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?
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.
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.
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!
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