We all know how important it is to build fully-fleshed characters by digging at their core. Exposing their attributes, flaws, morals, emotional wounds and fears that revolve around their basic human needs will influence their goals and desires within the story. And to make a protagonist really sing, most authors push to include unique qualities to set them apart. After all, a memorable character sticks with us past the last page, and keep us watching the author’s website to see when the next book releases. This type of deep connection makes an author worthy of remembering, “selling” the author’s skills to readers and turning them into fans.
In addition to creative character-building to win the audience over, authors try to also dream up settings and situations that will also provide a rich, vivid experience. Readers want to be immersed in something new and special, and with the plethora of genre mash ups we see this days, the sky is the limit.
However, in all this planning to offer a story world and set of characters that feel excitingly different, sometimes authors forget to deliver on a very critical piece of the reader-character relationship: relatability.
The Mirror of Fiction
Why is relatability so important? Well, because even though your readers are looking to experience something new, they also are searching for context. What do I mean by that? Simply that as they glance through the window into your story world, they are also trying to see deeper into their own. Entertainment value aside, people also read to understand the human experience and find meaning in their own life’s story, and better see how they fit into the world around them.
Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? But I bet if you think about the books you really connected with on an emotional level, in some way you felt a strong kinship with the protagonist, either because of who they were deep down or what they wrestled with in the story.
Emotional Anchors Bring Readers and Characters Together
A character becomes relatable when we actively join the human experience with fiction. It doesn’t matter what genre you write, or how alien the character’s world and experiences are from the reader’s own. Some constants are just that–constants. Emotional anchors (emotion-rich events that readers have experienced themselves) will ground your hero in the reader’s world. Here’s a few anchors to drop into your character’s experience that readers will recognize and relate to:
- Give the character a difficult choice between two equally painful options. We’ve all been in this situation, and understand the turmoil such a moment causes.
- Show the character make a mistake and have to face the fallout. Again, no one is perfect, and our lives are peppered with moments where we had to deal with the aftermath of screwing up.
- Have the character question right and wrong. While we all like to believe we have a strong moral compass, sometimes moral greys get us. In difficult circumstances, the path isn’t always clear, and the doubt a character feels regarding what is right will act as an echo to the reader’s own distress they felt when faced with moral ambiguity.
- Allow the character to strive for something he wants more than anything and then fail to attain it (or win it only and lose it again.) Feelings of loss and failure are universal when an upset happens, so this experience will tweak a reader’s emotional memory, reminding them of when they too suffered a loss that hurt.
- Pull the curtain aside and reveal raw insecurity through a common worry or fear. A character can be wealthy, talented, blue-blooded or a host of other things possibly outside an average reader’s experience, yet still have some of the same insecurities most people do. Everyone wants to be cared for, valued, accepted, or respected for something. Show your character worry about little things that hint at hidden insecurities, perhaps ones that people like to mask in real life (triple checking for mistakes before handing work over, experiencing indecision over what is best to wear, the fearful belief one will do or say something stupid at the wrong moment, etc.)
Relatability is what helps an empathy bond form between the reader and your characters. It isn’t enough for a reader to simply like or admire a character. Our goal, our true goal as authors, is to make the reader feel. So when they can relate to a character in a meaningful way, they also empathize, and hopefully that feeling of having a “shared emotional experience” will manifest.
Grounding in the real world starts with deep character planning–creating a protagonist that feels rich, complex, and believable. Give him or her attributes and flaws for balance and authenticity. This forms a deep core, a building block that you can layer reality on. Strive to forge a character your reader will invest in and care about, as if they were a friend or loved one in the real world.
How do you make your character relatable to readers? Let us know in the comments!