This semester, I am in a Children's Literature course that's taught by a religious studies professor (which may sound surprising but actually has become less surprising the more we read; a topic for another day). This professor is generally viewed as being awesome, so on the first day, the class was over capacity, and there were at least forty people on the waiting list. So what does she do? She goes off on this tangent about how she wants people to drop the class, how she grades really hard and doesn't mind giving us Cs and No-Credits and talks about All These Terrible Things to intimidate us. That, and she assigns a four page paper that's due on the third class, AKA in one week. What's the paper on? A fairy tale retelling of either "Jack in the Beanstalk," "Hansel and Gretel," or "Cinderella" in picture book form (aka: you have to go to the library. The horror of extra work for a college student!) plus the original Grimm fairy tale (even more research--no!) plus analysis by the kid lit theorist Bettelheim, who somehow decided that the glass slipper in "Cinderella" represents a vagina. (Yes, he has a fondness for Freud and a young girl's "fear" of menstruation. Cue lengthy eye roll here.)
So, why am I telling you this? Well, I thought it was amusing back story, but more importantly, when she handed back our essays, my professor said, "All of you really seem to like relatable. One, that's not a word. Two, what does that even mean?"
Clearly confused, we stared at her and started talking at once. "What do you mean it's not a word? What do you mean you don't know it means? It's easy to relate to, easy to sympathize with; it's defining yourself in relation to an object" etc. etc. etc. Fill in the blanks here. Twelve college students, who are terrified that they will have gotten a C or worse on their first essay, have been told that they included something the teacher did not like. Yep.
Prof's response? "No. Get rid of relatable from your vocabulary. I don't ever want to see it in your essays again. It doesn't tell you anything! What makes a relatable character? Seriously, when you can answer that question for me, we'll return to this discussion."
The more that I thought about it, the more that I agreed with her. Relatable does not mean anything. How you relate to the character, why you relate to the character - that's what's important. It'll show much more clearly what you value as opposed to what someone else might value. One person could say that Bella Swan was a relatable protagonist, and another person will laugh at the very idea. Is a strong, smart, sassy character always relatable (if you go by the assumption it means easy to relate to)? Probably not, especially when few people view a character in the same way. Just as each and every word of this post has different associations for you than me, so does the "meaning" of the non-word relatable. In a way, it's almost pretentious to use relatable because then we're assuming that our way of relating to a character is right, universal, dominant. And who are we to force our conceptions on someone else?
In future reviews, I hope to avoid using relatable or easy to relate to. Maybe even most adjectives for describing a character, since that's just me labeling the character's actions, though everyone interprets those actions in different ways. (But maybe that's not feasible... We'll see.). I think that what's most important, however, is the need for specificity. You can't just say a character is strong, you have to show it. You can't just say a character is relatable, you have to show it.
PS - You might see me post a lot about this class. I've started to think about kid lit a lot differently since it started. Example: I'm seeing the hero's journey everywhere...
PPS - Next time I'll probably post about this FANTASTIC essay C.S. Lewis wrote defending children's literature and !!! I really wanted to shove that essay in front of all the people who denounce YA lit as somehow being lesser than adult lit. There's also a fantastic essay by another author whose name I am now forgetting... grr... Well, you'll know who it is later :).
PPPS - Significant drop in people in the class. Maybe 25 to begin with? Now only 12. Definitely an effective strategy if you want to rid your class of those who are not too passionate/dedicated to the subject at hand...
PPPPS - If I use relatable in one of my reviews, call me out on it ;).