You Don’t Need to Make Your Characters “Relatable”

“I loved reading this book! I felt like it spoke to me, because I could relate to the main character.”

Reading appraisals like this makes me want to shoot the author and poison the reader. It’s not vicious enough to be a vicious cycle. It’s mediocrity feeding mediocrity.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

How do I make my main character more relatable to my readers?

—Jan Craig, Winston-Salem, N.C.

I’d tell you, but then I would condemn your writing to a timely death. If you want to make a quick buck and reduce your writing to cheap whoredom, then please, do so. You have plenty of weak readers to fool. You don’t need a soul for that.

That being said, the goal is NOT “making characters relatable” or “writing someone the reader can identify with.” Can it happen in your writing? Of course. Should you aim for that? No. Here’s why:

1. “I’m so relatable!”

Do you want to sink your writing down to veritable scumbags, douchecanoes drifting down the rivers of douchedom, people who think the world revolves around the great “me,” and intellectual poseurs who “read” so they can say they “read books?” If you’re writing to that audience, then you have their money, part of their ear, and nothing of importance. Enjoy!

2. “The more I relate to these characters, the more I like this book!”

Then why don’t you write about three book club members whose lives are changed by reading a book with characters they can relate to, namely, book club members who are also reading a book that changes their lives with relatable characters. Wait, whoa. Literary inception aside, it’s a parlor trick. That’s not writing. That’s being a scam artist.

3. Realistic vs. Relatable

Similar, maybe, but not the same. Angle for the real, simply because it’s real. Art imitates life. Let the real speak for itself. Don’t roll up newsprint and make a ghetto funnel to score points by narrowing the real down to a solipsistic gimmick. Pour your intent into the art, the aesthetics, the narrative. Quit baiting.

4. Universal vs. Individual

Let’s take a copy of Pride and Prejudice from the bookshelves of Reading All Right. Do you think Ms. Austen went for the “Oh, how can I make these characters relatable?” approach? Nay, I say, with a vehement NO on the side. Know why people still read her (and others of her ilk), instead of the crap you’re reading now (which no one will read in twenty years)? Hint: something to do with ‘universality.’ Relating to a character can be a passing thing, the waves inconstant. But a ‘universal’ character, with qualities innate to this concept of being human? They stand the test of time, whether you “relate” to them or not. You admire them.

5. Art vs. Mirrors.

Know what I like best about paying to go to museums? Nope, it’s not the art on display. Nope, nothing to do with the awe-inspiring pieces that artists pour their souls into. Not even seeing how artists capture life and imagination around them. None of that. What I like best: looking at my reflection when I come to the doorway.

Why? Because I like being able to see myself. And that’s the beauty of art, right? Because I look into that and say, “Hey, that’s me! Wow.” Yeah.

Writers, you do it right when you make your characters works of art. They stand the tests of time. You do it wrong when you strive to make your characters relatable. You make nothing but mirrors.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

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