Chatterbox: What Makes a Character Relatable?

February 3, 2016 by Jenna | Chatterbox, Features

chatterbox2

When I write reviews, I often find myself commenting on how relatable the characters were, which made me question what that really means. There are so many characters that I find easy to relate to or connect with, but what actually makes them relatable to me?

Identity

I feel connected to characters who represent who I am and I think many of you would agree with me on this point. I know when Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy was released, a lot of readers saw themselves in the main character and said that they’d never connected with a character more than they had with Willowdean, who isn’t the typical thin or average-sized protagonist that we see in many YA novels. But being an Asian, straight cisfemale, there aren’t very many main characters in YA novels who represent who I am.

Similar Experiences

Because there aren’t very many characters who identify the same way that I do, what makes a character relatable to me are the experiences that we share. There’s nothing more moving than watching a character go through experiences that I’ve been through myself. Or seeing characters face problems that I have faced in my own life. Sometimes I might even be facing the same problems that the characters are facing. Whatever the situation may be, as a reader, the battles that the main character is facing resonates with me because I can understand and empathise with them. This is probably why I enjoy reading YA so much. Even though I’m no longer a teenager in high school, I was a high school student at one point and have been through some of the same experiences. It’s harder for me to connect to the characters in adult fiction because I’m so far from where they are in life.

Emotions

Obviously, when it comes to fantasy novels, I can’t really relate to the situations that the characters find themselves in. I’ve never been trained as an assassin and I’ve never had to fight a dragon. The reason why I can feel connected to these characters is because they often have the same emotional experiences as we do. I can relate to the heartbreak that they feel (okay maybe not really, but I can imagine it), and I can connect with the friendships that I see. When characters are betrayed, I feel betrayed for them. Even though I might not be able to understand their actions and circumstances, I can still relate and empathise with how they’re feeling. Take Kestrel from The Winner’s trilogy. I’ve never been in her position but one of the reasons why I love Kestrel so much is because I’ve had restrictions placed on me in my own life, and I know what it feels like to be forced to do things and to feel stifled.

Coming of age stories

I absolutely love reading coming of age stories. I love seeing imperfect characters and watching them grow throughout the book. There’s nothing I can relate to more than characters who acknowledge their mistakes or that they’re not perfect human beings. I enjoy watching them take steps to make changes in their lives. These coming of age stories really inspire me and I find it so easy to relate to these main characters because who doesn’t want to consistently make improvements in their own lives?

Is likability the same as relatability?

Often I come across characters that I think are super relatable, but when I reflect on why I think they’re so relatable, sometimes I draw the conclusion that they’re just very likeable people. Which makes me wonder… is likability the same as relatability? Do we feel like we relate to characters because we like them? I mean, there are cases where the answer to this question is an obvious no. For example, Magnus Bane from the Shadowhunter chronicles. I love Magnus and he’s a super likeable character, but I don’t feel like he’s that relatable to me. But there are so many other instances where the line is a little bit blurred. I’m interested to see what you guys think about this.

And if likability is the same as relatability, does this mean that the reverse is also true? Do we find characters unrelatable because we don’t like them?

This is a super subjective topic so I’m keen to hear your thoughts on what makes a character relatable to you. And if you have any insights into my philosophical question of likability vs relatability, I’d love to hear what you think too!

Jenna-Sig

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Jenna is an Aussie blogger and reader who loves to indulge in great books and great food. You can usually find me binge reading series, fangirling with fellow readers, devouring pastries, or binge watching Netflix shows. You can find me on Twitter @readwithjenna and on Instagram @readingwithjenna.

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48 responses to “Chatterbox: What Makes a Character Relatable?

  1. I totally agree with you there, Lekeisha. I've also been had depression and anxiety since I was in my mid-teens so I especially connect with stories about mental health. It does irk me when authors don't do enough research and the representation isn't good, but I can still usually connect with the character through shared emotions and experiences.

  2. I definitely connect and relate to characters the most in terms of their emotions, and the things they go thorough in life. And also circumstances! I love being able to read about a character and identify with them. It makes the book feel so much more … relatable, lol XD I find that if I can relate to a character, the book stays in my mind a lot longer. Which isn't to say that I have to relate to EVERYTHING about the character. Even just one thing is enough. But I just like ebing able to connect with a character that way.

