I have spent the last few years wrestling with the word “relatable.” It is a word I find personally irritating. On the occasions when my teenage children use it—to describe a song lyric, a Black Mirror episode, a scrap of wisdom featured in an Instagram meme—I cringe so hard and emanate scorn so nakedly that they either apologize or laugh and use it again, depending on the kid and the situation.
I tell them, “It’s not a real word,” but this is sort of silly coming from me, since I understand and appreciate that language is alive and, therefore, ever evolving, and also since I routinely make up words myself and sometimes even put them into books. But “relatable” feels cheap to me, a shortcut, one of those empty-vessel-type adjectives that can contain almost anything an individual speaker (or writer or Amazon reviewer) wants to toss into it. When my kids say, “That’s so relatable,” I press them to go further, deeper, to be more specific: “This thing speaks to me, resonates with me, attracts me, fascinates me, engages me because . . .”
But when the word is applied, as it has been more times than I can count, to the characters in my novels, I become even more impatient.
I should stop here and say that I am not impatient with the people who use it, the ones who read my books and who are thoughtful enough to share their opinions about them. To the users of the word I am grateful. I know that it is a compliment that they take the time and know as well that word itself is a compliment. While the meaning of it feels ambiguous to me, it is clearly always intended as praise, which is probably where I should leave it: with a thank you.
Instead, though, I parse and sort and analyze. I chase possible meanings around like buzzing flies—lots of irritated flailing on my part, then swat, miss, swat, miss. Does it mean that the reader sees herself in the character? Does it mean that everything the character does makes sense to the reader? Does it mean the reader would like to be friends with the character, maybe sit down and have a conversation? Is it simply another word for “likeable”? For “nice”?
There is nothing intrinsically problematic about any of these responses, and as a reader, I’ve experienced them all myself. I see Lucy Honeychurch having a bad day mostly because her dress is the absolute wrong color for her, and I think, “Yep. Been there, Lucy!” I’ve fallen in love just exactly the way Dorothea Brook fell for Will Ladislaw. I cherish Kent Haruf’s characters for their profound decency. I would hang out with nearly every one of Elinor Lipman’s characters all day long.
But as a writer, I find myself wanting to make a case for messiness, for inconsistency and surprise, for complexity and weirdness, for flaws and tics and obsessions, even for thoughtlessness, self-centeredness, pettiness, spite. I want to say, “Okay, yes, but what about the character who makes you want to shake some sense into her? What about the one who gets in his own way at almost every opportunity? What about the one who hurts people?”
And if right now you’re thinking that someone should shake me and ask—with an eye-roll worthy of an eighth grader—why in the world I care so much, you’re smart. You’re right. Obviously, I am spending too much time on the word “relatable.” Obviously, the real difficulty for me is that “relatable” has lodged itself in my psyche in a way that words from readers and reviewers never should.
I have always prided myself on not trying to please readers (please note that this does not say “on trying not to please readers”), on shutting out all the outside voices, on staying true to my characters and to my story. I don’t mean that I don’t care about pleasing readers. I would like to sell a million copies of every book I write; and when a reader tells me that she read my book while sitting at her mother’s hospital bed and it’s what got her through, every thought of sales figures goes up in a puff of smoke, and I am the most humble kind of grateful for this job I get to do. I like to please readers. I love to please readers. But while I’m writing, I need not to think about what might or might not please them; I need not to think of them at all.
But this word: “relatable.” It won’t leave me alone. It’s been used against my characters, too. “I had to put this book down because, oh my God, that Taisy, she was so eager to please her jerk of a father; she just wasn’t relatable.” Or “Cornelia with all those classic film references! I hate black and white movies. She wasn’t relatable!” Or, as in my most recent novel, I’ll Be Your Blue Sky: “Clare was stupid to ever get involved with Zach in the first place, and then she left him at the altar and broke his heart! So delusional. So careless. Not relatable.”
I’m writing a book now with a protagonist named Ginny. When Ginny was eighteen, she let her best friend down in a terrible way and then ran away from her wild, beautiful, imaginative self and made straight for a safe life with a safe man. When he book opens, she is thirty-eight, and in a single day, her safe life turns on her, and her past and all her bad decisions come storming back. I struggled with this book without knowing why for months and months: two steps forward, one step back; one step forward, two steps back; four steps forward, nineteen steps back straight into an open manhole. And then I realized that the problem is that I was trying to make Ginny too nice. I was trying to let her off the hook, to explain away her mistakes, to make her hapless, wide-eyed, sad, innocent, likable. And even though she is at certain moments in the plot all of these things, she’s also knowing, intentional, gritty, occasionally abrasive, a little bitter, full of self-irony, full of ferocious love for her daughter.
In trying to make Ginny relatable, I lost her for a long time. I had her wry, funny, regret-tinged, thorny voice all wrong. In a moment of clarity, I got her back, got her right. But even as I write, I worry that she’s too caustic, too flawed. I worry that people won’t like her, won’t relate to her. Every day, when I sit down at my computer, I need to shut down those worries. I need to pick up the word “relatable” and wring its scrawny little annoying neck. Every day.
Even so, I hope readers will relate to Ginny, my quirky bird. Oh gosh, of course I do. Not because she is nice. Not because they see themselves in her. Not because every decision she makes makes sense. But because they recognize her humanity. Bringing to life her individual brand of humanness is, in the end, my only job. I hope people will see it and see her and root for her. And if they do, no matter what words they use to tell me, I will be glad. I will try not to fret and analyze and grapple, to say only “thank you” from my heart (and it is always from my heart) and, then, I will sit down and start to write the next book.
What does “relatable” mean to you and affect you as a reader, as a writer? Which characters in novels you’ve read are relatable to you, based upon your own definition? Has a “non-relatable” character every chased you away from a novel, made you set it aside? The floor is yours.