With a title like that, I’m sure some of you thought that this was going to be about relationships. Maybe even romance, or even something steamier.
Yeah, no. Sorry. And for that last one, don’t get your hopes up. That’s not what I write (and yet people keep requesting it …).
Which probably leaves a number of you wondering if maybe what I’m going to be talking about today is character interactions. And, sorry to say, like the rest of the theories, I’m going to have to nix this one as well.
No, today’s topic is something that was kicked off in my head by an interview I read over the weekend and the ensuing reddit commentary. A film producer (or maybe writer/director, to be honest I’m not sure and I don’t feel like looking it back up) was talking about why they didn’t like the current success of superhero films, and arguing that no one really liked them because the characters weren’t anything that anyone could relate to.
Now, I don’t agree with his assessment, but it got me thinking about characters that we write and create, and what our audience is going to relate to, and I realized it might make a good topic for a Being a Better Writer post. After all, if people want characters that they can relate to … well, it’s important that we understand both what they mean by that and how we can deliver it.
First things first: what does a reader mean when they say that they want a character they can relate to?
Well, it turns out that in barest terms, it’s actually pretty simple. When a reader asks that a character is relatable, what they mean is that they want a character who shares traits, situations, context, or other attributes with the reader. Not to the self-insert level, mind, but these readers want a character who they can find commonality in. For example, one of the comments agreeing that the current superhero movies were unrelatable to them said that they preferred more “real” characters before offering an example: a single mother with two kids, a dead-end job, and cancer.
Now, I have no idea which moments of those cross over with the commentator that made that statement, but from their explanation what they were looking for in a relatable character was something with a situation that was similar to their own in some way. Either in grounding, personal situation, opinions … it could vary. The point is, they wanted a character that was in some manner dealing with some of the same things they were rather than saving the world..
Here’s where things get tricky, however. So we have this commentator who has listed what they’re looking for in a relatable character. But does this mean that a superhero character such as Captain America or Iron Man isn’t ever going to be a relatable character?
No. And that’s where this starts to get tricky. See, the aforementioned commentator might not relate to Cap or Iron Man because what they’re looking for is a character that is struggling with a fight against cancer, etc, etc. But another reader may find that story completely unrelatable, instead finding more common ground with Cap or Iron Man’s values and goals.
See the issue here? Above I said a relatable character is one who shares traits, situations, context, or other attributes with the reader. But the thing is, these can all very in a wide variety of ways.
And that’s where this gets hard. Reader A might not relate with your superhero character because what’s important to them is earning their weekly paycheck—not a commonality someone like Tony Stark is going to share—while Reader B may relate to the same character because they place a high value in the characters sense of right and wrong.
Which is why no matter what, superhero movies (or stories) are never going to hit on a “magic bullet” that makes all of their characters relatable to every audience. Nor will any book. You just can’t. You can’t write a story that has a character (or characters) that resonate with every single person who picks it up. Different people value different things, and so while one reader may find a character’s struggle against solitude both haunting and familiar, another reader will simply shrug and turn the page.
If you’re starting to panic at this stage, don’t. This sounds complicated, but what it really comes back to is two things that you’ve probably heard already about writing: knowing your audience and writing realistic characters.
Let’s talk about that first one first: Knowing your audience. This can be tricky, especially for a new writer. It gets easier after you’ve got a couple of books under your belt and have a decent idea from conversations with fans about what they did and didn’t like, but before then? It can be hard to tell what sort of audience your work is going to appeal to without that baseline.
Does this mean that you’re out of luck? Of course not. When in doubt, write for the audience you know: Yourself. What makes you happy? Or, if you’re well-read, think of your favorite authors, the ones you’d like to emulate, and write to that sphere. After all, they’re successful enough to be published, and they’re making money at it, so there is an audience there.
Anyway, I’ll save a further examination of that for another time, but suffice to say, the audience you write to will play a large part in determining what characters will and won’t be relatable to your readers. The aforementioned reddit commentator? They’re simply not the audience for superhero stories, and that’s okay (provided they don’t turn around and start arguing that no one should enjoy superhero stories because they don’t). But there is an audience for that type of story, that will find those characters relatable.
So, know your audience. Now, what about the second one, writing realistic characters?
