Do Characters Need to Be Relatable?

The other day I heard someone begin an analysis of Shakespeare with the statement, “I really relate to Macbeth.”  The implication was that, in order to enjoy Macbeth, in order to understand Macbeth, the audience must be able to envision themselves in the place of Macbeth.  It is not enough to observe his temptation and his fall as an outsider.  One must, somehow, also imagine themselves as able to fall prey to supernatural beings and then commit regicide.  Only then can they truly enter into the play.

Shakespeare, however, almost certainly did not imagine that his audience members would “relate” to Macbeth (and one really hopes that audience members won’t).  Only in recent years do readers seem to need to relate to a protagonist in order to enjoy a story.  And only in recent years has relatability seem to have become one of the defining factors–if not the defining factor–in whether readers consider a book worth reading.  This trend, however, seems to contradict one of the main reasons many people enjoy reading–to meet and spend time with characters who are not like them.

Many of the stories I enjoy do not contain any characters I could plausibly say I relate to.  Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, are full of bold heroes, dastardly villains, and bold and clever women.  I don’t relate to Henry V, Richard III, or Paulina.  Yet their plays are some of my favorites.  L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables features a spunky red-headed heroine who talks a little too much and imagines magic in the world around her.  I don’t consider myself spunky and I had trouble believing in fairies even as a child.  Yet I still adore Anne–partly because she is someone I will never be.  But my feelings of not relating extend even to contemporary works.  Like many people, I love Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.  But do I relate to a sharpshooter with a gambling addiction, an acrobat who can make herself disappear, or a gang leader who can kill without mercy?  Certainly not.  I find that I can enter imaginatively enter into a story even if I could never envision myself as one of the characters.

Relatability can be an engaging trait in a character. I myself have spoken positively  of characters I found relatable.  But good stories do not necessarily need relatable characters and readers can find themselves drawn to and immersed in tales with characters who are nothing like them at all.  And that’s part of the beauty of reading.

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65 thoughts on “Do Characters Need to Be Relatable?

  1. nualacharlie says:

    Macbeth is a play so it’s different. With novels we do relate. Scientists have done functional mri scans on folks reading fiction and the brain reacts as if the reader is doing what the protagonist is doing.
    Also if fiction is well written we can often find ourselves relating to the most unlikeable of people, crime and punishment being the prime example.

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    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think characters need to be experienced through text for people to relate to them. I understand Macbeth’s character very well by watching and listening to him. However, if the argument is that people can only relate through reading–why couldn’t they just read the play?

      Like

      • nualacharlie says:

        That wasn’t quite what I meant When we watch TV or a play we see the action happening to somebody else, we can certainly relate to that as we would irl. When we read a boom however, we experience what is happening more as if it is happening to to us so we have no choice but to relate.

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        • Krysta says:

          Perhaps we are working with different definitions of “relate?” When I say I relate to a character, it usually means I see part of myself in them and as a result I understand where they are coming from. But I don’t relate to every character I read about. There are characters whom I think are highly illogical and maybe kind of silly–I don’t relate to them; they annoy me. There are villains I don’t relate to because they’re, well, villains. There are characters who may have tendencies or traits like a gambling addiction–I don’t relate to them. I have a really difficult time understanding why people think gambling is alluring. You lose money. It’s risky. I don’t understand why some people see the thrill of it as outweighing the negative factors. So I can’t say that I “have no choice but to relate” to characters because…I don’t relate to them, even if I am inside their head or experiencing what they are.

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          • nualacharlie says:

            I certainly don’t relate to all characters I read but I do to most well written protagonists. I don’t neccecarily like them but I can see the world through their eyes for a while.

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  2. J.J. Adamson says:

    I have been troubled by the idea that readers “become the main character” since I heard the Reading Rainbow theme song as a kid. I never took the problem seriously until recently: I never heard this idea taken seriously (i.e. not in an English class, not in a serious book review, not in a writing advice book) until about 2014 when I heard it alongside political arguments about representation. Then people started saying that minorities can’t relate to white protagonists and vice versa, and that therefore writing a protagonist of a particular race was a crime. That was really troubling.

