On that whole ‘relatability’ thing

Painting - St Catherine reading

Somehow in recent years, the idea has taken hold that characters – especially protagonists – in novels have to be ‘relatable.’ I blame Stephanie Meyer. She created the character Bella in the Twilight trilogy as a blank canvas onto which her teenage readers could project themselves; an audience surrogate that appealed to an audience of around 120 million.

Thanks for that.
So an entire generation of young women, in particular, has grown up with the idea that girls in novels should be just like them, even when surrounded by brooding vampires.
Many of those readers go on to read books by authors who construct powerful or difficult or troubled or hilarious female characters, and come to realise that a blank canvas is pretty, well, blank. To be fair, some writers have also argued that Bella is actually a feminist role model:
Bella is more or less modelled on the traditional fairy tale hero [not heroine], as her eventual accession to a type of monarchy is characterized not by humiliation, but rather by her gaining qualities that enable selfgovernance.
–  Meghanne Flynn
But whether or not it’s reasonable to blame Twilight (and I was being just a little facetious), I still hear and see so many comments that this book is so relatable or that book is not, and therefore no good. I just can’t relate to anybody in it.
On the other hand, in historical fiction, you will hear and see lots of emphasis on ‘authenticity.’ This somewhat mystical quality transports the reader into an imagined past and provides them with an experience that’s just like being there. Or something.
If you think these two things are possible and desirable, there’s an obvious tension here. On one hand, an ‘authentic’ figure from the distant past is very unlikely to be someone to whom a modern reader will relate – unless of course the reader projects madly onto that character, in which case the veneer of authenticity is smashed.
But do not fear, gentle reader, because I’m here to help. Kind of.
Both ideas – especially when they are framed as rules – bring trouble and strife to the act of reading, and possibly writing.

Reading and relating

What, after all, is relatability? (Apart from not actually being a word.) Is it the idea that people in books will be just like you? How tedious. Who wants to read about themselves over and over?
Of course, sometimes we all want to escape into another world, another life, and it’s easier to do that in partnership with a companionable character – a brain transplant, if you like, that enables you to feel supported and comforted as you accompany your heroine or hero on her or his journey.
But that’s just one type of reading experience. There are many others, involving characters that bring us face-to-face with the unfamiliar, unfathomable, unpleasant, perhaps even the unbearable.
lolita book cover
And what about those amazing and memorable characters who are nothing like us, but who we end up adoring? Severus Snape. Albus Dumbledore. Indeed, if you think about it, the only truly relatable character in the Potterverse is Ron, the everyman. He’s in there to be the human foil of brilliant Hermione and powerful but angry Harry. Ron’s the guy who is nothing special but has his own strengths and many weaknesses, as do we all.
But it’s not the story of Ron, is it? Thank goodness. It’s the story of Harry and Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape. Pretty much.
In each of them, we can find something that we connect with, something human and warm (even in Snape) and flawed and meaningful. They’re also interesting and unknowable and complex, and we can’t be sure what any of those characters will do or say at any moment. They aren’t like us. They all (even Snape) contain elements of who we wish we were: wise or brave or brilliant or ethical or strong or pure or funny. They are braver or brainier or more powerful than we may ever be. Together, they people a world we want to inhabit – with them.
Hermione being brainy
That’s relating.
So relating to – connecting with – characters is a wonderful part of reading (and watching TV and movies), but they don’t have to be just like us. We all have our teenage favourites; someone who showed us who we might be. Mine was Jo March. Millions of people much younger than me got to grow up with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends, Josie Alibrandi, or the necromancer Clariel or Sib and Lou in Fiona Wood’s Wildlife or Hazel Grace (The Fault in Our Stars – although there are suggestions that besides Hazel, all John Green’s characters are so relatable they are much the same … as him.)
But that’s not the only possible reading experience, and if in a sense we read to understand the world and the people in it, we also read about things and people we can’t comprehend at first – about five year-old Jack and his Ma in Room or Maud Lilly in Fingersmith or the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety or Takeo the samurai or for that matter Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovary or Prince Andrei.

Feel so real

Which brings us to the question of ‘authenticity.’ There’s no such thing. (Of which more at a later date.) But the idea of authenticity and the idea of relatability in historical fiction really can’t co-exist.
If an author did manage to create a character that approached the world view, voice and life of, say, a fifteenth century princess, she would be so unlike any conception of princess a modern reader brings to the reading that there is no chance the princess would be understood, let alone relatable.
When we write historical fiction, and when we read it, we necessarily bring to the process all of our post-20th century knowledge, our modern vocabulary and syntax, our fundamentally different world view and manners and customs and philosophy and skills and reading history.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, or from the idea of an authentic experience.
It is what it is – just an element of the genre.
Apart from anything else, if we really captured the speech of Anne Boleyn or Richard III or an archer at Agincourt or a pirate of the Caribbean, readers wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying, let alone be able to relate to them.
Instead, we create, try as we might, characters in our own shape and shadow.

Writers are naughty like that

Writers of all genres create characters for all sorts of reasons, not only for readers to relate to. Sometimes, we create characters who lie, or are vain, or pompous, or stupid, or rotten, or weak, or tricksy, or criminal. We create unsympathetic characters or unreliable narrators on purpose. We create anti-heroes as well as heroes. They may not be relatable, but there will (almost always) be something undeniably human about them, so that their very unreliability or unappealing nature shines a light on what it means to be human. It’s not about relating – it’s about exploring.
Seeing the world through the eyes of Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, or Dr March (rather than Jo) in Geraldine Brooks’ March is fascinating and compelling, but it’s not designed to make the reader feel all cozy. It can be a difficult process to put yourself in their shoes. But if you do, what do you see? You get an insight into the Tudor world – into Henry and Anne and Thomas More – unlike any you’ve ever seen. Or you feel the weakness of a character idealised as a hero by his family, and glimpse the random brutality of the American Civil War.
So what matters here is the author’s intent. If the author hasn’t tried to create a relatable character, then it’s just not relatable or I didn’t like the main character isn’t a meaningful response to the book in your hand. It doesn’t really engage with the text or the characters at all.
It says more about the reader than it says about the book.
The answer? Simply read more and read more widely – read all sorts of things, surprise yourself, and shift outside your expectation of what a protagonist can and should be.
It’s the expectation we bring to reading that matters.
Let’s be willing to be astonished.
More reading

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