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On the modern day many people complain about how models, actors are damaging to society because people can't identify with them. Males actors or models which are ''too'' muscular are considered ''unrealistic'' and not relatable to normal people therefore it is argued that they cause self esteem problems, same with female models, specially in young people and young adults.

Many movies are starting to introduce black and female characters and even chubby characters, even in situations were it doesn't make sense, because of the argument that the viewer needs to relate to the fictional/historical characters.

Do fictional stories need to have relatable characters in order to be good? What about a fictional world with no humans, or a world where humans are so different from us that they are considered aliens?

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    The distinction between "relatable" and "identifiable" is extremely important. – Wildcard Nov 6 '18 at 21:18
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    You can relate to a character even if they are completely different. Black/Female/Chubby would be identifying with the character. I could easily relate to a story about a chubby black woman trying to patent something, but that doesn't make me a chubby black woman. – Redwolf Programs Nov 7 '18 at 13:35
  • @wildcard I'm not good at word games. – user33870 Nov 7 '18 at 21:19
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Personally, I don't need to identify with the characters to enjoy a story, whether in literature or in cinema. What I do need is to identify the characters as realistic constructs with human reactions and quirks.

As a young teenager, I discovered one of my favourite authors ever. The Portuguese Miguel Torga wrote plenty of short stories whose protagonists were animals or people living mostly miserable lives in the poor, harsh hinterland of his time. As a young middle class girl reading tales fifty years after they were written in a seemingly completely different society, I couldn't possibily relate to the frog eviscerated by a wild little boy or to the pregnant young woman who faced a lonely labour in the middle of the mountains to prevent her village from learning of her disgrace. But those characters I could never identify with allowed me to learn about sides of human nature I couldn't possibly know about at 13.

I feel the same towards films or any type of story, no matter the medium. If you can recognise the character as human in its actions and reactions, then you can enjoy its tale.

In fact, it strongly annoys me the growing pressure to have protagonists the reader can identify with, especially when that advice is explicitly connected with a character which can work as a sort of self-insert for the reader. Someone the reader can think 'this could almost be me'.

A story allows the reader/viewer/listener to put themself in the shoes of any person. Why should one purposefully limit the protagonists to constructs that mirror the supposed average or minority reader?

Some of the best stories I've read were the ones where I couldn't possibly relate to the character - whether in gender, social class, fears, ambitions... Those were the stories that opened my eyes to the fact that different people think and feel differently than me, that such differences are neither bad nor good, that actions one may deem insane or even evil can have profound reasons behind them, and that, through all those unsurmountable differences of feeling and action, we're all still human and fundamentally the same.

In conclusion: while I don't think it's inherently bad to have a character the reader can identify with, I certainly do not think that is essential. A character the reader can identify as fundamentally human is all a writer needs, as far as I'm concerned.

P.S.: While re-reading the answer, I felt the need to state that what I wrote above should not be seen as an excuse to always have the same typical white man/boy as a hero. While it's true that, as a woman, I thoroughly enjoy well-crafted male protagonists, I do think a lot of men would benefit from being allowed to experience stories from a woman's shoes... and I definitely don't mean 'chick' tales.

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    I enjoyed your answer; I think you were able to point out and clarify some things that I just sketched in mine. Also, I find the current trend of putting characters for self-inserting distasteful too. Thumbs up! – Liquid Nov 5 '18 at 13:44
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    From the sci-fi tradition, the character doesn't even have to be human, just comprehensible. – chrylis Nov 5 '18 at 18:40
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    Good answer. However, there has to be something in there to relate to or people will stop reading a story. Something has to make them care what happens next. Political correctness does seem to be getting entirely out of hand. – Joe Nov 6 '18 at 18:47
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    @Joe: I quite agree. But IMHO what one must relate to is the humanity of the character. – Sara Costa Nov 6 '18 at 19:38
  • @chrylis: that is a great point. Most aliens (in the stories I read) come off as being mostly human-like, but I have read a few tales where aliens are very unlike humans... Of course, they were never protagonists in those stories. – Sara Costa Nov 6 '18 at 19:42
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Since everyone is saying "no", let me say "yes". To some extent.

