Seems like an unnecessary and controversial question: of course we have to relate to our characters. Otherwise, why would we want to follow their journeys, understand their decisions, or rejoice/mourn with them?
This is certainly true in my own life; books and movies that I like and remember long after are those with characters I can relate to. I latch onto a character--usually the protagonist, and occasionally a secondary one, such as Gogol's' mother in The Namesake--and view the story through their lenses.
I saw a movie recently that challenged this belief.
The movie is Buddha Mountain. Made in China, this is a indie-type film that shows three twenty-something slackers who rent a room from a retired Beijing opera star, who is mourning that death of her son. I can't relate to any of the characters but I found it engaging.
Characters such as those three often turn me off. Their spend their days engaged in irresponsible and inconsiderate behavior. Despite being a more sympathetic character,the landlady wasn't all that relatable either.
This may seem to indicate that I relate only to people who do the "right"--kind, thoughtful, self-sacrificial--things. It's not true. I identify with many flawed characters.
So what is it?
My conclusion is that I don't always have to relate so much as to understand the characters. Relating means I can imagine myself doing some of the same things or thinking the same way as a character. I can insert myself in their shoes and experience the stories just the way they do.
In the movie, the characters steal their landlady's banged-up car for a drive to the mountains, they climb atop a freight train to nowhere, they steal money and replace it with fake bills. I can't relate. I can't imagine doing those things while feeling the way they do: nonchalant, undisturbed. Maybe if they had stolen the car to rescue a wayward younger sister or they climb onto the freight train because they are escaping from some bad guys, I would relate. But they do these things...just because. And I don't get it.
Yet, I watched without any of the annoyance that tend to appear when I find self-centered, indulgent people doing inconsiderate things. Somehow, in this movie, I didn't need to relate. All I needed was to understand. Not so much the reason they chose to travel aimlessly or why they don't feel any remorse, but that they feel untethered, uncertain, and hopeless. I am not sure how any of these actions can soothe or help them deal, but apparently I don't need to.
Or maybe I'm just splitting hairs. What do you think?
*[In case you are wondering if "relatable" is a word, here is an article you may find interesting.]