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.