Well, I’ve talked about this before. A lot, actually. So much so, in fact, that one of the larger tags in the topic cloud on the sidebar is “Characters,” along with over a dozen articles written about different aspects of characters like emotion, perspective, etc. And I recommend you check it out if you’re looking for more information on this topic. Right here, for now, I’m just going to gloss over a basic concept (you can check the aforementioned dedicated articles for further information).
Here’s what it boils down to: You need to write characters that actually feel like real people. Don’t build a caricature, a one or two-note robot. Give your characters depth, emotion, ideals … the whole shebang.
Obviously, this is a good idea anyway, but in context, here’s the explanation: The more developed a character is, the more “real” they are to the reader, the greater chance that they will resonate with the reader in some way, that there will be a shared interest, fear, ideal, etc that your reader can find commonality with. And this applies to all characters, too, regardless of genre. Fantasy? A reader can resonate with a well-developed character. Science-Fiction? The same. Lovecraftian horror? Yep. No matter what genre you’re writing, if you create a well-rounded, well-developed character, you increase the chances of your readers finding something that they have in common with them.
On a side note, a lot of this comes back to remembering to keep our characters human. Yes, even if they’re aliens or whatever. Even if you have a character like Superman who’s nigh-invulnerable, we can make them relatable by showing the reader the commonalities they share … even if there are small differences in the mix.
For example (and again going with superheroes), consider the excellent Pixar movie The Incredibles. Now, the main character of that movie is a superhero who’s pretty hard to hurt and boasting prodigious strength, so it would seem that he’d be hard to relate to, correct?
Well … except he isn’t. Pixar, being the storytellers that they are, reminded us of his humanity. He’s a superhero … but he’s been forced into a job he doesn’t like, has a car that’s too small, has difficulty adjusting to his life as a married man and a parent now that his old life is gone …. I could go on. But how many of those things are relatable, even just to you?
Marvel does a wonderful job at this as well. As much as we love seeing characters tossing cars or saving the day, one reason why the Marvel films are such a hit is that they don’t forget the man underneath the mask and give them problems, concerns, and challenges that, for some, hit close to home. We may not have Steve Roger’s strength or stamina … but who hasn’t felt like an outcast in a place they were once welcome, or felt like they didn’t know their place in the world?
So, you want to write relatable characters? Consider what your audience wants, and then write human characters that are fleshed out and real so that your audience has as much of a chance as possible to bond with them. The two will cross, and you’ll find readers that can relate to those characters. It might take a bit of trial and error, but you’ll get it.
So, all the above said, this big long swath of text that you’ve just poured through … we come to one last question: do you need relatable characters.
No, actually. You don’t.
Again, this starts to have all kinds of overlap. But just as there are some readers that enjoy fantasy and some that enjoy science fiction, there are readers who really want to be able to relate to the characters … and readers that don’t care.
What do the latter want? Fun characters. Fun stories. Fun experiences.
Don’t get me wrong, the former are looking for this as well. And overall, the definition of “fun” may vary a little … but don’t worry if not all of your characters are relatable to everyone. This is, after all, why we have other story elements, multiple characters, etc. Not everyone needs to be relatable … though again, it doesn’t hurt to get as close as you can. But don’t wig out so much over whether or not your reader is going to have a personal connection with every single character that it distracts you from reading the book.
My mother loved The Hunger Games, citing that she felt very in connection with the protagonist. I, on the other hand, didn’t have that relation to the main character. But I still loved the book and read it all the same. I just found different elements that gripped me rather than a relation to the main character.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should try to write characters that at least a chunk of your audience relates to. But at the same time, if you find that some of your audience doesn’t have much in common with some of your characters … well, that can be okay. Those readers can still enjoy the story for what it is. No need to panic when one of a hundred readers says that they liked the story but didn’t connect as well with the characters if they still liked the adventure.
All right, so in summation. Readers like to relate to characters because it gives them a common ground with them and makes the character more “real.” But what readers find as “relatable” can vary from audience to audience, so you need to know who you are writing for. At the same time, however, always striving to make our characters more real, more human, even in small ways, will make them more relatable to a wider part of our audience. Granted, we can never appeal to everyone, and that shouldn’t be our goal. But if we can write real characters we’ll appeal to more than if we write flatter, less dynamic and human characters.
So get out there, get writing, and make some real characters. Figure out what your audience wants, even if that audience starts with you. Then build some characters, be they superheroes, spell-slinging adventurers, star-traveling explorers, or disease-battling doctors.
Good luck. Now go write.