There’s a lot that sets a good book from a bad book, especially since what makes a book good or bad is incredibly subjective. However, one thing that can destroy the experience for a lot of readers are characters that don’t resonate. A character has to be someone that the reader can relate to; otherwise it becomes hard to empathize with the struggles they go through. Here are three pitfalls to avoid when writing characters that can kill their relatability.
1) Lack of interpersonal conflict
I’m going to start with this one because it’s the one I struggle with the most when I’m writing. It’s easier for your story if your characters all get along, because you don’t have people disagreeing and bogging down the plot. You never have to worry about alienating anyone by having a character they like being ‘wrong’ in an argument and you never need to write an uncomfortable disagreement.
However, it destroys how relatable your characters are.
People have arguments. People disagree. People fight. It’s human nature to disagree. You’ve probably had disagreements with the people your closest to in your life – friends, family, your cat, whoever. Often people can disagree like reasonable adults, but that doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t agreeing. If your characters don’t disagree, it will come across as false at best. At worst, it will seem like one character is always right and no one ever argues with them, leading to that dreaded accusation: that a character is a “Mary Sue.” By having characters disagree, you make them relatable, because even if we don’t agree with them, we can empathize with the fact that disagreements happen.
2) No mistakes are made.
Have you ever messed up? I don’t mean you faced an obstacle you couldn’t overcome, or missed an opportunity through no fault of your own, I mean flat out chose wrong. Of course you have. Everyone has. I do it like, all the time. Yet it’s common in writing to have characters never make mistakes. They face struggles, they overcome obstacles, and they might even fail because of some tragic flaw or doubts, but they rarely just do the wrong thing.
Ironically enough, failure to fail can easily make a character unrelatable.
Let your characters be human. Let them choose the wrong thing, take a wrong turn, miss an appointment. Then they have to deal with the consequences of that failure. It doesn’t have to be anything huge or something that derails the plot. Maybe your MC forgets to pay their electric bill in the course of their urban fantasy adventures, and now has to contend with finding time to wait for the electrician show up. Perhaps your character gets lost because they didn’t charge their phone and the GPS is down, so has to ask for directions. These little things can make the character more relatable because, again, it makes them more human.
3) They’re too powerful
You might be thinking that this only applies to genre fiction, but power comes in multiple forms, and too much of it can destroy the relatability of any character. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write a powerful character. Superman, Son Goku, Iron Man are all absurdly powerful characters who are also well loved, in spite of the first two being aliens with the power of gods and the latter being a billionaire super genius who put together a suit of power armor “in a cave with a box of scraps,” to quote the movies own character. In non-genre fiction, the best example of the “too powerful character” are billionaires with seemingly infinite resources.
The trick is to give them limits.
People like to make fun of Superman being insanely overpowered and making every plot about kryptonite since it’s his ‘only’ weakness, but he actually has other limits. And I’m not talking about magic or other things he is not resistant too. I’m talking about his refusal to kill – or really, bend his moral code at all. Superman’s foes often escape or outwit him by putting innocent lives in danger, because that’s his real limit. Want to have a relatable billionaire? They still only have so much available in terms of liquid assets. Beyond that, give them a struggle they can’t overcome by throwing money at the problem. A character’s power isn’t what makes them interesting, it’s their limits, and how they overcome them.
Anything else that destroyed a character being relatable for you? Let me know in the comments below! And if you haven’t, pick up Rumors, a free book, here!