R is for relatable characters.
One of the things that new writers are told all the time is that a good story must have relatable characters, especially a relatable protagonist. So what does that mean, anyway?
To some people, a relatable character is one who is very much like the reader. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), this cannot work every time, because readers — even readers of a specific genre — are not all alike, and what is just like some readers will be drastically different from others. Also, the criteria for “alike” is not the same for every reader. Do I need a character to look like me in all major aspects (height, build, skin and hair and eye colors, length of hair, etc.) in order for that character to be like me, or do I just need the character to have something of the same worldview? Do I even need that, as long as I can understand why the character sees things differently from the way I do?
Close to the matter of relatable characters is realistic characters: Many people say that a character must be realistic in order to be relatable… and again, what does this mean? I write science fiction and fantasy; chances are, no reader is going to know, in real life, people who are just like some of the characters in my stories. (If you do know people like that, tell me, okay? I’m sure my cover artist would love to have an accurate model for the protagonist in Changing Magic. … And yes, friends, that’s a joke.) If you need characters to be real in the sense of I could meet someone like this on the bus ride to work, sci-fi/fantasy is not your thing.
Think about this, though: How many genres feature protagonists who are, by the very nature of that genre, not realistic in the meet ’em on the bus sort of way? In real life, spies probably look pretty damn ordinary, because it’s an advantage to sneaky people to blend in with the crowd. On the other hand, a spy has a very specialized skill set, and the ability to do things that most people could never do even if they knew how. You cannot have a spy thriller featuring a perfectly-average, just-like-most-readers protagonist. Nor can you have even an urban fantasy novel with a protagonist who is just like the reader, because, the last time I looked, we don’t live in a place where werewolves run Chinese restaurants and wizards have phone book listings. What you can have — ought to have — is a story with a protagonist who does things the reader can understand: ‘I wouldn’t listen to my great-uncle and choose the career he wanted me to have, but if I’d been raised in a culture where respecting and obeying one’s elder relatives was emphasized that much, I probably would do it, so I understand this character’s motivations even though I don’t share them.’ It’s kinda part of why we read fiction at all, to see the lives of people who aren’t us.
Sometimes the explanation of relatable character defaults to character to whom the reader can relate. Well, d’uh. But that doesn’t tell what it means, and as I’ve said, the criteria for relatable and realistic vary as much as readers do, so either there’s some workable general guideline, or the whole issue is irrelevant.
(Something I have to throw into this discussion out of contrariness: Sometimes the reader her/himself is not “perfectly average.” Got green eyes? Congratulations — you’re a freak. Just kidding. I mean you’re statistically unusual, because only about two percent of the people on this planet are green-eyed. Does that mean that a story character with green eyes is unrealistic and therefore unrelatable? If the protagonist doesn’t have freckles, and you do, would that make you unable to care about what happens to that fictional person? It’s not as silly a question as it looks. I’ve met people who say they cannot read stories with characters who aren’t their gender, or their race, or their socio-economic status, or their height, or their religion, or their education level…)
Anyway. I’d really like to read your views on what a “relatable character” means to you (and what a “realistic character” means, too).