Relatable or Realistic MCs

alys party picShould main characters be a body the reader slips into or should they be their own autonomous being, free to be as eccentric and wayward as they please? I came across on article called “Five Books That Broke Sacred Writing Rules (And Yet We Love Them),” and it mentions Gail Carriger’s Soulless and how the main character is not universally relatable. While I find most of these “rules” rather dumb (please pardon my screw-the-rules mentality for literature), it made me wonder whether writers should strive to make characters universal or whether they should let them stand as complex beings–human beings.

I understand that an alien who has five limbs, breathes underwater, and can only communicate through clicks may not be the most relatable character for a modern reader, but where does universality begin and end? As a writer, my biggest fear of universal characters is the boring factor. For someone to be “universally relatable,” they would have to appeal to everyone. Are we striving for everyone or just the majority? If we are striving for the majority, why? Why must my character be relatable for everyone? Fiction is meant to allow the reader to walk in someone else’s shoes, to live their lives for a few hundred pages. If I’m living my life on the page, why should I read it?

Even in some of the oddest places, we find there is a kernel of universality in every character. In Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the graphic novel is about a little girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. To a modern audience, Marji seems like the furthest character from their own lives, yet the book is a best seller, but why? Because while Marji lives in a very different place and under very different circumstances than her Western audience, she is still a child with hopes and dreams who loves rock music and Michael Jackson. It’s this strand of universality that brings the audience to her. The same is true of Alexia in Soulless. She may appear emotionless due to her lack of a soul, but she prefers libraries to parties and struggles with her self-image and self-worth. Many girls (and guys) reading the novel immediately relate to her being an outsider.

How should we define universality with our characters? Should they be pants that the reader can slip into–blank slates that are nothing more than masks of archetypes–or should they have strains of the universal within their beings? In the same way that we make friends through discovering relatable aspects in other beings, should we do this for characters in works of fiction? In my mind, the answer is simple, characters are as human as we are, and as humans, they are complex beings with multiple facets that need to be explored. By pairing them down to make them “universal,” we destroy what makes them human and ultimately what makes them relatable.

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3 thoughts on “Relatable or Realistic MCs

  1. Jane Austen: “In Emma, I have created a character whom nobody but myself will like” (or something like that; I’m not good at remembering quotes verbatim). And I have to agree, I find Emma to be the least likeable of her heroines – but I’m in a minority; there are heaps of people who find her the best of Austen. And that would not be possible if Emma wasn’t a *character*, a person.
    I think characters need to be bodies we can slip into *and become them*. A blank-slate character would be pointless to read – we want to become someone different for the duration of the reading, but not so different that we can’t relate.

    1. It’s very true. Even with Emma, of whom I am not a huge fan, I can see myself. I would love to see all of my friends happy and possibly paired off with each other, and I think most of us try to play matchmaker at least once in our lives. While she isn’t a favorite of mine, there’s still a kernel of myself in her character.

  2. I find Fanny Price from Mansfield Park fairly intolerable. I know someone just like her. I can only read this by realizing that Fanny is the embodiment of a male fantasy stereotype of the perfect wife brought to life by that clever Jane Austen. Although I am not identifying with her, I do begin to see how she thinks and feels. This allows me to separate the woman I know from the role she has identified herself with. Fanny Price therefore has educated me giving me more tolerance for a role model that I abhor.

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