“Once upon a time there was a handsome young prince…”
“Was his name David?” Or (having the art to conceal one’s interest even at a tender age): “Did he have blond hair and a red pedal car?”
That stage doesn’t last long. As we get older, we stop expecting to be cast in the starring role, but we do want to be poured into the skin of the main character. No longer an avatar of our everyday selves, they become a persona we adopt. A channel for us to vicariously live another life.
The first thing an author has to think about, ahead of making a lead character likeable (which is overrated) or interesting (which is underrated) is to make him or her relatable. Without that, we can’t identify with his predicament. And if we’re always watching from the outside we’re never going to care.
Humans empathize, but they also fear otherness – a paradox for the writer. To make an interesting story, you must take the reader on a strange journey, in the company of the kind of character who would undertake that journey. Yet we need to see enough of ourselves in him or her to start with, or we won’t connect.
Does that mean the lead character has to be exactly like us? There certainly are Everyman figures in some of the most powerful stories. Think of Neo, too frightened to get out onto that window ledge. Or most of Hitchcock’s hapless heroes. But most of the time if a writer starts off with a character who’s just like the audience, it's with with the sole intention of whisking them out of Kansas as quickly and rudely as possible.
Interesting stories deliver their relatability in unexpected forms. In Essential Killing, Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban insurgent. What’s relatable about that? He’s running for his life! Another movie starring Gallo, Buffalo 66, introduces his character in a way I can guarantee everyone on the planet will relate to. If you haven’t seen it, take a look.
A story begins with something we can relate to and takes us towards a place we aspire to be. From farm boy to Jedi Master – or Man of Steel. Few of us prefer stories where the hero stays exactly like us throughout. Mostly we're willing to make some kind of imaginative leap to get into the character’s skin. Chances are plucky young Luke Skywalker was just a bit too much of a sap to be your hero of choice. Many found the bad-boy sneer and beat-up charm of Han Solo more to their taste. There was a hero in need of redemption. And more importantly he was cool.
Relatability means not just like us, but like we’d like to be.
If your audience is small and has very specific interests, you can trade on their fear of the Other to create a strong identity they will eagerly embrace. For mumblecore fans, the world is divided into twentysomething, white, middle-class slackers – and then there's everybody else, but they don’t count.
Yes, that’s a shockingly unfair and sweeping generalization just to illustrate a point. Here’s another: for sci-fi geeks, the hero simply needs to be an elf, vampire or hitman. Preferably all three. And clad in black leather. That’s all they're going to need. Cool is their revenge on the world that’s excluded them, and it’s sufficient to provide the hero with all the relatability he or she needs. Writing for that audience, you may not even need what Blake Snyder called a Save the Cat scene designed to ease us into empathy. A bar full of lowlifes, the door smashes down, and the vampire manhunter comes in with shotguns blazing – with that first scene the geeks are hooked, their popcorn forgotten. These are folks that don’t need any foreplay.
If you’re not an urban fantasy geek and what I just said makes you feel smug – don’t be. The rest of us are just as shallow. Often the only ingredient necessary for a character the audience wants to relate to is to make them a handsome prince or beautiful princess. There’s a reason that movie stars get paid a tenth of the production budget, and it’s not usually because you’d kick them out of bed. A recent movie review criticized Luc Besson for casting too beautiful an actress in the part of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Oh, wake up and smell le café. That would be valid only if the intended audience was a tiny hardcore of bande-dessinée fans (like yours truly). Monsieur Besson didn’t invent our preconceptions, he just has to cater to them. Personally I prefer the characterful and far from fragile Adèle of the comics, but I can see why a director with his eye on the broader market can't afford to think that way.
In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes how he accidentally stumbled on the importance of relatability when he was asked to write an opening credits scene for his movie Harper. It’s a masterclass in making us care about a hero.
Now get what I’m saying. They don’t have to be likeable. Remember the parable of poor, well-meaning, young Luke Skywalker and shoot-first-and-never-mind-the-questions Han Solo. Jack Ember, the hero of Mirabilis, has a chip on his shoulder. The scene early on where he gets promoted, he is basically being as mouthy as hell and deserves everything he gets, good and bad. I see Jack as a young John Lennon. That way, he feels more real and hopefully you find his flaws make him more relatable. If I’d made him passively hard-done-by, a sentimental working-class hero wringing his cloth cap while gazing in envy at the uncaring privileged – well, ugh.
Of course, I didn’t write myself a memo: “Must make Jack relatable.” I prefer writing him that way. But I did stop to consider that the reader doesn’t know anything about my character to start with. I can’t just assume you’ll empathize with him. It’s my job as writer to create some scenes that show you why you should.
You may say, “Oh, but I just write for myself.” Sure, so does every writer worth reading. But unless you’re writing fanfic, you want to reach out to an audience of people who aren't necessarily like you. You aren’t just preaching to the choir. A craftsman finds a way to connect, not to willfully seal themselves in a niche and damn everybody outside. If you do that, you’re not an artist, you’re a cultist.
Relatability isn’t hard. It’s what we all strive to project every time we meet someone new. It’s only in zombie films that the entire human race wants to shoot each other the moment legal restraints are removed. In reality we desire that spark of connection more than any other, so we don’t stand sulkily in the corner expecting to be liked. We reach out. We engage. Assuming you’re not psychotic or prejudiced against the other person, you’ll try to find common ground. And that’s all you need to do with your lead character – just remember they are meeting the reader for the first time. And first impressions are the ones that count.
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