1. ~Artemis~
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    ~Artemis~ Member

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    Is it ever okay to have MCs to whom readers can't relate?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by ~Artemis~, Jan 17, 2016.

    I'm writing a story about a young girl (8 years old) discovering the magic of reading in the forest instead of in her bedroom (a highly simplified plot summary for the purpose of this post). I begin the story saying she was "born beneath an oak tree" and describing the tree and the boulder that's next to the tree, atop which she was "born." I then say she was perhaps born of books more than of the forest, since books were what led her to the forest in the first place, and I go on to describe her reading fantasy books in her bedroom and how that setting never lets her truly feel like she's "in" the outdoor settings of her fantasy novels, so one day she grabs her favorite book and heads to the woods. (I hope all of that was understandable; I'm terrible at summarizing.)

    I sent the beginnings of the first draft to a friend for feedback, and he said that all of the "born of nature" stuff made her seem very mystical, but really difficult to relate to. I guess I'm feeling like that's almost the purpose of this character – she's a very isolated girl, both in childhood and even more so when she grows up (this story is part of a collection following her throughout her teenage years as well), so I sort of want to emphasize how different she is, how she's not like everyone else, and how that affects her social life as well as her opinion of herself as she grows up. Do you guys think that's an okay reason to have a MC be difficult for readers to relate to, or should a MC always be relatable?
     
  2. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I don't see why being a mystic would make a character unrelateable, but I'd have to read it to get a sense of what you're talking about. I think that most people could find a way to identify with a character who is different, or fulfills a different role in society. Literature, and media in general is replete with examples of people separate from society trying to find a way to fit in.

    I would say (and again, I haven't read it) that making your character understand her world implicitly would make her hard to relate to. Having a main character who already has a deep understanding of the new world around them makes them difficult to relate to. To pull from a modern example, no one would watch Futurama if it was simply about a group of people in the 31st century. We need Fry there to help us understand what's happening. We need him to experience the new world so we can experience it with him.

    If your mystical main character is constantly discovering new things about her world that's easy to relate to. We've all been in a world where things don't make sense to us. If she's heading in with some kind of deep seated knowledge I would find that much harder.
     
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  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's feedback from only one reader - if you're worried, give it to a few more, or wait until you meet the forum's requirements and post it in the Workshop here for review. But I wouldn't question yourself over something this big when it's feedback from just one person.

    In any case, reletable isn't always key. Being interesting is. And if you're interested in the character, you're gonn want to read - you're gonna try and understand her better by reading, and that's just fine too! I certainly didn't relate to the strange ugly murderer MC in the book Perfume who was obsessed with perfumes, specifically a virgin's scent, who then goes on to murder these girls, but read the whole book I did and it was a damn good read too :D
     
  4. ~Artemis~
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    ~Artemis~ Member

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    Thank you both for your opinions! I appreciate the feedback ^.^
     
  5. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    An important thing to get straight - Relatable and sympathetic are not the same thing. Every major character needs to be sympathetic but they absolutely do not need to be relatable. In many cases making a character be relatable is just a cheap mechanism to make people sympathize with a boring character. It takes more work to make an 'outsider' character sympathetic but if the character isn't relatable then that's just who the character is. So no, don't worry if your character is relatable. What's relatable to each of us is pretty unique anyway, so chasing it will just lead you to being unrelatable to someone else.

    People are smart enough to read books about people who aren't exactly like themselves. Don't ever let your characters get focused grouped into a bland, unthreatening paste in search of marketability. If your book isn't worth reading then making the lead a stereotype won't save it.

    We sympathize with good characters whether we relate to them or not.
     
  6. Aster
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    Aster Member

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    First of all, are any of the friends you gave it to 8 year old girls?

    When I was and 8 year old girl I would have totally identified with your MC. I thought everything in books was magic. I thought everything about forests was magic. I thought if I read the right book at the right time in the right place I would unlock mystical powers or open a portal to another world. I believed gnomes and fairies lived in the forest but only revealed themselves to people who really truly believed in them.