    I think the idea that readers have to relate to the main character is a very strange idea: I have always viewed reading as learning about someone I would never meet, couldn’t have a deep personal discussion with, or wouldn’t be safe to hang out with. As you said, the whole point is often to meet people you can’t because they don’t live on Earth.

    If we relate to characters, it’s on a fundamental human level. Most often when people criticize a work on this basis, they seem to think “relatability” is based on coarse characteristics like age, race, gender, and so on, rather than a character simply being human, or even more broadly, having a soul (there are plenty of animal characters that are perfectly relatable).

    I’m glad people are starting to speak up about what reading is actually like for them instead of letting others tell them how to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think you raise a good point about defining relatabilitiy. In some ways, I would say I relate to Bilbo Baggins. But I am not a 50-year-old male Hobbit. I don’t relate to his physical characteristics but rather to his love for home and his uncertainty in the face of danger and adventure. Would I be capable of wielding a sword and fighting trolls? I suspect I’d be worried and fearful just like Bilbo! So, yeah, relating to a character may mean different things to different people.

      I do appreciate the push for more diversity in literature and I think that it is especially important for children to see characters who look like them/role models who look like them. But I also think part of the good work diverse literature does is showing that people don’t have to look just like a character/be just like a character to empathize with them. I think part of the reason people like to see all kinds of characters represented is because readers can see, “Oh, this character looks nothing like me, but she has similar worries and she enjoys similar things. I understand her better as a person because I’ve spent time getting to know her.” It promotes empathy and understanding. We’re all capable of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • J.J. Adamson says:

        What’s interesting or troubling about saying “we need characters who look like” readers is that when I was a kid, the push was always for characters who DIDN’T look like readers, and doesn’t that broaden people’s horizons more?

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I think about this sometimes, and it seems that what people are advocating for isn’t 100% clearly defined. Basically, I think we need a balance. Of course people want to read some books that have people like them in it. I can’t imagine if someone read, say 60 books a year, and not a single main character was from their country or was their ethnicity, etc. I can see how that would incite a wide range of emotions from annoyance to depression to anger. But reading about people who are not like you is also incredibly important and helps broaden your horizons. I suppose one of the benefits, then, of writing or publishing more books with characters that “look like” the readers is that most of these diverse books, in fact, are about people who *don’t* look like me (they look like *other* readers), so we all sort of win.

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  3. Stephen Writes says:

    It is an interesting topic that I have discussed in a couple of my posts. I do prefer to read about likeable, engaging characters who I can possibly relate to, but there are a lot of books that are still good even without these types of characters. Great discussion!

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think I enjoy books more when the characters are likeable. I get annoyed by characters who are illogical and I don’t like reading about a cast of disagreeable characters. For me, though, I can find a character likeable, but still not relate.

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  4. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    No, we don’t need to relate with every character to read their story. Not every book is a mirror, and if we only read books about people who are just like us, we would quickly run out of books. Characters in books show us the broad range of human experience and give us a taste of lives that are not our own.

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  5. Katie Jane Gallagher says:

    While I do enjoy relatable characters, I also think it’s perfectly fine for main characters to be difficult to relate to. The actual important thing is for characters to behave in ways that make sense. Not sure if you’ve read it, but one example that springs to mind is the second Throne of Glass book where Celaena is avoiding doing what she does best: assassinating. She was in some ways more relatable because of this (who wants to be a killer?) but conversely the story was weakened IMHO because she wasn’t acting in a way authentic to who she’s supposed to be as a character.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I only read the first one and thought she wasn’t doing a lot of killing for someone who was supposedly the best assassin around. I agree it’s more relatable not to be a cold-blooded killer, but if the point of the book is you kill for hire? Bad writing. Ship of Smoke and Steel was interesting for this reason. Only YA killer protagonist I’ve seen who actually killed a lot and without too much remorse.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. iwaitforaword says:

    I don’t think characters need to be relatable at all, though I do find myself more attached them when I see bits of myself in them. Is that super self-centered? Maybe lol.
    I also appreciate when characters are logical and realistic. I usually get annoyed when I’m reading a book and character is doing something completely illogical and unrealistic just so the author can move the plot forward, you know?