Even as a young teenager, I never had trouble to put myself in the shoes of d'Artagnan, or Jean Valjean, or El Cid, or Lancelot, or Frodo. There is no reason whatsoever why any one particular story shouldn't be about only men, or exclusively some other specific demographic. And there's no reason why I shouldn't want to read those stories just because I don't belong to that particular demographic - On the contrary! @SaraCosta, @Liquid, @Rasdashan all say this, so I will not reiterate.

But let us look at the bigger picture. If all stories are about White, Christian men, what does it tell me - a Jewish woman? What do I learn when people who are like me, are exclusively cast as the antagonist, or the butt of a joke? Stories tell us about the world, and about our place in it. What then, do those stories, put together, tell me? They tell me that only white Christian guys can be awesome, only white Christian guys can have adventures, only white Christian guys can make a difference in the world.

You mention body image. When one blonde, blue-eyed, very thin princess finds her Prince Charming, I'm happy for her. When all women who find their Prince Charming are blonde, blue-eyed and very thin, there is an implication that dark-haired, dark-eyed slightly overweight girls don't find Prince Charmings.

Stories about women, black people, people who are neither black nor white, people of all shapes and sizes - those stories too should exist.

What you're seeing now, the push to include everyone everywhere, is a response to a system that's been out of balance for a long time. It might be that we're going too far in the opposite direction, but that's the way systems usually work, until things balance out.

What does it mean for your story? If it is about, for example, British soldiers in WW1, chances are they're going to be white men. And they are going to be quite fit. There are minorities you can touch on within that group - Irish, Scottish, lower class, upper class. No group is homogenous, and it is rather boring when stories are exclusively about what is perceived as the "average specimen".

If your story is about non-humans, they're not all the same either, right? Go ahead then, explore their issues. I'm sure they have some human emotions for us to relate to.

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    there would be gurhkas and Indians in the world wars. Didn't the american army have black guys? so no reason for even these stories to be a complete white wash. – WendyG Nov 6 '18 at 13:21
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    @WendyG The american army didn't have black guys properly, they were a separate division. Apparently in WW2 it was strange for them seeing black guys in a regular division in the european armies. – Programmdude Nov 7 '18 at 4:16
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    I whole-heartedly agree. The writer I mentioned, who wrote short stories, had a wide assortment of characters: male and female, young and old, different classes and sensibilities... I learnt to expect different protagonists with him and it annoys me that most protagonists in modern cinema and books are copies of eachother... but it also annoys me how the typical white male protagonist is thought of as 'protagonist' while the, say, black female protagonist is hailed as the 'representative of black women'. (cont.) – Sara Costa Nov 8 '18 at 0:17
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    I do not look forward to having reps as protagonists. After all, two black women can have completely opposite sensibilities and ambitions. What makes one more representative than the other? A character represents a facet of humanity which has been built through the character's personality and life experiences; what fiction of any type requires is a wider variety of life experiences... which requires protagonists other than the typical white male ones. – Sara Costa Nov 8 '18 at 0:17
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As I see it, you're asking two questions:

Do fictional stories need to have relatable characters in order to be good?

And the answer would be a resounding

Yes

But regarding the actual title, Do readers need to identify with fictional characters?

No

Being able to relate to a character has little to do physical characteristics. Sure, a person who's struggling with disability will be able to relate more with a character who's doing the same (if the character is portrayed well, that is), but that's just a surface level.

Characters are relatable when they show humanity (often even when they're not technically human in their respective universes). With humanity here I mean the "ability to feel human emotion, or perceive the world as an human would do". Despite the fact that humans come in various shapes, gender, sizes, etnicity and culture, the basics of the human experience is worldwide. A person crying in pain will be relatable to each other people who suffered pain before, regardless of the source.

What happens with movies and other visual media is:

  1. The matter of representation,
  2. Shortcuts, aka "cues" (there's a more specific term here, but I can't seem to remember it now).

I won't delve into the matter of representation of minorities or different ethnicities since it is indeed a complex issue, and a bit oustide the scope of this answer. I will deal with the shortcuts - also known as "when the representation is done cheap".

In other words, it's when the authors want some share of the audience to relate with a character, but they don't have the time or the will to deal extensively with that character backstory, motivation or psychology. So, in order to make it more interesting to at least a share of the general public, they throw in a "key characteristic" as a token gesture.

In a more general sense, a cue is when you throw hints at the audience expecting them to fill the gaps. Cues can be useful in some situation, but they shouldn't be shortcuts to make your character more relatable.

