“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”1
Relatability can mean different things to different people.
When I was studying storytelling, character relatability boiled down to “Make characters who are real people.” This meant making characters who possess qualities that are universally understood: they should have families, a history. They should experience love and loss. They should feel the gamut of emotions.
But it seems like more and more people use the word relatability to mean “A character who’s like me.”
On the surface, those definitions look the same. If a character has a universal quality, of course they’re going to be like me in some way. And of course we want characters like us; how else will we be able to understand them?
But many people who want characters to be “like them” want characters who are just like them… and will not be happy if there are no characters who fit this bill. They may even say a story isn’t good if there’s no characters that fit this definition.
This issue is a common one when it comes to diversity in media. While some point out the heavy over-saturation of white characters compared to minorities, others argue that trying to meet a “quota” of representation only creates a political statement, not a cohesive tale.
There’s some truth to both sides, but one of the biggest issues I have is when someone starts saying I can’t enjoy a story unless there’s someone just like me in it.
This idea is absurd. The very act of creating a character means you’re excluding some people group. If you want to make a character who’s Asian, guess what? By the “character must be just like me” definition of relatability, that character automatically just alienated anyone not Asian. The same goes for a character’s gender, sexuality, etc. If I were to accept this definition, I wouldn’t be able to relate to a character unless she was the oldest daughter of her white, middle-class family, lived with her parents, was 29 years old, owned five cats… You get the idea.
But maybe what these people are really looking for is a character with at least one aspect that’s “like me.” If a character is a transgender Asian wife who has four kids, then anyone who’s trans, Asian, a wife, or a parent can relate, right?
While that’s true, you’re still excluding anyone who isn’t any of those things. So now you need to make characters for all THOSE people to relate to.
And thus begins the dangerous cycle.
A writer following this definition of relatability starts creating characters to fit a quota so no one gets left out… rather than focusing on creating characters that 1) fit the story’s setting and 2) fit the story’s needs.
This is not to say we shouldn’t create characters people can identify with. It’s impossible to put a price on that, as it excites and can even empower the audience. No one should be robbed of that.
But writers can’t create characters whose main purpose is to be someone X-number of people are like. These characters are built with the wrong focus: they’re all about what they look like rather than who they are and what they do to the plot or the rest of the cast. This leaves them feeling plastic. Fake. One-dimensional. Like they were only created to pander to a certain audience (and, to some degree, they kind of are, well-intentioned or not). These characters feel like they’re missing something because they were made to relate to specific audience members, not to the whole audience; they lack universally relatable qualities.
So how do we create characters that under-represented people can connect to while making them fully-fleshed-out? Don’t let your character just be one thing!
I’m not just someone who’s white; there’s so much more to me. But writers who create characters to be “just like me” so often forget it. We’re so much more than an ethnicity, a sexual orientation, or a gender. All of these things are part of who we are, but they’re so superficial compared to other qualities. What’s more important when it comes to knowing who I really am: my skin color or the people I grew up surrounded by? My heritage or my personality? My nationality or how I choose to view and interact with the world?
It’s these latter qualities—our friend groups, our family, our personalities, our worldviews—that are far more universal and far more meaningful to an audience member when it comes to evaluating, understanding, and connecting to characters. We look for these qualities, so when they’re not there… the character feels empty.
Please, writers, make characters who minorities can relate to; it’s great! But make sure these characters have universal qualities everyone can understand. That’s the true power of relatability. Are you trying to tell a story that anybody can connect to… or are you writing a story to fill a quota?
This is why it’s so important to define relatability… Because depending on how we define it, we’re either going to end up with bland characters that only a few of our audience can connect with… or characters who may not look like them but who deal with things that everyone in the audience can relate to.
Notes and References:
- The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner, (1987; 20th Century Fox).