Writerly Sound Bites, Number 2: Chasing the Unicorn of “Relatability”

Remember the post on writing advice, readers? The one that discussed “sound bites” as a means of offering guidance to aspiring writers? As someone who has had more difficulty cutting through and understanding such “sound bites” than she cares to recall, this author decided to provide future writers with some insights to help ease them through the thicket of well-meaning but often ill-explained instruction.

I have spoken before on the topic of relatable characters, but it bears more explication. As with the statement “Make your characters flawed!”, which was discussed in the aforementioned post on sound bites, the call to make relatable characters is often misconstrued and misunderstood. Most storytellers take this statement to mean that a character should have the look and/or feelings of a specific demographic. After all, shouldn’t a character that looks like, speaks like, and acts like the reader be more engaging than one who is completely different than him/her?

As the above screenshot from a 2017 article about Marvel Comics’ attempt to follow this simplistic advice shows, this is not the case at all. New “diverse” characters such as Riri Williams, Kamala Khan, and others have failed (spectacularly) to gain the company of Marvel Comics a new and wider audience. If anything, they have chased away the fervent fans and paying customers that have kept the franchise alive for so long.

Why is this? There are several reasons but one of the most egregious is that their writers are creating characters based on stereotypes (and, quite possibly, themselves) rather than archetypes. Stereotypes, as I have said previously elsewhere, are not real. Tropes and archetypes are real in the sense that they identify patterns of behavior across time and space; this is where we get Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The heroic archetype he describes, which lends itself to the Aspirational Hero model more than any other, is millennia old. It is the story of the callow youth who goes to seek his fortune and finds – or builds – himself a kingdom.

Have Gun - Will Travel - Where to Watch Every Episode ...

You can study history and find many historical personages who fit this and other archetypes. The trope of the knight errant is encapsulated not only in the history of Europe, with which it is most associated and where it originated, but also in Japan and the American West. Have Gun Will Travel’s* hero Paladin bears that name because he is “a knight without armor in a savage land.” Like the Medieval European knights of yore and the masterless samurai or ronin of Japan, he wanders the West righting wrongs and seeing justice done.

There were real people like Paladin throughout world history. We do not know the names of each and every one of them, and the fact that these men actually lived tends to obscure the patterns of their lives which fit these archetypes – at least on an initial viewing. But the fact is that they are there, on record, and the curious or thoughtful may look them up to learn more about the past as well as how to craft better fiction.

A stereotype is not genuine. It is a combination of a pejorative and a caricature; the bumbling male heroes of modern fiction, for example, are a slur on the male sex as well as a misrepresentation of them to the general populace. Just so, the insistence on “strong female characters” that look and fight like men is an insult to real women, one which demeans them and makes them less than they are. These ostensibly “relatable” characters are, in fact, not relatable at all because they play to an audience that does not exist.

Prince Adam/He-Man in the 2002 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe* series is a good example of a protagonist who is relatable to viewers despite the fact that he does not look like everyone in the audience or hail from a similar background to theirs. Adam is a callow youth who has responsibility thrust upon him in a catastrophe. Much like any sixteen-year-old who is transitioning from boy to man, he has the idea that he can maintain his carefree lifestyle for a longer period than it is safe for him.

When Skeletor breaks through the Mystic Wall and attacks Eternia and kidnaps Adam’s father, the young prince makes a desperate gamble to rescue the most important man in his life. This is something children and teens can relate to, particularly if one of their parents, a family member, or a friend has been diagnosed with an illness or harmed in an accident. Even without that experience, however, they can relate to Adam’s desperation on an instinctive level and want to see him succeed.

His transformation into He-Man and subsequent need to keep his identity secret is another aspect of the show that taps into childhood and adolescent aspirations. Children enjoy keeping secrets, particularly if they wish to surprise someone, and teenagers occasionally enroll in classes or engage in extracurricular activities without their parents’ knowledge. In both cases, the theme is secrecy – the need to keep one’s parents or guardians in the dark with regard to something one is learning or doing “on the side.” This can be trying, as it is for Adam, who faces the mockery of his peers (Teela) and the disapproval of his father, King Randor. He cannot tell them of his secret without putting them in danger, and so he must bear their scorn and disappointment silently while relying on Man-At-Arms’ paternal encouragement (see Professor Geek’s video here for more on that subject).

