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?
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:
- Do Characters Need to Be Likable?
- Twelve Traits for a Lovable Hero
- Five Surprisingly Successful Characters and Why They Work
- Should You Use Non-Humans In Your Setting?
I hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!