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s nice to relate to characters and perhaps I feel a special investment in characters I relate to. But I think I can also empathize with characters unlike me–and that’s part of the joy of reading!

      And I agree. I tend not to like illogical characters. Especially when the author keeps assuring us they are super intelligent.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I was kind of confused when I first heard the person say that. Then I realized they were just using it as a jumping off point for analysis and I thought, “Why?” Why do they need to “relate” to Macbeth in order to discuss what they see happening to him? The short answer is, they don’t. But I think relatability has somehow become the default criticism when people discuss literature. And no one’s really addressing why or if this is good or concerning.

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  7. ashley says:

    I don’t think characters need to be relatable in order to be for a story to be enjoyed. However, I do think that if I relate to a character in some way that it’s just an added bonus but it doesn’t affect the enjoyability of a story.

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  8. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    I agree with some that having a relatable character is always a bonus. I can usually enjoy a story as much if I’m not in love with the characters but I don’t think the story stays with me as long. Great discussion as always 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      Exactly. Relatable characters are very nice! But I also can enjoy stories with characters I don’t relate to. I can sympathize even if I don’t relate.

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  9. Lydia Tewkesbury says:

    YES. I am so with you on this. I think it also very closely relates to whether or not female characters are ‘likeable’ and the impact that has on a book. When people mentioned that they ‘just didn’t think she was a very likeable character’ my eyes immediately roll into the back of my head.

    I also think the idea of reliability is kind of false in the first place. I can totally emotionally lock in even with characters I have NOTHING in common with. The adage wherever you go there are kind of relates to reading as well. Often you can see elements of humanity in even the most outlandish of scenarios.

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    • Krysta says:

      You raise some good points. Do I need to relate to a character to like them? No, I like characters I don’t relate to and I can certainly sympathize with them. I also think relating can go beyond people who have similar physical characteristics or a similar age or background. I am not a Hobbit or male or 50, but I can relate to Bilbo Baggins and his desire to be safe at home far away from trolls!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Michael J. Miller says:

    I think the best example of how we can be fascinated by characters we don’t relate to is our modern (is it modern? I’d presume but, admittedly, I haven’t done the research) love of evil characters. The ‘Godfather’ films, ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Hannibal,’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ are all stories that star “bad guys.” Whether the mob or cannibal serial killers or drug dealers, we shouldn’t be rooting for this characters, at least not traditionally. And most of us probably don’t identify with them that closely (hopefully). Yet we love them. When I discuss this phenomenon every year in my Theology of Love & Evil course, students say essentially the same thing – we are attracted to them because we are not them, they do what we don’t/won’t, they let us experience “evil” without being evil. I think you can make the argument people are drawn to horror stories for the same reason. So I do think, even if we don’t express it as vocally in our culture, there’s still an appreciation/fascination for what we don’t relate to.

    However, I would add our growing (at least it feels that way to me) cultural desire to see “evil” characters redeemed in more and more stories seems to swing back around to how we want to be able to relate to them. We want to feel “okay” for liking them.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think villains can be very compelling! Perhaps we are using them to live vicariously in a way. Maybe there is some part of us that is fascinated by evil and experiencing it, as you say, but without actually performing the actions ourselves.