As you mentioned:

Many movies are starting to introduce black and female characters and even chubby characters, even in situations were it doesn't make sense, because of the argument that the viewer needs to relate to the fictional/historical characters.

I'm recalling Troy: fall of a city link, were suddendly the (supposedly greek) Achilles is portrayed by a black actor (being black of course doesn't influence the skill of the actor, but it doesn't sit well with the historical setting). The point is that this kind of shortcuts can work - I'd be lying if I told you they don't - but while it's true that you could make your work more "appealing" this way, seeming more inclusive and having a more diverse cast, you also risk alienating some of your audience.

Some of your audience, probably of the same category you're trying to appeal to, will recognize that you're using cheap cues and will feel annoyed. In the end, throwing in, for example, a disabled character without dealing with the complex issues of disability is downright disrespectful. In the same way, any "characteristic" of the characters you're dealing with should be addressed if it's of some relevance.

Be true to your setting and to the story you want to tell. Relatable character are good characters, and vice-versa; throwing cues won't help making them better.

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    Brad Pitt as Achilles alienated audiences with a brain… LOL – wetcircuit Nov 5 '18 at 11:51
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    I won't downvote, since it's tangential to an otherwise good answer, but your Troy example isn't serving you well. The ancient Greeks were Mediterranean, with notably tan skin and curly hair. Yet people don't make the same outcry when they see them portrayed as pale-skinned, straight-haired Aryans as they do when they see them portrayed as black, even though both are equally "inaccurate." Often, when people think they are defending historical accuracy, they're really only defending their own favored ahistorical image. – Chris Sunami Nov 5 '18 at 16:27
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    @ChrisSunami Being from a country from the mediterranean coast myself, I've got well in mind what the "mediterranean look" is and what greek standards were (at least since we study a bit of classic culture in our schools). I'll link a verse from the Iliad, cap II, 185: "While he [Achilles] was (...) was drawing his mighty sword from its scabbard, Athena came down (...), and seized the son of Peleus by his yellow hair,". [I'll leave the link here for the quote: perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/… ] – Liquid Nov 5 '18 at 17:49
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    @Galastel While I recognize what you say to be true, I don't feel like this is my case. The example I cited above is just one among others in the source material. Of course, the Iliad is a work of oral fiction, so it's wildly inaccurate. Yet greek population was derived by a mix of caucasian and iranian populations, with traits of yet northern people too (at least according to researchgate.net/publication/…). – Liquid Nov 5 '18 at 18:01
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    @Liquid - that's my point. Even though your girlfriend --who actually watched the series --was struck by the inaccuracy of the pale people of Troy, you didn't cite that as an example, you solely mentioned the inaccuracy of the dark Achilles. What strikes us as suspension-of-disbelief endangering ahistoricality is informed more by societal expectations than by actual history. As pjc50 points out, the OP finds diverse casts less "believable" than casts where everyone is Hollywood thin and beautiful --why? Could it be that believability is itself shaped by the images we're used to? – Chris Sunami Nov 5 '18 at 21:27
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"Representation" is more subtle than you think. The claim is not "every novel should include a reprentative balanced sample of the current population", but more that "the sum total of fiction output should represent the breadth of human experience and not be unnaturally limited to certain demographics" and also "it is good if young people can find at least one fictional character that they can relate to".

Many movies are starting to introduce black and female characters and even chubby characters, even in situations were it doesn't make sense, because of the argument that the viewer needs to relate to the fictional/historical characters.

Conversely, does it make sense that every story or film contains only Hollywood-thin white guys with token young thin female love interests?

Carelessness about this kind of thing leads people to make strange ahistorical claims in order to maintain their viewpoint, e.g. "There were no famous female pirates" (false).

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Many movies are starting to introduce black and female characters and even chubby characters, even in situations w[h]ere it doesn't make sense, because of the argument that the viewer needs to relate to the fictional/historical characters.

I'm going to attempt a frame challenge here, because I don't agree that the reason is always for the viewer to relate to the characters. The most relatable characters are characters with whom we can identify in terms of personality, decision-making, life experience, etc. However, that can often have little to do with their physical attributes, their race, gender, sexuality, etc. We can identify with those aspects, too, but not always for the same reasons.

