Relatability is overrated. Go for interesting

January 12, 2015

Relatability in characterization, especially for main characters, is overrated. You find it most commonly in video games, where the main character is almost always a generic white male, because it’s assumed that white males are who will be buying most of the copies. The reasoning goes that if the character is more like you in background, ethnicity, gender, etc., you’ll be able to empathize with them more, and more easily put yourself in their shoes. The same thing happens with generic Japanese high school boys headlining every visual novel ever, and white males in Hollywood movies, and I’m sure Indian fellows starring in Bollywood films, and so on and so forth.

This ignores a core attribute of human empathy. Namely: We can empathize with anything. People like us? Sure. People not like us? Absolutely. Different races, genders, religions, political affiliations … all it takes is a little extra effort to get in their shoes. Can we empathize with animals? Damn right. How about inanimate objects? Sometimes it’s even easier. Ideas and broad philosophical contexts that don’t actually exist? Absolutely. That’s where the anthropomorphic personification of Lady Justice, Death, and most ancient gods came from.

So if relatability in race, gender, creed, etcetera isn’t desirable, what is? What makes for a good character? Simple:

Don’t focus on making them relatable. Focus on making them interesting.

This is why Mazik is how he is. Even ignoring the fact that he can create explosions with his mind, most people aren’t as outgoing, audacious, uninhibited, and uproariously clever as Mazik is. If I wanted to make him more like most people who read fantasy novels, he’d probably be more subdued, bookish, contemplative, and a helluva lot less likely to act before thinking. Fortunately, I never even considered doing that, because relatability is overrated. Instead, I focused on making him interesting, and if I succeeded—which I think I did—than he and the others will be far more compelling to you as a reader than most bland “relatable” characters could ever be.

The best part? That doesn’t preclude people from empathizing with him. The way Mazik starts Wage Slave Rebellion in a position many of us have found ourselves in—hating his job—means we can relate to him even if his reactions to that situation are markedly different from what they would be for the rest of us. It’s the situation that does it, not anything about him as a person.

I’ll take it a step further: I think the phrase “get inside their shoes” is misguided, because that’s not actually what we should be shooting for. We don’t want to imagine ourselves as that character. Mazik is Mazik. Gavi is Gavi. Raedren is Raedren. I wouldn’t want anyone to go around thinking they’re them. They are distinct entities, even from the people I based them off of.

Far better as a goal is to shoot for standing beside them, or looking over their shoulders. That way they can still be interesting characters in their own right, without being watered down so we can think of ourselves as them.

Make your characters interesting, relatability be damned. That will follow if you tell your story right, and it’s the kind of story that needs it.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    kioku from laptop

    Or as Scamp the cart driver calls it, Yuuji Everylead the Bland!
    Apologies if double post, page timed out.

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