      I think it’s interesting that redeemed or sympathetic villains do seem to be on the rise. I know that a lot of fairy tale retellings in recent years have sought to give some villains back stories, making their deeds seem more understandable because they experienced something horrible in their own pasts. I think a cynical reaction to this would be to wonder if story tellers are somehow trying to make evil seem less evil: “Well, it’s okay if he stole from them because they stole from him first.” But maybe it is because readers are connecting with the villiains and actually would like them to turn away from villainy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Disney’s ‘Maleficent’ is – by far – my favorite fairy tale version of this. They do SO MUCH with that film, as we’ve discussed before. Disney’s other live action retellings are pretty much just a live action remake of the animated films but ‘Maleficent’ means so much/does so much more. I love it.

        The idea of exploring evil without participating in it make sense. Even if we don’t want to do/be evil ourselves (and yay for that!) it is obviously something we want to understand. And, perhaps, by understanding it more it allows us to combat it in our own way. To see the human in what we once saw exclusively as the “evil other” can open a door to transformation for both parties. And I couldn’t do the job I do, teaching theology, if I didn’t believe in transformation and redemption :).

        But I do think there’s a fine line between sympathizing with/understanding the villain and endorsing evil deeds. I’m not saying any of these stories specifically do that but I do think there’s a danger in our relativising everything to the point where we can’t call out evil or injustice when we see it.

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  11. honestavocado says:

    I think that like any element of what makes a good book, this is one of those factors that can help a book be great, but doesn’t necessarily define what all good books are. I have some stories that I love because I understand the characters so well, so I feel a different connection to them versus characters that are completely different are fascinating. But it’s just a different reading experience. Like with friendships, there’s something about having friends who “get you” and friends who are wildly different and spice up your life in that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Aurora Librialis says:

    This is such an interesting discussion! I think I do need characters to be relatable, if I’m truly going to connect with them. But I don’t need characters to be just like me in order to relate to them, I just need them to be fully fleshed out, complex, flawed humans. I might not be an pirate or the captain of spaceship, but I can still relate to them if they have goals and motivations that I can understand.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think that’s a good point. There are different kinds of relating. I may not be exactly like a character but I can perhaps relate to their personality or how they react to a certain event. I’m not a male Hobbit, but I do relate to Bilbo Baggins and his desire to be safe at home away from trolls!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. shelts89 says:

    In my opinion, no we don’t. I can enjoy a character that I can’t relate to. You used the example of Six of Crows, and that is a good example. I really like Kaz as a charcter, but I have no way ti relate to his life experiences. Similarly, I can’t relate to Gandalf in Lord of the Rings – I’m not a 2,000 year old immortal wizard sent to earth my the gods to fight a dark lord – but I still like him. As long as a character is well fleshed out, with believable motives and personality traits, then they are enjoyable to read.

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    • Krysta says:

      Haha. I love how you put that. I can sympathize with characters even if I don’t relate to them. Gandalf is great, but, yeah, I in no way relate. XD

      Like

  14. Stephanie says:

    I usually try to find some aspect of a character that I can relate to, but I have to admit it’s a breath of fresh air when I can’t (although I once read a memoir where the author wasn’t relatable OR sympathetic in any way, and that made me dislike her immensely and take all her other books off my TBR. I still make a face when I see her books around). Sometimes I learn something new from that, and other times, it’s just a different type of reading experience. I don’t think characters need to be relatable at all, but it’s nice if I can find *something* recognizable in them.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think there are all sorts of ways to relate to characters. So maybe the character is a teenage male and I’m not, but maybe I can relate to them if they’re feeling confusion or worry about something I would be confused or worried about. I think, too, that characters can be likeable or sympathetic, without my relating to them. So, yeah, I think we can connect to characters in all sorts of ways!

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  15. Mel says:

    This is a really interesting post! I get why people see relating to a character as important, but I think it’s equally important to read books outside of your own experience. Personally I enjoy books more with characters I don’t necessarily have a lot in common with, but I don’t think people should judge whether a book is good based on relatability.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think one of the great things about reading is experiencing a character you don’t necessarily relate to! Characters can be sympathetic and likeable, even if I don’t relate to them. I don’t relate to any of the leads in Six of Crows, but, yeah, I want them to succeed, I want them to lead happy lives, and I want them to beat the bad guys!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. alilovesbooks says:

    Often I think you can be more invested in a character if they’re relatable but I don’t have to relate to a character to enjoy the book. I have read some great books where the characters have been absolutely horrible and completely different from me and everyone I know.