    I don't really think that likability and relatability are synonymous. I think someone can be likable without relating to them at all. Which I guess means the opposite is true: you can relate to a character that you don't particularly like. I mean, relatability is just identifying with a character's situation or identity or emotions etc. That doesn't mean they react to those things the same way as you do. So I think that leaves a distinctness from the likability and the relatability.

    I find that I don't really say "I related a lot to this character". I often feel that the character's situation etc. reminded me of something that I've been through. Although I really DO relate A LOT to Jenna (represent! HAHA) from Wildwood Dancing. We are very similar.

    This was such a great discussion, lovely! <3
    My recent post Five Reasons To: Watch Sleepy Hollow

    • Ooohh you've made a great point that relatability is just being able to identify with some aspect of the character, Chiara. I guess I've always just somewhat lumped relatability and likability together so it was really hard for me to disentangle. There probably is a likability factor when it comes to how we relate to a character, but it could also be a bit more objective, like you mentioned.

      I've always wanted to read Wildwood Dancing or anything by Juliet Marillier and now I'm even more intrigued since there's a character called Jenna?!! It's so hard for me to find a main character who shares my name (even with a different spelling) so I'm even more keen to read this now!

  3. For me, relatable characters are characters that I can relate to on an emotional level, like their confusion, or their sadness, or their humour, or their happiness, characters I can feel and love and get attached to, but then again, I do find I become attached to characters who are relatable in ways like their experiences, or their life lessons, if that makes sense? Gah, confusing answer, but great topic Jenna! 🙂
    My recent post Why You Need To Quit Comparing Yourself To Others

    • Haha it's a confusing questions! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I definitely think it's probably more important for me to understand their emotions than it is to have been in their situation. If I'm able to feel what a character is feeling, they usually seem relatable to me.

  4. Jade @ Bedtime Bookworm

    I consider characters to be relatable when I can understand their emotions and train of thought. If I can put myself in their shoes, I feel like I can relate to them. I agree with all the other things you say in the post as well, but I think all of those things kinda build down to being able to empathize with the characters. I also read a lot of fantasy, so like you said we haven't been in the situations they are in. But we can imagine those situations and put ourselves in their shoes. When a character does things or makes decisions that I don't understand and that don't make sense to me, I lose that reliability factor.
    My recent post Siege and Storm (The Grisha #2) by Leigh Bardugo

    • I definitely agree with that! Understanding a character's thoughts and actions would be a big factor in terms of how relatable they are to me. If I can't understand why they're doing something, the relatability factor definitely goes down, as well as maybe their likability.

  5. This is a very, very, very real discussion. I think it can sometimes mean a character has been through a number of hardships and still learnt to overcome them realistically. You know, topics like teen pregnancy, abortion, infidelity, mental illness, etc. It all depends on how they handle – or the author – handles the topic at hand. Great post!
    My recent post Review: Emancipated

    • Absolutely! When I read books about serious issues like pregnancy and mental illness, I usually feel like I can relate to the character. But maybe what makes them relatable is how realistically they handled the situation. If I can understand why they did what they did, and it's realistically what someone in that situation would/could have done, then I feel a connection to the character. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. sumlynnnguyen

    I'm not even sure if I like or feel that satisfied with myself that much much less a fictional character, so I don't think likability and relatability the same. Though I think it's often confused to be pretty similar, like you said. It helps characterization in a story when they are relatable but it's a only a nice bonus if they're likeable. For me, I think I've thrown out "this character was relatable" in my reviews but I usually mean that as in they were realistic and could be potentially relatable to the general public. Or that they are the quintessential flawed human or teenager, etc. There's been seldom times I've felt a true connection with characters that I would say were like myself though. Honestly, I can only think of only one, which is Auden from Along For the Ride by Sarah Dessen. But even then, there's parts of me that Auden doesn't represent (such as the Asian culture aspect). And there's too few Asians for me to pick and choose a "relatable" twin. Ah well. Anyway, great discussion, Jenna!
    My recent post The Coffee Book Tag

    • Ah yes! I've often described a character as relatable when what I really mean is realistic! There are characters that are so well-written that I almost feel like I am them, and I generally describe these people as relatable but they're probably realistic more than anything. I can see not only aspects of myself in them but also aspects of other people I know. I think, as long as I can understand their thoughts and actions… as well as their flaws, they're relatable to me. And maybe those who are relatable but dislikable, are only dislikable because we see our own unwanted flaws in them?

