Monday, February 18, 2013

On Having Relatable Characters

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 ;).


  1. Interesting! I know that one reason I liked Twilight so much is that I felt I had a lot in common with Bella, or that she was a "relatable" character. :-)

  2. I'm really looking forward to your post on that CS Lewis essay -- it really bugs me when people act like adult lit is the only kind of "real" lit -- there are lots of crappy adult books out there too!

  3. This is a really thought-provoking post, and it's made me reflect on all the times I might have used "relatable" in my reviews (I'm hoping not that much.) I try to use words like "sympathetic" or "realistic" to describe the characters when writing a review, because to me, that's much more important than being able to 'relate' to a character. Is s/he doing something that makes sense? Is s/he a complete ass? Is s/he too perfect?

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to your post on Lewis's essay. Too often I hear that I or someone else needs to "grow up" and read adult books. These people are clearly dismissing the fact that the themes in well-written YA are completely universal, whereas I might not relate to the 40-something divorcee in chick-lit.

  4. The re-telling of Cinderella has been pretty much done in films and in various other forms. However Jack and the beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel, tend to be slightly more "darker" in tone, but that's just my opinion. What your prof is probably asking you is; can you understand as to WHAT makes the character tick. WHY do they make the choices / take the actions they do. In other words try to be in their shoes and see the world through their eyes.

    I remember an advice that was given to me long ago. This was on a writing forum by the way. She said this to me: "if you want to understand your characters, try doing a mock interview. Ask questions". In other words, don't answer how you will normally answer, but rather as to how the character will answer it. This technique could be very out dated, mind you.

    That's just my two cent on your post.

  5. This is honestly a GREAT post! It made me really think. One character might not really be relatable, but in fact, just nice to "be around." And one character will not be relatable to everyone so they relate to YOU, but they're not the general term "relatable." I just agree with everything you said, because you wrote it so eloquently. Fantastic post, thank you for making me think :)

    Sunny @ Blue Sky Bookshelf

  6. @ Christine - Yes, his essay is fantastic.

    @Bekka - But even sympathetic and realistic carry their own judgments. They're kind of like relatable in that they have that same implication. What makes one character more realistic than another? I think we both could benefit from describing what the characters do and letting our review readers decide for themselves if that's something that would bother them.

    @dopeyvideogamer - We weren't talking about the characters...? Or writing them. We were discussing them in relation to how children might perceive the retellings, etc.

    @Sunny - You're making me blush :). Thank you!

  7. @Lisa - me too, when I first read Twilight!

  8. Love this post and would love to hear more about your class. I just searched my blog and found that I did use the R-word a couple times in a year and a half of posting. I agree -- using that word doesn't explain why I related to the character, or mean that other readers would feel the same way.

  9. But isn't saying that a character is relatable just a shorthand way of saying, "I get this character, I recognise the thoughts they're thinking and their motivations for acting because they're thoughts I've had and ways of responding that I've done (or wanted to do)" - and fair call, for that to work you're assuming that your reader knows YOU and what you're like and what you do, which is an awfully big assumption, especially on the internet... but there's a basic principle there which holds. There ARE characters I read and I recognise myself in them - either as I am now or the (slightly more) awkward, insecure teenager I used to be - and I relate. There are characters I have nothing in common with, and I don't relate. And there's reasons for that - the how and the why that you mention, which explain that connection. But at the end of the day, however it is I got to that point, I relate. They are relateable to me (or not).

    Also, I disagree that it's pretentious to use it. Unless you're saying, "This is my reading, and it is the ONLY one." So much of the human experience is subjective, and I think we go into reviews knowing that and making allowance for that. It's tacitly understood that when someone says "She's a strong character" they mean, "She fits into my understanding of strength (and all the related concepts/constructs)"

    So yeah, I do agree that using other words might be more informative for the general reader, but I'm not convinced for the need to drop "relatable" - I think it has a place. :-)

  10. I think the main issue is not whether people relate to a character - that is an essential part of fiction - but that there is no one way of creating a "relatable" character--that what it means to relate to a character will always be different among people and books--and that "relatable" is not actually a word. I didn't mean to imply that it's pretentious to use it or "relate to," mostly that I think there is an implication in using "relatable" that we have to be aware of and that it *can* be pretentious, though not always. And yes, relating to characters certainly has its place among our daily reading experiences :).

  11. So basically, be mindful of what we write!

  12. But even sympathetic and realistic carry their own judgments. They're kind of like relatable in that they have that same implication. What makes one character more realistic than another? I think we both could benefit from describing what the characters do and letting our review readers decide for themselves if that's something that would bother them.

  13. You're making me blush :). Thank you!

  14. We weren't talking about the characters...? Or writing them. We were discussing them in relation to how children might perceive the retellings, etc.


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