The Spring 2016 issue of Rattle magazine features an interview with the writer Maggie Nelson, who won massive acclaim in 2015 for her adult memoir The Argonauts. In the interview, she says:
My mom teaches adult book groups, which is what I was getting at in saying that she came back around the long way to her background in literature. A lot of the time she teaches international literature, and some of her book groups, which are often full of white folks in the Bay Area with time and money to spend on book groups, will tell her, “I can’t relate.” Which you also get a lot in the undergraduate classroom. And my mom sometimes has to read them the riot act, tell them that relating is not the number one thing you’re looking for in the reading of literature. Which is back to this question about universalist projects. Often a lot doesn’t change when you just keep telling someone, for example, “I can’t relate to your experience with cops, that’s not my experience.” Well, that’s fine, listen to what they’re telling you about what their experience with cops is like and you might learn that it’s not equally distributed. You don’t learn anything by just insisting that your experience be the template for all others, but that’s a very common position for people, especially those in power who don’t want to hear.
“Tell them that relating is not the number one thing you’re looking for in the reading of literature.” This sentence caught my attention, in part because this passage appears in The Magic Words:
About every six months, regular as the seasons, we see an upsurge of an old argument in the literary community about whether protagonists need to be “relatable.” Many adult literary novelists take offense at the very idea, saying that, as artists, their highest calling is fidelity to reality as they see it, and reality includes a large number of unpleasant people. (These people sometimes include adult literary novelists.) Some readers dismiss a protagonist as “unrelatable” if the character’s groundwork differs from theirs—their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or country of origin. Those people are bad readers. Other readers—perhaps the vast majority of the casual reading public—just look for protagonists to be “likable,” which usually means the protagonist is a pleasant person who acts in a manner the reader regards as right. Such inoffensive characters allow readers to slip unobtrusively into their skins and enjoy the action of the book.
I fall in the middle of this continuum, as I do feel strongly that if you’re writing fiction, especially for children or young adults, your protagonist should be relatable. But what makes a character relatable, in my view, is that the person is a full and credible human being, with all the strengths and vulnerabilities that implies: a love for something that can be taken away; a body, prone to embarrassment, injury, pleasure, and lust; fear of loss, of failure, of death; goofiness, stubbornness, blind spots, private jokes; a mind and heart unique in all the world. As a human being, I have all of these traits, so if an author can show me these qualities (or hundreds of other possible traits) operating realistically within a character, I’ll believe in and relate to that person. I might not like this person, particularly if she’s whiny or mean, but if I recognize the humanity in her, I can relate to her. When I can’t relate to a character, it’s usually because her emotions or vulnerabilities feel hidden from me somehow; her qualities don’t cohere in a credible manner; or she hasn’t been drawn with this much dimensionality altogether.
Why does relatability matter in children’s and young adult fiction? Well, pleasure can come from a number of factors in adult literary fiction—beautiful writing, a strong plot, an exploration of an idea or emotion, a connection to a character. But children’s and YA fiction operates a little differently. Child readers might not always appreciate lyrical writing because they’re struggling simply to decipher the words. Both child and YA readers like strong plots, but plots matter only because of characters—because we worry about our protagonist and we want to see her achieve her desire. We won’t worry about someone we don’t care about. Moreover, as children’s and YA books usually focus on a character’s emotional growth as he or she comes to a better understanding of the world, we readers need to be invested in the protagonist to want to see that growth happen. All of these factors point toward one conclusion: Whatever the other pleasures your novel offers, in children’s and YA publishing you need a protagonist who will capture the interest of readers—someone to whom they can relate.
So I differ from Ms. Nelson in that I do think the reader’s ability to establish an emotional connection with a character — e.g., relatability — is important in children’s and YA literature, perhaps even “the number-one thing," to use her term. (This might also be a difference between children’s/YA and adult literature, I acknowledge.) But as I thought about the whole of what she was saying, I realized that we almost always talk about “relatability” in literature as if it’s entirely the writer’s responsibility to create a person relatable to the reader. But the reader must be willing to be part of that relationship—to listen to what the character has to offer, and to be open to the character holding some truth beyond the reader’s personal experience. An unwillingness to listen, or a lack of that openness, is what makes someone a bad reader, as I say in the first paragraph above. I think children can quite often be the best readers, because they have just enough understanding of the world to know what’s real vs. not-real (they’re great bullshit detectors, in short), while the rest is all openness to narrative and human possibility.
A relationship always requires effort on both sides. If one of your beta readers complains that your character isn’t relatable, it’s always good to look at the character to see if he’s believable and where his vulnerabilities are shown on the page, to be sure those elements are coming out as you intend; but you might also suss out if that reader is willing to work. If they aren’t, find better readers.