Most tips for introducing the main character in fiction revolve around one important concept – relatability. A relatable protagonist allows the audience to get attached to them easily. Unlike most things in history and sociology, the theory behind relatable protagonists is straight-forward: if you understand the goals and desires of a person, you are more likely to take interest in their plight. As scholars, we tend to pay attention to these markers of relatability when studying protests and collective action. Relatability often brings understanding if not compassion. After all, we all know that a common goal unites people.
Authors strive to accomplish the same result when creating a link between a reader and a character. Who wouldn’t like a character they can understand? Most people would. Only an author is rarely a scholar and, therefore, does not know all the variables in his equation. When organizing a revolution or a criminal syndicate, the common markers you seek are obvious and very urgent: if the guys in your neighbourhood have nothing to eat, they are very likely to join you in your bakery robbery. In literature, urgency is relative.
As an author, you do not know your readers and cannot predict how many of them will relate to your protagonist. Sure, in YA you may have an idea of an ‘average teenager’. The same way you can imagine an ‘average corporate manager’, ‘construction worker’, or ‘housewife’. The ‘average’ works splendidly in the cases of wish fulfilment, where you want to imagine yourself in the position of a princess, mage, successful artist, electrician-turned-god, etc. In these cases, the aim is to help your potential reader identify with your character. In other words, you are creating a placeholder. Often, he will be an ‘everyman’.
The appeal of the average.
While all ‘everymen’ are considered relatable, not all relatable characters are ‘everymen’. Many of them are. As a scholar, I am interested in the average because it helps me gather information and act accordingly, acquiring leadership and improving efficiency. However, I am not interested in the average as a reader. In literature, especially in genre fiction, I don’t always want to read about understandable protagonists and average people. I have little to learn about their personality because I already ‘get’ them. The notable exceptions are social dramas like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The author himself explained on many occasions how every French village had an Emma Bovary, who was trapped in an unhappy marriage, slowly sinking into depression. Here, the choice of the understandable highlights a social issue.
In genre fiction an ‘everyman’ becomes a sort of an optimistic reminder that everything is possible: a peasant becomes king, a street urchin becomes the greatest mage-assassin that has ever lived (hello, Vinn from Mistborn!), an average guy thrust into a difficult situation saves the day (hello, James Holden from the Expanse!). I understand the importance of this artistic choice, but I see it as a limitation.
If speculative fiction explores the familiar through the lens of the impossible, why focus on relatable main characters and ‘everymen’? Unless you are writing a social commentary, that is unnecessary.
Relatability is overhyped. To appreciate a person’s motivation or root for him, you do not necessarily need to share his values or have him in a situation similar to yours. First, it may be difficult to find those, who share your views, aspirations and ideas. In my case, the lack of such characters in genre and literary fiction or their portrayal as ‘evil’ was very frustrating. I could never relate to most ‘average guys’ because I wanted to be the Napoleon and conquer the world. Solving teenage problems or talking about love did not interest me. But I gladly read book that featured no one, who shared my vision or my character traits. In many cases, those were the absolutely unrelatable, strange and outlandish characters that awoke my curiosity. They could be much quieter than myself or much more sentimental. They were, in most cases, different.
The unrelatable reveals new horizons. It is what we cannot relate to that makes us think. Part of it is the popularity of characters like Sherlock Holmes. Since the man is everything but average, few people would call him relatable. That is exactly his uniqueness that makes him so attractive. In genre fiction, the most popular examples would be Darth Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn and…well…half of the cool Imperials from Star Wars. It is because their thought patterns are so unusual and their motivations so grand, stupid, surprising, or petty that we find them fascinating. If some of us can relate to them, that is an added bonus. If not, there is no need for that relatability at all.
Unrelatable protagonists or antagonists are the most interesting of characters because they are mysterious. Because their stories are complicated and their ideas polarizing. As a reader you can expand your knowledge of patterns and organization, when looking through the eyes of those, whom you do not understand. Thus, the more outlandish your protagonist is, the more interesting it is to get to know him.
After all, some readers do not even want to relate to character because they seek escapism and not self-portrayal. In my own case, the characters I have related to most, were almost never my age or gender or nationality. We share a personality type. The character, whom I always understood best, was Reinhard von Lohengramm from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Ambitious Lohengramm, though, was never my favourite character. I simply got him and recognized his strengths and weaknesses as my own, but I preferred another character – Paul von Oberstein. Thus, relatability does not necessarily make one fall in love.
Relatability may help some people identify with characters and deepen their immersion. However, in the case of genre fiction, relatability is only an option. It’s not the most interesting one either for an author, or for a reader. However much you try to create a relatable character, there will be people, who will not understand or like them. Besides, in most fantasy and sci fi series the most popular characters are those, who are outlandish, quirky and unrelatable.