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As far as I understood from my readings, relatability seems to be one of the most important aspects of a good story. A relatable character is a character that makes the reader say "I know that feel, bro..." and thus creating a connection between the reader and the character, and consequently also the work this character belongs to.

To achieve such relatability, the writer needs to make such character just like the reader, either in most part or in some way. That's where my problem lies: I don't want to do that. My character is not like the reader and is actually unlikely that someone like this character would be reading it. That's because I don't have the intention of making this character relatable. Instead, I just want to tell the reader a story, either if it's similar to some readers or not similar at all.

But is it a good idea to "just tell a story"? Can a work be well received even without being relatable, if the story is good enough? If the answer is "no" to any of these, why?

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    Read "Lolita." You'll be surprised how soon you identify with a despicable human being. You can absolutely have your character be different to the reader and captivating. Relatable means overlap, not identity. The bigger the contrast while maintaining overlap the better. Here is a link to some quotes. goodreads.com/work/quotes/1268631-lolita – DPT Oct 12 '17 at 16:11
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I don't agree that relatability is one of the most important aspects of a good story.

Yes, you want the reader to be drawn in and to empathise with the character, and to feel personally hooked into the stakes, but that doesn't come from feeling that the character is the same as them.

And what would it mean to be the same as them anyway? Would you define it as being the same gender / age / ethnicity / culture? There are plenty of people who share those things with me who I have little empathy with.

Or would you completely ignore those things and base it on character and personality traits - which sounds less shallow, but probably impossible.

I would suggest that you draw the reader into 'knowing that feel' (a phrase which I like very much) by making the reader care about the things the character cares about, and giving the character choices that the reader finds as agonisingly difficult as the character does.

One way to do this is to think about what the character 'wants' as opposed to what he or she 'needs'. By pitting these two things against each other throughout the story, then eventually making the character choose between them, you can make your reader desperate for the character to make the right decision, but not sure until the last moment whether they will or not.

You can read more about that here https://www.novel-software.com/blog?article=what-your-character-wants-versus-what-they-need (disclosure, I wrote that article and it's on my site)

I am currently reading The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan, which is about what it says in the title. I rarely transmogrify, have never killed or eaten anyone and am not the last of my species. I do not have limitless funds and not 200 years old, etc etc. And yet I care about this character and what is going to happen to him.

There are plenty of other examples of dislikeable characters who are extremely compelling and charismatic and make fantastic protagonists.

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    I.e. description, description, description? Describe the person and their situation in ways that pull the reader. – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 10:20
  • I wouldn't say it's quite as simple as that - it really depends what you're describing. – TheNovelFactory Oct 12 '17 at 10:49
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    So relatability actually means "to cause empathy", and the means for that have nothing to do with making the character similar to the reader, right? – Yuuza Oct 12 '17 at 14:08
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Relatibility is more like understanding why people are doing what they are doing. Consider the movie franchise for Taken: the hero kills dozens of people without mercy. But we understand why, they are evil and they have kidnapped or killed somebody important to him. In The Matrix, nobody is like Neo (by design), but we come to understand what he is doing and why. In the series Mr. Robot we have an untrustworthy narrator because our hero is literally insane and hallucinating half the time, but we understand why he and his cohorts have broken the law (to fight evil as they see it) and even why the police opposing them are trying to enforce the law (also to fight evil as they see it).

What makes heroes relatable is us wanting them to succeed, even if their success for some reason means slaughtering thousands of people. What makes villains, villains is we don't want them to succeed. What makes for good conflicted reading (or watching) is characters we know we should want to succeed but don't want to succeed: We should want our uncorrupted FBI agent to catch Mr. Robot, but we also want Mr. Robot to succeed in his clearly illegal fight against the sociopathic villains!

For another example, consider the romance novels my 82 year old neighbor reads. She spent twenty years working as a seamstress, and another twenty as a hotel maid. She was married and divorced in fifteen years. The female leads in her novels are nothing like her, personally. They are young, often wealthy or moving in wealthy circles, they meet powerful men. Why does she relate? Not because they are cleaning toilets like SHE did, they aren't going to marry the guy from the pool hall that knocked her up. She relates because SHE wants to believe she could be like THEM, if her cards had been dealt just a bit differently. She wants them to succeed, falling in love, having epic sex, or whatever else is going on in modern romance novels.

A relatable character is one we can understand, even if they have skills or god-given gifts, or even magical abilities we will never have. A hero is somebody we not only understand but want to succeed.

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The paradox of relatability is that the more specific, individual, idiosyncratic characters are quite often the most relatable; while characters that are created to be universal are often the least relatable.

What we relate to is generally not the facts of the character. It's more that we say this character wants something, and I want something; this character makes mistakes, and I make mistakes; this character learns things, and I learn things. It's quite true that superficial similarities can help catch a reader's attention, and make them more initially likely to emphasize with a character, but all that does is open that initial door, it doesn't do the real work.

When we find characters relatable, we generally either aspire to be like them (in their best moments) or fear we are like them (in their worst moments) or both. Therefore characters who are either too perfect for us to think we could be like them, or too flawed for us to fear we are like them, are not relatable; but someone who walks the line between those two extremes is.

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I think you don't need to put so much effort into making characters relatable. Especially for certain genres where one of the biggest appeals is escapism. Sure, relatability can be helpful, but I think it's much more important for you to focus on writing interesting characters, characters your readers will want to follow on their journey, rather than making a character be relatable.

There is such a thing as creating characters too relatable, and this can really put a lot of people off. If you want to make your character as relatable as possible, he needs to be as bland and as vague as you can make him, so more people can be able to put themselves in your characters shoes. However, that means you'll most likely end up with an incredibly boring and uninteresting character to read about.

If you're really set on making a character relatable, then do so not with traits, quirks and characteristics, but values such as our curiosity, determination, action despite fear, concealing weakness with strength, wanting to reach for the impossible and so forth. These are the things that can make a character relatable, while still leave room for you to write in interesting personality traits and quirks that will move him away from being a bland, blank slate.

Hope this helps :)

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