Relateable characters

What makes a character relate-able?

My publisher’s #QOTD is about relating to characters. I think this is an important question not just for readers, but writers, too.

supposed crimes tweetReaders, particular those of us in minority groups, need to see our selves reflected in the fiction we read. Hence all the calls to diversify English literature curricula and include titles with more POC, LGBTQ, non-cisgender, non-white characters.

However, a story, and its characters, begin within the author’s mind. If you are a member of a minority it can feel “easy” to write characters who can claim membership in your same minority group(s). You think: “I’m powerful reppin’!”

But is that truly creating relate-able characters? If you are writing for an “echo chamber” audience, people who are exactly like you, then, yes, you get feedback from readers that sounds something like this: “Oh, man, I can so relate! Character is so like me!” Everyone gets these characters because they “read” them as themselves.
And quirky. God, every writer help article tells you to give your characters quirks and unique “ticks.” I don’t disagree that characters should be unique, but too unique and you no longer have a character anyone can relate to.
Writing great stories should being about writing universally relate-able struggles, where the focus isn’t a character’s “nicheness,” bur rather the universal challenge(s) the character faces: Loss, Redemption, Acceptance, Success.
For example, take a story where a character returns home to the town of their birth, facing old school enemies, or family members who shunned them. Or they face down greed or avarice to protect something — and has their sexuality decried in the public forum by the leading opponent, making it personal. It isn’t the sexuality challenge that a straight reader would relate to, but the fact that ad hominem attacks are universally abhorred, even while they’re prevalent in everyday life (see our current American political system for a million examples). It doesn’t matter the name called or the point of personality called out, what people relate to is the disregard for the substance of one’s debate position. That gets people mad. 
As a writer striving for a universally relate-able character, consider this. Rather than have the character react from the place of “being LGBTQ isn’t bad, stop making it sound like it” call out the nemesis/antagonist on the fact that they are not addressing the substance of the issue. (“Calling me names isn’t going to resolve the redtide issue killing both fish and the tourism industry in South Florida.”)
I have always striven to create characters with wide rather than narrow relate-ability. In my novel “Turning Point” the main characters are both mothers. At one point, the youngest child is lost in a superstore and they are searching for him. The attraction between the characters is barely in its fledgling stages, and in normal circumstances they are skittish and confused about touching, but one mother to another there’s a powerful comforting hug and grasping hands to give support. Motherhood trumped that discomfort. 
By allowing the characters to act universally — dealing with the fear all parents have in a situation like that — I gathered in every mother (and parent) reader I had. They were absolutely along for every moment thereafter. I got dozens of emails (and even actual written letters) from completely straight readers who read through the entire story, feeling (and relating to) everything the characters went through. Almost every single one stated that the superstore scene was when they were hooked. At that moment, I hadn’t created two women falling in love, but two PARENTS/MOMS. Relateable people, regardless of sexuality.
Last post, I shared the comments of a draft reader of my next book. They had never read a story before with three people in a relationship. Could’ve been off-putting. Could’ve put it down. But the universal issues I gave each one drew this reader in and held their attention throughout the entire story, so they could experience, could RELATE to, the central plot of three people falling in love.
If I’d made the story just about the sex, about the titillation, or the “taboo”, I’d have probably lost this reader. Instead, I had made sure that readers could relate to each main character in ways that were not necessarily central to the plot, but things that made the readers getting to know them the same journey the characters themselves were on getting to know each other. 
Here are just some of those universals:
Jess struggles with money, job, and shelter. 
Elena struggles with making a life of meaning not working full-time for someone else. 
Eric struggles with existing in many different communities (pilot, swinger, ex-military).
Here’s as good a moment as any to point out that “We^3” will be out in early 2019 through my publisher, Supposed Crimes.

See you next time. Signing off from sunny south Florida,

Lara

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