  7. To me, relatability doesn't necessarily mean likeability. I can relate to characters without liking them at all… If there is a small part of me that can understand them somehow, I don't need to like them to enjoy their story, I think.
    But if there is nothing going on, no way for me to relate to them, nor to like them, I don't enjoy reading about them at all.
    This is a great post, and you asked some good questions about what it means to be relatable. Thanks for sharing your views, Jenna.
    My recent post STS #120 Bought Borrowed and Bagged #70

    • Thanks for the comment, Lexxie. It's a topic that I think about quite a bit so I was interested to see what relatability means to everyone else. Yeah I totally agree that there are some characters that I just cannot understand at all, which makes them really dislikable to me. Characters who keep making the same mistakes over and over and don't seem to learn are usually the characters who I cannot relate to or like at all.

    • Definitely! When I can understand why a character is feeling/doing what they're doing, I will usually find them to be relatable, even if I wouldn't behave or think the same way.

  8. Ella

    For me a relatable character is when I'm able to feel or empathize with him/her. That character can be annoying or whiny but as long as the author was able to transmit the emotions the character was having then for me that's it.

    • I totally see what you're saying and I feel the same way. Though a lot of the time, I can't stand characters who are annoying and whiny even if I can relate or empathise with their emotions/decisions. Maybe it's just my mind telling me that I can handle things better (when in reality, I'd probably be just as annoying and whiny!).

  9. That's a really tricky one Jenna. For me I can relate to a character if I see a trait in them that I see in myself. It could be even a situation they find themselves in or even a quirk. But I think even when we can relate, doesn't necessarily make a character likable though. But I think if they're likable, we're more likely to find something we can relate to, not matter how small because you've already invested in them and want to find that reader / character connection. Absolutely fascinating discussion Jenna, going to read through what others have said now too <3
    My recent post Prince's Gambit by C.S. Pacat

    • I definitely feel the same way, Kelly. When I see my own traits and flaws in characters, that's probably what makes them most relatable to me. Though somebody else in the comments mentioned that maybe characters that we dislike share flaws that we don't like about ourselves, which is why we don't like them 😀 Which I find to be a fascinating and valid point!

  10. Man, this is a tough question that I've actually never given much thought to. I mean, I say characters are relatable all the time as well but you're right-WHY are they easy to relate to? And then there's the whole relatability vs likability and the lines get further mashed up. For me, flawed characters whose feelings I can relate to make relatable characters. Great topic!
    My recent post Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

    • Exactly! I find that I always mention how relatable or likeable a character was but I never think about what that really means! I completely agree that characters who have flaws that I can relate to make relatable characters. I don't compliment myself a lot so I don't look for the good qualities in characters and think "omg that is so me" HAHAHA. Though maybe, subconsciously, that's what makes them relatable?

  11. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    This is something hat requires a lot of thought. Looking at only one side of the coin I would say that relateable characters are more likeable when we like the person to whom we relate them to. However a character in a book that points towards a person we hate in real life is still relatable. But not very likeable. Glad to have found your blog
    My recent post Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

  12. anotherafterthought

    I think for me it comes down to a mental thing rather than something physical or cultural. Yeah, those help, but for me if they act with the same kind of intent and/or have similar thought patterns that I'd -want- to try but deem it too scary or dangerous, then it's like "yes, you are like a carbon copy of me in fiction form". Like Mikey from TRoUJLH? He was dynamite even if I don't share his outward OCD-ish problems.

    • I managed to reply to this just under 2 weeks after you commented. Winning at life. But yeah, I see what you mean. I also connect with characters that I feel like I can live vicariously through. It's like they're a better and less wimpy version of who I am HAHA.

  13. Braine-Talk Supe

    I agree with all your points and I have to answer your questions about the last one. I've come across characters that I like but are totally unrelatable to me like Gillian Flynn's anti-heroines and Jessica Knoll's in Luckiest Girl Alive. They're crazy and compelling and for that I like them because they entertained me.

    As for the reverse, there are characters that I can relate but dislike. Usually this happens when I see my flaws reflected in these people. Classic case of projection. Hahaha, at least I'm honest enough to know that I can be such a drama queen sometimes.

    Cool discussion!
    My recent post Suped Up: He Will Be My Ruin by K.A. Tucker

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that likability vs relatability question that I always struggle with! I think I'm probably the same way with characters who I can relate to but dislike. It's probably just me hating on the negative aspects of a character that I can see in myself as well. I did not think of that at all!