Take the example of Star Wars, The Force Awakens. Two of the main characters are a black man and a white woman. However, it is a fantasy/Sci-fi setting and so the race and gender of the characters are never remotely relevant, and change nothing about themselves or the plot. A black person will not relate to Finn’s character because he shares some of the issues they face in their average lives. Same with a woman who sees Rey onscreen. They may be relatable for other reasons, but not specifically for their gender or race, sexuality or ability, etc.

What it does do, however, is simply represent diversity. Taking your example:

many people complain about how models, actors are damaging to society because people can't identify with them.

The reason being that they don’t look like the average person, so the average person can’t see themselves in their shoes. It is easy to take for granted how many of the characters we see in film and television are unvaried: they are straight, cis, abled white men. And it’s easy to take for granted what it feels like to simply see people who look like you in your favourite characters and heroes. It makes you think, hey, that could be me! I could be awesome/badass/heroic, too. That is a powerful feeling, and that is what Finn and Rey represent for the little boys and girls watching Star Wars.

So, I argue that the reason diversity is included more and more these days is not because it makes the characters more relatable. Often, it doesn’t even factor into the character aside from in the physical. But it costs nothing, and it serves to empower many different groups of people who rarely get to see themselves on the screen. Not to mention, the real world is so much more colourful than TV and film have historically portrayed. It is simply reflecting the real world.

5

I enjoy characters who have interesting lives, or quiet ones. Any well drawn three dimensional character should be someone one can relate to, whether you have anything in common with that character or not.

It is often something as fundamental as their desires, aspirations and their courage to move forward despite whatever obstacles the author has thrown in their way that appeals to one.

The idea that one can only enjoy fiction about characters so like themselves as to be mirrors is extremely limiting.

Whether it is Ahab and his need to hunt his white whale, Jean Valjean’s need for redemption though he is certain he cannot have it, or a farmer in China choosing to bring home a second wife now that he can afford to, the choices and decisions are fascinating.

Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain has some characters you are not expected to like, not really expected to see as yourself, but rather as the characters they are, flawed, ill and competing against each other over who has the highest fever. Small things, but true and true certainly to the paradigm.

The inclusion of minorty actors can be brilliant. Kenneth Branagh, in Much Ado About Nothing, has Keanu Reeves as Don John who is brother to the Prince, Don Pedro, played perfectly by Denzel Washington.

4

Good characters need to be compelling, which is not necessarily the same as relatable but can be. Compelling characters have strong motivations that you, as a reader, understand; a relatable character is one where you can see yourself acting the same way in the same situation. Not all compelling characters are relatable and not all relatable characters are compelling; for example I find Voldemort a compelling character, the deep-seated fear of his own mortality that drives him, I understand that; the lengths to which he lets it drive him though? I can't relate.

To me personally it matters not at all whether a character is given any specific gender, race, or creed, or indeed none at all, as long as their motives are clear and understandable.

3

The difference between a movie and a story is that the imagination of the observer is not used as much with a movie. Everything is already shown and because of this diversity is a hot topic.

In a story the reader needs to be able to imagine him/herself inside of the world created by the author. If the characters are not relatable or identifiable in some way there is no way for the reader to immerse.

This is a problem movies don't have so I would say yes it is important to have relatable characters in the sense that the reader can live inside the story, feel the emotions the character is feeling. You can present the characters in whichever way you deem proper.

Relatable characters also includes fictional creatures and aliens. The people reading your story are humans. So they must relate to these aliens in some way too. This is often done by giving the aliens some kind of human treat, or behaviour. This is the relatable part for human readers.

3

Do readers need to identify with fictional characters?

The important thing is that the character is relatable and realistic. Having the same sex / skin color / body build as the viewer probably doesn't contribute to eighter.

If anything, hobbies and personality have much sronger effect, I can easily identify with Rajesh Koothrappali (the indian guy from Big Bang theory) because I'm also a geek, but I can also enjoy a movie like The Warrior that's about boxing (something I'm not interested in whatsoever), if the movie is interesting enough.

But the ultimate reason I can relate to both of these cahracter and enjoy the movie from their perspective is that they are good characters, with personality, strengths and weaknesses.

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    Realistic? Characters like Batman and Superman are far from being realistic, yet they have been quite popular characters for decades, in multiple forms of media (comics, TV series, animation, feature movies). – Abigail Nov 6 '18 at 1:52
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    Having superpowers is not unrealistic in a fictional setting. If the character acts as a real person with superpowers would act, it would be realistic. – kajacx Nov 6 '18 at 18:38

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