I’m currently reading Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series. It’s a gripping fictional account of the rise of the Mongol empire but I’m not sure I’d describe Genghis Khan, who was responsible for the deaths of up to 40 million people, as relatable.
Do fictional characters have to be relatable before you want to read about them? I see an increasing number of reviews, across all genres, where this is the key criterion people use to assess novels. While we’ve long judged the unlikeable (especially female) protagonist in fiction and in politics, now we’re dealing with her disobliging twin, the unrelatable one.
I used to think that wanting a character to be relatable wasn’t as bad as demanding they be likeable. You don’t necessarily have to want to be friends with someone to ‘relate’ to them, to understand something of their life and how they feel.
Now I think relatable might actually be worse. We can like people who are very different from us. But to relate to them, it seems, they have to think just as we do, behave as we would, generally live up to our worldview.
Is this because of the way society is now? We want easy answers, good guys and bad guys. We want certainties in our fiction that we’re not finding in life, people we can get behind and root for (I have actually seen these words used in reviews). Like in a pantomime, we want to know when to cheer and when to boo.
Can’t you learn as much – arguably more – from people who are neither likeable nor relatable? Shouldn’t you be able to find the humanity in them? Doesn’t the fact that certain characters antagonise you or leave you cold tell you something about yourself as well as them?
To me, fiction gives us the opportunity to expand our imaginations, to understand lives and worlds far outside our own experience. I shouldn’t want to find Genghis Khan relatable, I wouldn’t be thrilled to learn that we actually feel the same way about a lot of things, I wouldn’t want to bond with him over coffee (or salted tea and mare’s blood). But I want to understand how he came to be the figure he was, what the world was that he lived in, what were the forces that enabled him to do what he did.
— Jane Fallon (@JaneFallon) February 1, 2020
I understand the allure of relatable stories. When This Life first appeared on our TV screens, I was in my twenties and it was a revelation. These were characters who were grownups by day, embarking on serious careers, while at night they were still living in shared houses, immersed in parties and friendship and sex, while trying to work out what they wanted from their lives. They were just like us but better looking.
It was thrilling because before then, TV always seemed to be about other people. But it doesn’t mean I want every programme or book to be the same. I want to hear other voices, experience different worlds. I want to learn. I don’t want it all to be about me.
What do you think? Do you look for relatable characters when you read a novel? Who are your favourite unrelatable protagonists?