One of the most common reasons offered when a person dislikes a book is some form of the sentiment: “I couldn’t relate to the main character, or any of the characters really.” It’s never limited to one single sampling of people, and I hear it from casual readers just like I hear it from other aspiring students of literature. (Even graduate students, who at least do a pretty dang good job of pretending to like books … unless it falls outside of their field, of course.) I’ve heard it as a response to Toni Morrison’s Beloved from a class full of puzzled undergraduates, and I’ve heard it in a tiny graduate seminar dedicated to the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Creative writing classes, Goodreads reviews, book clubs—you name it, and somewhere the relationship wires are getting tangled.
It struck me as odd, sure, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to understand it more as a response to art. It ties indirectly into the problem of representation in fiction. The literary canon has been limited to the writings of straight white men until recently (a few decades), and in such their experiences alone have been regarded as a singular, universal experience for a long time now. Thankfully, we’ve begun the work of diversifying fictional representation, and though this work is still sometimes regarded as “niche work,” at least we’ve cracked the surface. It gets tiresome to pick up a book (or consume any other kind of media, really) and be bombarded with one lived experience, again and again, and it never overlaps with your own. (Consistently male protagonists, absence of characters of color, all straight folks, only young or youthful characters, etc.) As a woman, I’m definitely attuned to this concern.
But relatability isn’t really about representation. It’s sharing “fictional” emotion, sensation, and experience that we can somehow translate into reality—if not through our own, then through those of another person we know (lover, friend, frenemy, teacher, parent—whoever). It seems that “relating to a character” has become shorthand for liking a character, though there are plenty of characters in fiction to whom I can relate but at the same time totally loathe. This leads to asking the inevitable question: why does anyone need to relate to characters, and why especially in order to really like a book?
I think that’s what confounds me the most, because of course I do understand not relating to characters, humans being human and unpredictable all that—but taking it out on the book utterly baffles me. It’s a matter of craft for an author to engineer characters with whom the reader can really connect, and most authors succeed at least on a basic level (again, humans being human), typically with a main character. There are notable exceptions to this, one being Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, considering Humbert Humbert is one of the least “relatable” characters I can summon from memory. Were it not for Nabokov’s writing, reading Lolita would be one of the most loathsome experiences ever. Still, even though my brain jumped to the most hideous example in my personal literary repertoire (of course!), I appreciate why I can’t relate to H.H. (uh, for starters, because he’s an unreliable creep of ungodly proportions).
Moments where, as a reader, I have to take a step back from a character, and especially from a character-narrator, are one of the things that make fiction enjoyable. When a statement is given as a universal and accepted as such within a book, that sensation of, “Hey, wait, no, no, nope” is what ultimately leads to a greater understanding of a character, an ideology, or the book overall. Asking myself later why I felt unable to relate to a character led to at the very least a tacit reexamination of myself and my values, and I hold most books that can inspire self-evaluation in high esteem for that quality alone. (Some serious bonus points if they’re brilliantly written, though.) Dissonance in literature is rarely accidental, and to push away a certain book because of that seems at best shortsighted. And honestly, sometimes, it comes down to complacency: readers don’t want to do any work in order to “come over to” a book. (Believe me, as someone who studies modernism, I know. “Coming over to” something like Joyce’s Ulysses is damn exhausting.) Still, it’s a useful experience in keeping your mind open enough to accommodate all kinds of new things.
So next time, if you find yourself victim of a book with no relatable characters in sight, give it another chance (or a first chance, even) before you write it off as “bad.” You may just learn something new about yourself—and other people—in the process.