This is a pattern of behavior that stretches back into the mists of time and continues to this day in different forms. The boy who goes skateboarding with his friends when his parents expect him to go to soccer practice, for instance, or the girl who takes music lessons when her family believes she is taking ballet classes have “secrets” they are keeping from those close to them. Prince Adam’s skin color, heritage, and physical abilities are all inconsequential when compared to this fact. The young audience relates to him based on these archetypal story beats and character traits, some of which they have experienced themselves, or others which they would like to encounter at a future date. Regardless of sex, demographic, or ability they want to share in Adam’s adventure and feel the vicarious thrill of taking part in this type of journey with him.

Riri Williams cannot boast this same archetypal strength, not because she is black and female, but because she has no true personality of her own. Hers is a stereotype; the child prodigy who is bored and tries to fit into a specific style of life, despite the fact that she is essentially cosplaying a role not her own. There is nothing relatable to any reader of any demographic in her backstory, because her backstory is nothing but the writers attempting – and failing – to typecast themselves as the saviors of the audience. It is hubristic moralizing which damages their credibility severely and makes Riri Williams completely uninteresting to comic book readers.

Contrast this with the history of the first African-American hero in comics: Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon. Sam was the son of a pastor in Harlem who was murdered. This caused Sam, already a rebellious young man, to become a wayward youth for a time. He was eventually kidnapped by the Red Skull and subjected to human experimentation, from which he gained the ability to empathetically “talk” to birds, animals which he already loved deeply. He gained a true falcon – Redwing – as an animal partner and eventually helped Captain America defeat the Red Skull. The First Avenger then became his mentor and taught him how to fight crime, leading to Sam becoming a hero and an Avenger.

Sam Wilson PFP | Falcon marvel, Avengers, Marvel

Sam is not a stereotype. He is a character based upon the model or archetype of the rebellious son of a preacher. Such characters do not always know what they want out of life early on, save that it is not to follow in their father’s footsteps, something Sam experiences before and after his father’s death. During the course of his career Sam is challenged and forced to grow by repeated losses, reversals of fortune, and his own errors. The Falcon learns to fly after falling repeatedly, something Riri Williams cannot claim. She is a stereotype while Sam is the latest incarnation of an archetype that grew organically out of the collective minds and experiences of people who lived and died over hundreds of years of history.

When one stops to think about it, the depth and breadth of the divide between these two characters is stunning. It is striking primarily because it demonstrates the difference in the mindset of the authors that brought the two of these characters to the page, but only one of them to life. Archetypes inspire the audience, lift them out of themselves, and give them a sense of hope along with inspiration. They can do this because they tap into our primeval understanding of the world, based as they are upon the collective memories of our ancestors and from history itself. In this way the past is always in constant contact with the present, enabling those of us alive now to look to the future with more wisdom than we can gain in our own lifetimes.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, indicate a lazy writer. They trammel the readers’ minds, leaving them locked within the walls or “neat little boxes” which the writer prefers to use to measure the world and his fellow men. Rather than broadening the audience’s perspective and bringing them together in recognition of their shared humanity as archetypes do, stereotypes isolate, demean, and promote division and distrust.

A writer who utilizes stereotypes is doomed to eventual, if not immediate, failure. One does not tell stories to make the world fit his narrow preferences; one writes to make sense of the world, for himself and for others. To paraphrase Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks*, telling stories helps bring order to the chaos that is life, and it does so in several ways. One, it offers an escape, a way to a place where things make sense even if they hurt. Two, it identifies patterns of behavior that have precedents so far back in the mists of history that no one can remember where they originated. And three, it reminds readers not to give up hope in a world that is all too often hopeless.

Relatability, if it is a consideration for a writer at all, should be blind to every demographic and ability or disability. Individuals are not defined by what they look like or what they can and cannot do. They are defined by who they choose to be, over and over again every single day. A blind boy can relate to Frank and Joe Hardy* just as well as the high school quarterback can, because the Hardy Boys are boys just like him. They have the same interests or close enough to it that physical abilities or inabilities mean nothing.

On the subject of blindness, this is something many people appreciate about Toph Bei Fong in Avatar: The Last Airbender.* Toph’s inability to see is something she jokes about constantly, such as when she has to dig a tunnel for the group and Sokka says, “It’s so dark. I can’t see anything!” Instead of wailing about her own blindness, Toph tosses back sarcastically: “Oh, no, what a nightmare!”

