Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Do characters have to be relatable*?

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 a
fter 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

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.]


The Golden Eagle said...

I don't think you're splitting hair. I recently wrote a post that had to do with something similar, although not exactly the same--whether or not "liking" the MC(s) was necessary to enjoy a book. I think understanding is important; as long as what the characters are doing and thinking makes sense, then even if you can't really relate, it can make a good story.

Domey Malasarn said...

I'm with you on this, Yat-Yee. I think that's why I often choose to write about dark characters. I believe that people will sympathize with each other if they understand each other, whether or not they can relate. I think that's always been an underlying theme in what I write and what I find interesting when I read. It's a totally bizarre phenomenon though!

Yat-Yee said...

I am glad I am not alone in this.

Domey: I was just thinking that your mc for Bread fits in this category.

Domey Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, yes, the Bread character definitely fits this. I think my character in Rooster and the novella I wrote after Bread also falls into the same category. I'll put it this way, in my recent projects, I've tried to challenge myself by actually writing about a character people can cheer for!

Laoch of Chicago said...

Well said.

I really loved "The Namesake." Evocative and yes I probably loved it because I could relate to one of the characters.

Karen Lange said...

Interesting point! I don't think you are splitting hairs, and I think this is something to seriously consider with our characters. I can see where genre could help determine this, or not. Good food for thought concerning my WIP, thanks! :)

Solvang Sherrie said...

I don't think we have to read about or watch characters who are exactly like us. What makes me like a character is that I can see some universal human trait that I can relate to. That's why characters like Snape can become sympathetic because we've all loved someone who didn't return the feeling.