    As far as relatability goes though for me it’s usually an aspect of a character or a feeling I relate to rather than thinking they are just like me.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I definitely enjoy relatable characters and that can be really fun to read or make me feel more invested. And I agree that I think there are different kinds of relating. I’m not a male teen, for instance, but I could read a book about a male teenager and maybe relate if he’s worried about something I would worry about, like maybe how people are reacting to him or if he is going to be successful at something he cares about. I can understand that, even if we seem not the same at all!

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  17. Gayathri Lakshminarayanan says:

    Not all characters that I love are relatable to me, but if the characters are relatable the chances are high that I will live them. Interesting topic for discussion.

    Like

  18. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    Oooh, this is such an interesting discussion! I guess I always think of relatability in a different manner. I don’t mean it in the way where I can picture myself in that character’s shoes or as that character. That doesn’t happen all that often for me. When I look for “relatability” in characters, I mean that I want something that I can recognize in them as being authentic, whether it’s their motives, desires, downfalls, etc. I can relate to Ove’s desire to die and rejoin his wife in the book “A Man Called Ove,” even though I’ve never lost my spouse or had suicidal ideations. I can understand his desire, even though it’s not similar to my own. Even in “Vicious,” where the characters are all meant to be villains, I relate to them. Eli’s motivations make sense to me, and I can totally see his perspective, but at the same time, I see Victor’s reasoning, too, and that also makes sense. They feel real to me.

    So I guess it depends on how you define relatability. If I can’t relate to a character on even the basest level, then I find it really hard to enjoy a novel.

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  19. kozbisa says:

    I don’t think I have to relate to the characters, but I usually have to care about them and be able to empathize with what they are dealing with. It’s good read about people, who are different from me as well. Seeing something through a different lens can be very eye-opening.

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  20. ofmariaantonia says:

    Good post.

    I love your little mention of Anne Shirley. I remember once saying to my mom (when I was maybe 8??) that I was sooo much like Anne. And she nodded and said, yes. The truth is, I’m NOT like Anne. Not then and not now.

    But I think I still related to her on some level. The disappointments. The joys. The fears.

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  21. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    I don’t think characters need to be relatable in the way you define that term here and I’m guessing most other people don’t either. I do want characters to be understandable. Specifically, I want to be able to understand characters enough that their actions seem reasonable to me given their motivation, personality, and knowledge of the situation. They might not choose to do what I would do, but their actions shouldn’t seem implausible given who they are.

    I wonder if some people who say they want relatable character really mean they want characters they can understand – not characters whose role they could imagine filling as themselves, but whose role they can imagine themselves filling if they were that character as the author has presented them.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think relating to characters as seeing yourself as them seems to be a new thing I’m seeing more of in the YA book community. I agree, however, that most readers likely just want characters to be sympathetic and understandable. I’m not really sure why the trend has started, but sense is that it is definitely there….

      Like

  22. Charvi says:

    I don’t feel to love a book one needs to relate to characters but one should certainly relate to some aspects of the book to enjoy it, even the minor ones. In my view that makes a person love the book even more!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think that’s a great point! I don’t really like reading books where I think ALL the characters are detestable and their motives silly or immoral!

      Like

  23. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Very interesting discussion! I definitely think that one of the best things about reading is getting to know characters that are not like them and I completely get what you mean about not relating to a lot of characters (although I do think that even with extremes like Macbeth, there is something to be said about relating to their human experiences and considering how it might be to go down a dark path where we give into our darkest impulses… that’s how I like to read a lot of Shakespeare at least- like it’s a really twisted thought experiment 😉 )

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think “relate” can mean different things to different people. Perhaps this person did mean they felt like a terrible person or something and not necessarily regicidal!

      Like

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