    So as an 8 year old girl reading was exciting and I felt an affinity with the forest, jungle, woods, bushland, and so on.

    I haven't really changed. I'm a child at heart.
     
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  7. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    I'd certainly hope viewers of Dexter or Hannibal didn't relate too much to the protagonists. Seriously, "understandable" is often a more workable goal, especially if you intend to target multiple demographics who may have had very different life experiences.
     
  8. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    Well part of the allure of characters like that is that we do relate to them in lots of ways; making the point that we aren't as different to murderers as we might like to think we are. But point very much taken. I think understandable is a good word here; something that is perhaps better in this context than either relatable or sympathetic. Characters don't even (in theory) need even need to be sympathetic (as such) as long as we're interested in them, and we're only interested if we understand who they are and what they are doing.

    Obviously there's more to it than just being understandable; you need characters to be interesting and engaging, but presumably you feel your character has that covered; and with that in mind just worry about communicating it. If she makes sense and we can follow then we'll go along with a decent story told about her.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Characters don't have to be relatable or sympathetic. They do have to be interesting, however. If they're not interesting the reader isn't going to want to continue to share their story.
     
  10. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Exactly. Who the hell can relate to Hannibal Lecter save for another psychopath, but jinkies is he ever interesting. ;)
     
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  11. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    Going to have to disagree on that point. The whole Lecter universe is hung around the idea that we do sympathise with Lecter; a good chunk of us can even relate to him killing people he thinks are rude or boring. I don't want to get tied down in specifics but I think it's important here - Yes, interesting absolutely always should take precedence over anything but it's more nuanced than that. Even very depressing, very horrible people (such as to be found in Martin Amis' books as well as mine :p) become sympathetic when they are interesting and well written. I agree that we shouldn't be compromising characters to make them more relatable or even more sympathetic and our focus should be on making interesting characters first and foremost but, well, when we write a dark character in a way that normal people like; we're making an effort to make them sympathetic basically so the reader will stick with the book. Even the most interesting character can't hold a book down if they are just irredeemably horrible.

    So yeah, I mean, you are right. We should be thinking in terms of the story and characters instead of in marketing terms. You get a better book by writing better characters not by sitting down to write a sympathetic or relatable or understandable character (or even coherent if you're James Joyce) but whether knowingly or not just by writing from a characters perspective we're trying to make them sympathetic. Just by giving some insight into their thought process we're making unforgivable actions understandable, maybe even sympathetic.

    And don't get me wrong - All but one character I've ever written is a horrible human being and I revel in the opportunity to show these bad people struggling hard to do the right thing and come to terms with who they are and what it means if they'll do bad things and not feel anything about it. I love this stuff. I've never said to myself 'Eh this guy needs to be more sympathetic' in such deliberate terms. But I've certainly said 'Ok, I need a real emotional whiplash to lead into this big blow up I want to do'. Why? Because the audience will sympathize more the harder I push the character. If they believe he's broken and crying then they'll forgive him making an incredibly painful mistake right after.

    Whether we couch it in terms of just telling a good story or deliberately making someone more sympathetic; that's always what we're doing.
     
  12. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Exactly. Here's an example. Green from Jay Lake's Green trilogy. In short, she hates the white-skinned people of Copper Downs because they enslaved her when she was a toddler and couldn't give two shits about them. She is an assassin who kills for money and for the White Lilly. Do I relate to her? Of course not. Do I sympathize with her? Sure. If you were enslaved from infancy by a people of another culture than yours, you'd be pretty bigoted against them as well, and not give two shits about them. While I may not like her actions, while I may think she's a terrible person (born from her upbringing), I can still sympathize with her.

    You want your readers to sympathize with your MC, they don't have to relate to them at all.
     
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2016
  13. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    Alex, Clockwork Orange.
     
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