Some Attempts at (Re)definition: Relatability

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. The first post is here.

is it clear how the implied author is presenting the characters

Relatability, as it is usually spoken of, is useless to craft. When students say a character is “relatable,” they mean that they are able to invest the character with their own experiences. Bringing one’s own experience to the page, however, is always a part of reading. It’s unavoidable. I have argued for a definition of craft that acknowledges this very fact: that readers’ expectations for fiction are created by other stories they have consumed—in other words, by culture.  When an author uses “craft,” they are using those expectations—the way a film can use a shot of a keyhole to invest a scene with the tension. This shot has a specific effect if viewers have watched enough movies to know that a shot of a keyhole implies that someone or something dangerous is out there (regardless of whether or not anything is actually there).

When most readers say they find a character “relatable” then, either they are talking not about the work but about themselves, or they are obscuring the usefulness of a discussion about who the intended audience is and how the author works with that specific audience’s expectations in mind.

Here’s an example: an extraterrestrial main character has its heart broken, so it drinks some alcohol, takes a sleeping pill, watches TV, cries, eats a tub of ice cream, and goes to sleep on a bed.

The interesting thing here is not how relatable the extraterrestrial is—if there is interest in the similarities to white middle-class American grieving habits, then the interest lies in the disconnect between those habits and a space alien. That disconnect in fact encourages readers to make a connection thematically: Perhaps the story is about what it takes to be white, middle-class, and American, or the story asks us to look at how our lives have become alien to us. Etc.

If the alien were to grieve in a way completely outside of human experience, then the comment would go from “How relatable!” to “How imaginative!” If instead of a space alien the character were an alien from a non-Western country performing non-Western grief—then the comment will often become (whether direct or implied): “How exotic!”

The truth is that over a decade of teaching, I’ve never heard a student say, “This is unrelatable,” except as an attempt to avoid making any craft-based critique at all. In contrast, in my experience an instructor has to work hard to stop a mostly white workshop from a discussion, in one way or another, of what’s so different about a manuscript written by a student of color.

In creative writing terms, the opposite of relatable is not unrelatable, it’s exotic.

If relatability were somehow a goal of craft, then the question would be: How does one go about trying to make a piece of fiction relatable? If we mean “relatable” as containing something similar to a reader’s experience, the first place to go is audience. I ask my students: relatable to whom?

This brings us back to the elephant in the room: that to call a manuscript “relatable” is really to make a claim about who the audience is or should be.

Should the author revise her manuscript to make it more relatable to the specific workshop participant? This takes us into dangerous territory, where a writer can lose her way because she has traded her audience for someone else’s.

Even if the author wereto try to make the piece more relatable to this one reader, it would actually be a mistake to think in terms of shared experience. Say the author gives the character some hobby popular among her classmates, like knitting. If this makes the character clearer, it isn’t specifically because of knitting—it’s because of specificity. Anything specific will give your readers a better grasp of your characters, whether or not it makes the character more or less relatable. In your story, there could be an evil knitting club and anyone who knits is malicious—this tells us something about the character, but likely doesn’t increase “relatability” as it is usually referred to.

Again, the act of reading is alwaysan act of bringing one’s experience to a text—which is why you can read a book about dragons and relate to a dragon character that doesn’t even knit. The usefulness of relatability to the craft of fiction is really about how an implied author presents a character to an implied reader. To continue the dragon example, there is a good dragon and a bad dragon—a human reader brings her experiences to both, and shares no experiences with either—what is important is how the author implies we orient ourselves to each. Goodness and badness, like good writing and bad writing, are contextual evaluations. If you look at Robin Hood one way, he’s a thief, and if you look at him another, he’s a hero. If you look at a dragon one way, it’s evil, and if you look at the same dragon another way, it’s good. In fiction, the author decides how we look—which means the author decides whether the dragon is “relatable” or not.

Take for another example, one written and relatively well known, the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The implied author makes it clear that we should not think this grandmother is a great person. This is done via tone, references to religion, relations to other characters, thoughts, etc. The implied author then must also establish that the implied reader is someone who would find the grandmother, at least until she faces death, reprehensible. The effect would not be the same for an actual reader who picks the story up and cheers the grandmother on. Both who the implied readers are and what stance the implied author takes toward the grandmother are necessary to maximizing the story’s impact. (As I’ve changed, for example, I’ve found this story less personally compelling than I first did when I was eighteen and never missed mass.) The craft in this “unrelatability” is in establishing this implied audience and the implied author’s view of the grandmother, not in the arbitrary experiences a specific reader brings to the story.

As a final example, let’s go back to the white middle-class American extraterrestrial. Again, the author who addresses relatability as a craft issue has some choices to make about who her intended audience is and how she should present the character to them. If the ideal audience are white middle-class Americans who live a life very much like the extraterrestrial’s, then imagine how much of a difference it makes whether or not the audience is not supposed to find the alien sympathetic, heroic, disgusting, humorous, tragic. If they are meant to feel disgust toward the alien, then they are meant to question what that disgust says about themselves, when the only thing “unrelatable” about the alien is that it is an alien. In other words, the author may choose to leave the grieving process exactly the same no matter what version of the story she publishes—then what changes isn’t the relatability of the experience, what changes is something that could usefully be called “relatability.”

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