Later, on occasions when people criticize Sokka’s drawings, Toph says things like: “I think it looks great!” Sokka begins to accept these compliments before he stops, remembering that she cannot see. The writers are not mocking blind people – they make sure to point out that Toph’s lack of sight causes her distress, and that it makes it difficult or impossible for her to accomplish some tasks. But they do not let it define her any more than a blind person would allow themselves to be limited by their inability to physically view the world.

Much like flaws, relatability is often overblown and misunderstood. A reader or viewer may relate well to a character who is the opposite sex and possesses abilities they will never have. Peter Parker/Spider-Man is beloved all over the world – Japan in particular finds him fascinating. Every Spider-Man movie has exceeded box office expectations in the Land of the Rising Sun, with most of the MCU movies falling behind those that star Spidey, including the Avengers films. Captain America: Civil War* is one of the exceptions because, if you remember, Spider-Man is a member of the cast and the Japanese movie-going public turned out in droves to see him.

There are not many native Japanese who look like Peter Parker. But that has not stopped them from identifying with and lavishing love on the Wall-Crawler at every opportunity. Apart from filling theaters to see his live action films, Japanese writers have happily included him in anime series like Marvel’s Avengers: DISK Wars and Marvel’s Future Avengers. Occidental fans of My Hero Academia* can tell newcomers to the story that Deku – the lead character – is heavily inspired by the Webslinger, while his foil Katsuki Bakugo has many parallels to Parker’s high school bully Flash Thompson. Spider-Man literally inspired a Japanese writer to create a Japanese superhero and superhero universe of his own…all due to a character Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in the 1960s.

deku midoriya - YouTube

If you want your protagonists to be relatable, readers, do not rely on stereotypes to do it. That will backfire and hurt you, as it has been harming Marvel and other franchises over the last few years. A stereotype is an insult, a distortion and an exaggeration of the truth. It has no more substance than a shadow, and it cannot be imbued with essence anymore than a shade can. You can try this tack but it will fail, just as the attempts to make a shadow become the real thing only leads to sincere disappointment.

Characters are relatable when they follow the patterns that swirl through life, which have come down to us from the fog of prehistory. They are at once familiar and different; new and ancient, as the faces that come and go in our daily lives carry in them the history of ancestors long forgotten. Individuals are forged by their pasts, by their families’ pasts, by their choices in the present, and by their own personal decisions to be better or worse today than they were yesterday.

As long as you keep these things in mind when you set out to write, future authors, your characters will have a good chance of “breath[ing] on their own.” Maybe that will not be the case in your first story, or your second, or your third. But if you keep plugging away, eventually you will find your characters are more real than you expected them to be. Once that happens, it will be utterly impossible for at least some of them not to resonate more deeply with readers than you ever could have imagined.

Don’t chase the unicorn of “relatability,” readers. Let your audience and characters find ways to relate to one another on their own. The results will be far more rewarding, I can assure you! 😀

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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6 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 2: Chasing the Unicorn of “Relatability”

  1. As a teenager, the two characters I found myself relating too most were a 17th French poet / duelist and a Japanese sea monster. I haven’t been able to take ‘representation’ or ‘audiences need people of their own demographic’ seriously ever since.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I haven’t been able to take ‘representation’ or ‘audiences need people of their own demographic’ seriously ever since.

      Two thoughts came to mind:

      1) I know what it’s like to be me, I don’t need to be told.

      2) The number of times that they manage to get ONE of my demographics up on screen, and do a good job of it, is gobsmackingly rare*, usually it’s just insulting. Multiple demographic markers? Hahahhaahaaaa.

      I can’t think of a good geeky non-action non-girly girl, much less a good geeky middle aged happily married Catholic mother of more than three from a rural background who was in the Navy and has mostly UK area ancestry but also American Indian ancestry, which is SUPPOSED to be what I “need” to see or it’ll harm my fragile psyche.

      Guess I’ll have to stick with recognizing ASPECTS of what I am, or what I wish to be, in characters. Oh, shucky darn. 😉

      *attempting to give credit where due:
      Mrs. Weasley is a good Mom of a Horde,
      RDJ does a very good Actually Intelligent Character
      Spidey is generally a geek (especially in the MCU incarnation, they did a great job of getting geek)…. there’s some good Catholic characters, usually they’re supporting types, of course I’m blanking now, some incarnations of Nightcrawler though such as the animated series… um…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Reposted: The Last Thousand Words | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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