  14. keionda

    I LOVE THIS POST SO HARD! LIKE. SERIOUSLY. I've gone around myself and wondered at the fact of WHY I relate with a character so much ADN everything you've highlighted answers all my questions! It's so true that many of the experiences that the characters go through, their emotions, their experiences ADN ALL THAT make it to whether or not I connect with a character or not. And you're right! It doesn't really matter if we ourselves haven't experienced what the characters are experiencing because mostly at one point in our life, we HAVE been there!

    Such a lovely, informative, and well thought out post, Jenna! <3

    • Thank you so much Keionda! I always think about this question and it always ends with me confusing myself so I thought I'd put those thoughts down on to paper haha.

  15. I think there are lots of reasons that a character can "feel" relatable – and you list a lot of them right here! Like you say, it helps a lot when you've experienced similar things to what the characters have or you've felt the way they have, but that's not absolutely necessary. Sometimes an author does such a good job of putting us into the character's head that we can't help but relate to them, even if they're nothing like us! That probably falls into your likability category, but I think you're right that not ALL likable characters are necessarily relatable. Great food for thought!
    My recent post Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan – Review

    • You've mentioned such a great point! There are some authors that have managed to make their characters and their actions/thoughts so realistic that I almost feel like I'm that person even if I haven't gone through what they have. I guess making us understand a character's actions and decisions, even if we might not agree with them, can make a character likeable/relatable (depending on how you distinguish them).

  16. lekeishathebooknerd

    I relate to characters that have gone through similar things as myself, or someone that I know well. I'm even more drawn to characters that are shy or introverted, because I'm both of those things. I'm sympathetic to mental health, because I've been battling depression since I was 17, so most stories centered around mental health will rock me in some way. Sometimes the authors don't get these experiences or emotions down right, but I still connect with the story in some way. Great discussion post!
    My recent post The Anatomical Shape of a Heart by Jenn Bennett

  17. Omg yes, emotions are basically what decides whether I relate to a character so much. When I see a protective, loyal and determined character, no matter what setting, I see myself in them and am instantly drawn. I think relatability and likability go hand in hand. If you like a character, there would be more chance of you liking them. If you don't like them, you probably don't relate to them either. I still like characters that I can't relate to, but it's more of a distant "like" rather than an "I LOVE THIS CHARACTER AND WILL PROTECT THEM WITH MY LIFE" kind of "like" haha. So I definitely agree with what you said about that topic, but for me it just varies with different levels of "likeness" and relatability.

    • So…you know how I was saying that I like Magnus Bane but don't really relate to him at all… Like he's at the 'I LOVE THIS CHARACTER AND WOULD PROTECT HIM WITH MY LIFE" kind of level. Which means that you should go read TID and TMI. (It always just comes back to this, doesn't it?)

  18. Ooh what an interesting topic, Jenna.
    For me relatability definitely has to do more with emotions than situations. A lot of time characters go through emotions that all of us have gone through at some point. And how characters react to certain situations can also make a relateable for me in addition to having similar thought processes.
    I love your question about relatability and likeability because it made me think. There are characters that I like, but that I don't necessarily connect with on any level, so I guess I would have to say they aren't the same for me.
    Great post, Jenna!
    My recent post Monthly Recap: January 2016

    • Yes, I definitely think that it's more to do with emotions than situations for me as well. Even though I've been through the teenage and high school phase, it's pretty hard to find characters who have been in the exact situations that I have been in. I guess it's more how they approach their situations in terms of behaviour and attitude that I can relate to.

  19. Jen @ YA Romantics

    Ooh, I love this topic because it's one I think about a lot. I think we all find different characters relatable for different reasons. I also think that some characters are inherently more relatable than others, possibly because, as you also point out, those characters reveal more of their feelings and emotions to the reader. I do think that likability and relatability sometimes overlap, but not always. I recently wrote a review saying that while I really empathized with a character and her situation, I didn't like her at all because she was selfish and lacked any self-awareness. I find it hard to relate to characters who are so nicey-nice they are doormats, though of course those characters are objectively likable. And I often relate to snarky, prickly characters, yet they aren't always so likable.

    Great topic and I look forward to what others think! Jen @ YA Romantics

    • Ah yes, I completely agree that I often relate to the snarky and moody characters too. The ones who speak their mind and aren't afraid of being too blunt (as long as it's not taken too far cos that can be quite annoying too). I think they're relatable because their thoughts are so true and are exactly what I was thinking too. I like the nicey-nice characters but sometimes they can seem boring and one-dimensional, which makes it harder to relate to them because they don't seem quite real. I mean, I think I'm a nice person but I know I'm not happy and kind all the time.

