Why Do Books Need Relatable Characters?

I’ve noticed a trend—and this is hardly a shocking insight—that the publishing industry likes to put readers into boxes. “If you are X” (where X is any given age group, gender, ethnicity, or whatever other superficial classification they feel like putting you in) “then you must like to read Y.” Publishing is certainly not the only industry that does this. “If you are X, then you must want to drive Y car.” “If you are X, then you must hold Y political opinions.” “If you are X, then you must need Y type of razor.”

This is pure marketing nonsense, of course. The people who say these things (marketers of one variety or another, mostly, and the people who listen to them) only want to make their jobs easier by pretending that people are not individuals but merely and purely members of arbitrarily assigned groups. So, when the publishing industry says, “We need more X characters so that people who are X will have more characters that they can relate to,” what they really mean is, “We need more X characters so that we can more easily market to X people.” Because apparently marketing a book based on its content and merits is harder than saying, “Hey everyone, this book has an X protagonist! If you are also X, this book is for you!”

This trend appears to be particularly prevalent these days in the childrens’ book arena. I’m in my mid 30’s. When I was a kid, we didn’t have Middle Grade or Young Adult (much less New Adult) books. There were children’s books and there were adult books. You read children’s books until you had progressed enough to read adult books. When I was around 9, I read kids’ books like Bunnicula and The Indian in the Cupboard because I’ve always been a fantasy/sci-fi girl. When I was 10, I read The Hobbit and thought it was great. (I still do.) When I was 13, I was reading adult-market fantasies and Star Wars novels. And yet today, the publishing industry would have 13-year-olds just getting into reading YA, where books are still about school and boyfriends and absent parents and teenagers being the absolute center of the universe. I don’t know if I’d even have been interested in those books at that age. I was perfectly happy reading about (mostly male) adults fighting interstellar aliens and traveling to mystical fantasy worlds. It never entered my mind that because these characters were not 13-year-old girls, I shouldn’t enjoy these books.

It has never been necessary for me to “relate” to a character—that is, for the character to be identifiably like myself in some way—for me to enjoy reading about that character. Just like I don’t have to be obviously like a person I know in real life in order to like them as a person. Often, the people you like the most are ones who are very different from you. I suppose some people want “relatable” characters because when they read, they put themselves in the protagonist’s place in the story, as if it were a Star Trek-ian holodeck program where you play the main character in whatever story you’re in. I’ve never been that way, nor is it a mindset I really understand. Seems quite limited to me.

But, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it when there is a character I can relate to in a story. It’s absolutely not a necessity, but it is nice when it happens. Okay, I’ll grant that. You know which fictional character I identified with most when I was a child? You know which character, out of all the many, many fictional characters I’ve read and watched, I still identify with most?

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not only is he male, he’s not even human. The character I identified with the most as a little girl is an adult, male robot. Why? Because of his personality, because of who he is, because of the struggles he faces. And the immense popularity of the character would suggest I’m not the only one who feels this way.

The thing is, this whole belief that people want to read about only people who are like them in whatever way the marketing department decides is relevant (and usually isn’t at all) is not only lazy marketing; in the case of children, I believe it’s actively harmful to their emotional development. It’s telling kids, “Unless someone fits into group X, as you do, you cannot understand them and should not sympathize with them.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a wide range of characters who fit into any number of arbitrarily-defined groups, though defining them by those groups is a mistake. And pretending that readers can and should only enjoy reading about characters who share those groups with them is a very large mistake.

That’s one thing I love about reading fantasy/sci-fi. Not only can I read about all different kinds of humans, I can even read about elves, wizards, talking animals, interdimensional aliens, monsters, robots, and strange beings I’ve never even heard of but still reflect basic truths about humanity.

Fantasy and sci-fi is where we really learn to accept others and appreciate our differences. Endlessly sub-categorizing humans and telling us to read and relate to only those other humans who fit certain narrowly-defined superficial parameters does the exact opposite.

About Shawna

author of mostly fantasy and romance