ‘white male’ is the standard and you’ve learned to empathise with him.

        • Arix

          They do have things in common, yes, but they’re still – as I see it at least – very distinct things. I can still one million percent empathise with a character even if I don’t feel like I relate to them in any way.

          • Jeppsson

            I’d say you have THREE different things going on here:
            1. First-hand experience with the character’s situation.
            2. You haven’t experienced their circumstances, but your personalities, preferences, way of thinking etc is so similar that they react the way you WOULD react (probably) if you were in the same situation.
            3. You’re different from the character but still understand them.

  8. Michael Campbell

    I’ld recommend an experiment.
    Sit down and watch both THX-1138 and The Great Escape.
    They’re basically the same film but one has a central character that’s difficult to relate to:- a pill popping factory drone.
    The other film has a bunch of characters and if any one of them is someone you can relate to then the film has found its method for keeping your arse; seated.

    One of the problems with modern communication is the search for a one word expression that covers the totality of an idea.

    Don’t think “relate-ability”.
    Think “care enough about; to invest two hours, watching the movie”.

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