What makes a character good? One common piece of advice given to writers is to make their characters, especially their main characters, “relatable.” It’s easy to understand why. You want your readers to be able to connect with the characters you create. When you read a book, you like to imagine yourself in the main character’s shoes, and it’s difficult to do when you don’t see yourself in them. If it’s hard to relate or empathize with the character, the reader won’t be invested in the story they are a part of.
Because of this, many writers feel pressured to make their characters as relatable as possible. In this article, I make the case for abstaining from relatability in favor of making characters compelling.
Let’s start this off simply: trying to make characters that are relatable to as many people as possible will make them flat and not very fun to read. Remember what I said earlier about empathizing with the character? Well, here’s the thing. A character doesn’t need to be relatable to be someone your reader will root for.
Think of the people who are important to you. Are they completely relatable to you? Do you have the exact same interests, the exact background, the exact personality? Probably not. Yet you’re still able to empathize with them, enjoy their presence, and want them to succeed in their own life.
The main character of your novel is obviously different from your best friend. Hopefully, however, you can see that it’s very much possible to empathize with someone who isn’t the same as you. Let’s keep going, this time with some fictional examples.
Take out a pen and paper and quickly write down the titles of some of your favorite novels, or tv shows, or movies, or any piece of media, really. Then, besides that list, write the names of the main characters. Write down their likes and dislikes, their personality traits, and their motivations. Are they really just like you? Perhaps not.
I can say with some certainty that you are not a demigod, or a lost princess, or a pirate on the high seas. These characters are fun to read, but they’re certainly not always relatable. They may have personalities and motivations entirely different from yours, but you’re still able to enjoy reading about them. You’re invested in their journey because they are interesting characters, not relatable ones.
My own example would be Coraline, from the book called, well, Coraline. Coraline is brave, curious, and rather cunning, all in a way very opposite from my own personality. When Coraline sees a creepy door in the flat her family just moved into, she immediately decides to go inside. Personally, I would never do that, because a mysterious door is utterly terrifying. Coraline’s main motivation is to get her parents back, and mine is to sleep. Coraline is a young child, and when I first read Coraline, I was a few years older than she. I was still very invested in her story. I wanted her to succeed. In some ways, she was interesting because we were so different.
Stories are for seeing new perspectives and observing different people and situations. It’s good for you to write about people who aren’t like you, and the reader to read about those people. You certainly won’t ever be transported into a magical fantasy world to kill an ancient king (at least, I hope you won’t), but you can read about it, and you can write about it. It would be rather boring if every story was about the same situation, so why try to make a character that fits a certain template of “relatability?”
Before you go off and attempt to create the most unique, least relatable character you can think of, I must mention that relatability still has a place in writing. It’s good for the reader to see a part of themselves in a character. As a child, I loved it when I read a book and could point to something the main character thought or did and say “I do that too!”
As with anything, it’s the struggle to force relatability into a character that’s the issue, not the concept of relatability itself. If you feel the pressure to make a character relatable because you’re scared people won’t like them, step away for a while. Understand that you should be giving the character traits and motivations based on what will be best for their story, not what is personally relatable to you or to other people.
This is a philosophy you can carry into other areas of writing, not just character creation. Not everybody will like your character, and not everybody will like your writing. That’s okay. Don’t spend more time than you need agonizing over appealing to every single group. It’s your story to tell.
By Lan-Chi Pham