I was at a family gathering a few weeks ago, talking to a friend of my mother’s who was working on a romance novel. She had sent her draft out for feedback on an online forum and said she had gotten polarizing responses with regards to her main character. One reader absolutely loved the protagonist for her sass and spark, but the general consensus found her abrasive, hard, and altogether unlikeable. I tended to agree with the former response, I began to tell her– but apparently, the character’s likability was more than a matter of opinion. In the genre of romance novels, she told me, it is actually a rule that the main female character be likable, that is, relatable enough for any female reader to identify with her (this, assuming of course that the female reader has the same orientation, cultural, and socioeconomic experience as the character).
It’s not just romance novels; we see it in our movies too. Hollywood has an obsession with relatable characters. It has a fear of taking risks with characters that, upon first glance, might be more idiosyncratic, more difficult to swallow. But the problem isn’t just a Hollywood one, either. It seems to be a more general myth of storytelling that characters ought to be relatable, that it is a duty of the storyteller to make their audience “like” their character– or rather, to relate to them. I want to use this essay to talk more about what it means for an audience to “relate” to a character in a story, and what the larger implications for such a relation might be.
Let me clarify in the first place, what I mean when I say “relatable”. The way I see it, there are two ways that a character can relate to an audience– either it relates to you or you relate to it. On the one hand a character may be built, engineered from the get-go taking into account the expectations of its audience: what the audience likes, what the audience dislikes, what character goals they can relate to and what they can’t, what flaws strike a chord, and what flaws are unforgivable or socially unacceptable (again, an act of prediction that, as I discuss in my other essay, has varied results). Sitcom characters are often a good model for this, in their moderateness– moderately wealthy, moderately dressed, with moderate habits of eating and hygiene, and a few quirks but for the most part moderate temperaments with moderate, universal goals (find love, get job, have friends, etc.).
When the character is related to the audience, or rather when it is subordinated to the audience’s expectations, its main purpose in the story is often to be a vessel, which viewers may pour themselves into, so that we believe this story is happening to us, or could at least imagine it happening to us. With a generic, homogenized enough personality, and flattened-out enough emotional goals they’re likely to share some common ground with any viewer who chances upon them.
However, the universal character is no ordinary human being. They have a polish to them that ordinary audience members lack. Often they’re just a bit richer, a bit prettier, a bit smarter and more charismatic than we are in our day to day lives. In addition to serving as a mirror in which we see the same person, or at least a similar person to ourselves, these characters often serve to show us the person we wish we could be. Of course, this becomes messy when the characters we wish we could be are also white, male, or skinny and blond, straight and wealthy, since these assume one way of being human to be more ideal than another.
Prejudices aside (for now), universal characters are safe. If the audience identifies with them, they leave the theatre with a sense of familiar comfort and even flattery. If the characters are badly written so the audience finds it difficult to connect with them, at the very least they leave feeling indifferent.
In contrast to this catering of a character to an audience, it’s another matter entirely to build a character in spite of one’s audience. Instead of maneuvering the rules in an attempt to appease the system set up by the broad majority of viewers, the storyteller either disregards or deliberately goes against the audience’s expectations for what the character should be.
This is most obviously seen in the rejection of certain social norms. Spike Lee replaces the expected stereotype of a black sidekick with a variety of strong, complex protagonists in Do the Right Thing. Lena Dunham replaces the expected Megan-Fox type starlet with an overweight and physically imperfect (by Hollywood standards) female protagonist in her show Girls. But stories can also disrupt the expectation of social norms on an even more subtle level. For instance, where a character might be expected to be sociable and warm towards others, the main character may be misanthropic, awkward, a social recluse or sometimes even a psychopath. Take Sherlock, from the British miniseries, who at the end of the first episode is seen towering over a dying man pressing his foot into his wound in an attempt to get information, or Luther of the eponymous British crime drama, who we first see releasing his grip on a man dangling below him from a fatal height, begging him not to let go. Edward Albee takes this inversion to an extreme, presenting a character who for all intents and purposes is normal and relatable to an audience except for his habit of sleeping with a goat.
The point of all these characters at first seems to be to alienate some audience expectation of what the character should be, to make the character in some way unidentifiable with the audience. But really, this type of character is just as ‘relatable’ if not more so than the former kind. The difference is in the way we’re asked, as an audience, to relate. Instead of trying to build a character that complies with our expectations of what that character ought to be, these stories ask us to take the characters on their own terms. They challenge any preconceived notions we might have about what makes a person likable, valuable—even human—and ask us to reconsider our own standards. They ask us to change the way we relate to characters, not the other way around.
Instead of passively looking into a mirror, this viewing experience turns it into an exercise in empathy, in which we undergo a journey that ultimately brings us closer to something that is different from us. It’s an exercise that seems increasingly necessary in a world where we’re able to edit the characters in our own lives. Our day to day interactions are mediated by texts, emails, video chats, wall posts. We have a huge amount of resources and information available at our fingertips, and phone assistants to help us organize and keep track of all this information. We have reached such a pinnacle of efficiency that we no longer need to go anywhere. We no longer need to relate to the world; we’ve gotten it to relate to us in exactly the way, at the exact level that we want it to. Caring is no longer convenient—it is an effort. It involves walking (and uncomfortably enough, in someone else’s shoes). Unless we’re in the habit of it, it’s not going to come easy to us when we’re called on to do it in real-time. For that reason alone, I would recommend books, movies, TV, or simple conversation—just sit down, choose the story that makes you feel the most uncomfortable and then really pay attention.