Genghis Khan, This Life and me: do fictional characters have to be relatable?

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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.

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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.

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?

 

7 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Kate. How dull it would be to read books that constantly mirror ourselves. I prefer fiction that makes me think, even if it does make me feel uncomfortable at times. Looking forward to revisiting This Life although a little nervous about whether it will stand the test of time!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I watched This Life last time it was repeated and loved it just as much. I’m also re-watching ER on All 4 at the moment which is as strong as I remember. I think what they share is that the writing is very subtle and gives you the space to work things out for yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like relatable characters–but also characters who are very different. It’s only through reading about people who don’t have much in common with us, and finding the commonality we nonetheless share, that we grow as readers–and people.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I read a non-fiction biography about Attila the Hun — another unrelatable character — but even knowing the end result (I’d already had the spoiler years before in Nibelungenlied!) — I was still engaged in the ebb and flow of battles, murder, intrigue and political entrenchment, and keen to learn how he dealt with it. Not for the squeamish though! What about antiheroes (and antiheroines) in fiction? I remember rooting for Highsmith’s Ripley despite his deceptions, violence and murders, with heart in mouth when he was close to being twigged; and similarly with The Two Faces of January and the protagonists in some of her short stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s disconcerting when you find yourself cheering on the anti-hero. I always thought that about The Sopranos and The Shield. They draw you so far into the worldview of the characters that for just a moment you’re with them, before you realise what’s happening.

      Liked by 1 person

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