  20. Trisha Ann

    Great post! Ahh yes to that Magnus Bane equation. Likable doesn't necessarily mean relatable and vice versa. There are personalities and stories we want to see but not because we've been through it but just because we want them represented. 🙂

    OMG I haven't read Dumplin yet. Am I late in the party? I haven't met any Asian YA heroine yet (maybe except Cinders but she's a cyborg so) and gahh I have to read it!

    • Haha I don't think I want to be Magnus Bane either. His life seems pretty stressful. Though he is fabulous! I haven't read very many Asian YA protagonists either. The one that comes to mind is Azalea from A Little Something Different but that book is really poorly executed and if it hadn't been mentioned a thousand times that she's Asian, you would never have known. And yeah, Cinder isn't really the best representation either. Dumplin' was an okay book. I appreciated that it had a main character who was overweight and not the typical skinny and fit YA heroine. And I know lots of people related to the MC! It just left me wanting a little bit more.

  21. Bieke (Nelly B.)

    Great post! I totally agree with you. I love it when I can relate to a character on a personal level, but most of the time the character and me aren't the same. But a well-written character can still be relatable in some way even though he/she doesn't experience the same things as me. I'm going to take Simon from Simon vs as an example (of course). I have never been in his shoes, but I can relate to how he feels throughout the novel. Not because I have experienced what he went through, but because I've felt the same things. 🙂

    Though yeah, I can like a character a lot, but still not be able to relate to him/her. If it's a well-developed character, that won't drop my rating whatsoever. It's normal to have a few characters you can't really relate to, but if they're strong and likeable characters, you won't hear me complain.

    • Hehe your love for Simon vs knows no bounds!! I totally understand what you mean though. I relate to Simon so much but I've never been in his situation or had to make the decisions that he's had to (though I have been blackmailed once before T_T). His feelings of connecting with someone and wanting to know someone more deeply is universal though, so that's probably why we all love and can relate to him <3

  22. This is such an awesome topic, Jenna!
    For me, relatable character musn’t annoy me or frustrate me. I dont have to understand character 100% to feel relatable. But he or she definitely cant irritate me with his/her behaviour and decisions.
    For example, bookish characters are often in situation that is new to me. But as I read I think and wonder what I would do if I was in this or that situation. And if I feel that character’t thinking and choices rubs me the wrong way, I cant feel relatable to such character.
    My recent post MY 2016 BACKLIST TBR + JANUARY IN PICTURES (OR POST IN WHICH I CONFESSED TO MY TEA AND CANDLES ADDICTION)

    • I totally understand what you mean, Lucia! If I don't ever see myself doing something that a character is doing, I can't connect with them at all. Most of the time I can respect their decisions, but there are some instances where I just get super frustrated with them and can't relate at all!

  23. Angel @Angel Reads

    I don't think that relatable means you have been through what they have been through. I think it can also mean that you can understand what they have been for or if you were in the same situation you would do what they would do or you understand why they would do something.
    I think it can also be little things, like what the character thinks about family and if it's how you do, or if they like the same music as you.

    Thanks for an awesome post 🙂
    My recent post Top Ten Historical Settings I Love to Read

    • That's a great point that didn't come to my mind! Having the same values and moral beliefs would be really important in terms of how relatable a character is. Eg. I'm pretty straight-edge so I don't really connect with characters who seem to party and smoke all the time because I don't see myself behaving in the same way if I was in their situation. Great point, Angel!

  24. I think what makes a character relatable doesn't necessarily mean that you are in their same situation. Of course that helps, but as you said there are characters, no matter their situation that can still be relatable to us for what they're experiencing. For example, Rose from VA just wants to protect her loved ones and stay loyal to her best friend, and trying not to let her feelings for a guy ruin her friendship. That's something that I've had to experience in my teen years. When it comes to likeability vs relatibility, characters who feel familiar to us, whose feelings and thoughts we recognise or who we can even understand, that is what makes them relatable. A character doesn't have to be likeable to be relatable and the other way around.

    • Ugh this reminds me that I still need to read VA!! Rose seems like a super relatable character, who is likeable too? And I totally had that experience of trying to be a loyal friend and not letting a guy get in the way during high school as well!