Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Make Characters Relatable

It's Dan today and I'm here to talk about a tricky element of writing: making characters that are relatable to the reader. This might be more of a "Writing Craft 202" issue, for those writers who pass the 101 class, where one learns how to write coherent sentences and the basic structure of a story.

Among my agented friends, the old chestnut "I didn't connect with the main character" seems to be a reason for editor rejections. Let's ignore the possibility that this is publishing industry speak for I don't want it but don't have a specific reason, and discuss how to tackle the problem.

What Makes Characters Relatable?

I don't claim to be an expert in this, so I'll defer to Ben Bova:
"The protagonist must be admirable, or at least likable, but he should have at least one glaring weakness." -Ben Bova
Fundamentally, relatable characters are ones that we care about. Some things that might make me care about a character include:

  • Admirable qualities, such as courage, intelligence, honesty, and work ethic. (Example: Ned Stark from A Game of Thrones)
  • Sources of pain and suffering, be they physical or emotional or both. (Example: Harry Potter)
  • Strong motivation and proactivity (Example: Katniss from The Hunger Games)
  • Feelings and emotions that leap off the page (Example: Tris from Divergent)

I'll admit that the last one, item #4, is where I struggle the most. I'm an action guy: my characters are more likely to take a swing at something than sit around and think about their feelings. But I have it on good authority that my co-bloggers are experts at this sort of thing, so I look forward to their takes on it.

How Do You Make Your Characters Relatable?

It's your turn! What makes characters more relatable to you? How do you go about writing them?

Lisa: Please don't make them perfect in every way then realize too late that you've done this and give them a freckle on their nose that they whine about in order to make them less perfect.
My favorite characters are hard to like because they're so very flawed. Yet, it's impossible to not like them because you've made them so realistic. Just be wary, all personality flaws need to have a background or else you risk losing  readers' "I like this character even though she's a _____" exception.
My go-to for a character, especially a main character, is interviews. You need to ask your character a hundred questions, and have them answer in first person even if you're writing in 3rd person. You figure out your character's motivations, big or small, idiosyncrasies, etc. when you do this.

Caitlin: My husband and I were just watching old episodes of Arrested Development and we were talking about why the new version felt flat with us (and many other people). In the original, Michael and his son, George Michael, are relatable. They have flaws, for sure. Michael can sometimes be a little bit selfish (though nothing like his other family members) and George Michael is hopelessly awkward. But they have desires and cares and are trying to be their version of a good person. So, it doesn't matter that the rest of the characters in the show are completely unrelatable because they are ridiculously self-centered. We can hold on to Michael and George Michael, who aren't so hopeless, and laugh at the ridiculous situations. But, in the second one, when those characters weren't the center and were portrayed as pretty ridiculous themselves, then there was no footing.

So, I think a relatable character is someone who's trying to be a better person, even though they often fail at it. Now, a "better person" can mean a lot of different things depending on a character’s and world’s values, so you don't have to have a super warm and fuzzy character, but if the character isn't somewhat aware of his or her faults, and actively trying to combat those faults, then it would be pretty boring to follow them around for a whole book.

Karlie: For me, a character becomes relatable when they start fighting for something other than their own life/desires. Or when they mess up seemingly beyond the point of no return. I can relate to both those things, and it makes me sympathize with them. Honestly, I think everyone relates to things differently. And this is digressing somewhat, but I have the opposite problem you do, Dan - my characters tend to sit around and reflect way too much! So I think it's finding that balance between the characters realizing what the problem is and acting to fix it.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I love the idea of character interviews! Absolutely, having a solid hold on the characters' backstories and personality traits opens the door to having characters that make more sense to readers and are easier to relate with. (I speak from experience ... and it always takes more character studies than I expect to get this hold on the characters.)

    For me, I think I connect most with characters when there is something they are deeply invested in, outside themselves. It could be a family member, a friend, a social cause--a dog--but something they really care about and work toward. And personally, I enjoy character who are proactive and do many things to move their own story forward. I appreciate when characters are flawed and own up to their flaws (even if they are unable to completely resolve them). These kind of characters feel the most real to me.

    --Sam Taylor, AYAP Intern