“Relatability” is a buzzword these days, especially in the storytelling world. People want stories and characters that they can relate to and understand; they want to see aspects of themselves and the world they know in the movies they watch and the books they read.
This is an important and timeless desire. Even in an “unrealistic” story like a sci-fi adventure or a fantastical fairy tale, we want to see and understand a bit of ourselves and our own world. We want to feel validated, and have a degree of confidence that others might see us in this fictional tale.
Relatability is an especially hot topic when it comes to diversity in fiction. Minority and marginalized groups want to see themselves in stories, and to share their voices and their world with others. I fully support great diversity in creators, characters, and subject matter for fiction. Increasing the variety of voices and ideas can only enhance stories as a whole.
But as far as “relatability” goes, I’ve heard some argue that a story featuring [insert any minority/under-represented group] will never make it big (or worse, should not bother to be published at all), because it won’t relate to most people. After all, if good fiction is about the relatability of the characters or situations, then it should be geared towards the majority of people (whatever that might mean in any given case).
Yes, fiction should be relatable—and yet, by its very definition, fiction is NOT relatable. It’s fiction—something that is not real. And that, I believe, is its power.
As an example, let me use Disney’s Frozen franchise. We can all agree that it’s fiction, right? And most people would agree that the characters are very relatable—that is one of the reasons it’s so popular. So what makes the stories and the characters so relatable?
I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t a single person in the world today who is an orphaned Scandinavian princess with an older sister who has super-powers and whose best friend is a talking snowman. And yet Princess Anna is an extremely popular—and relatable—character. Why?
Because her relatability comes from her human-ness, not her fairy tale princess-ness. She is well-meaning, enthusiastic, a little awkward sometimes. She wrestles with fear, but chooses to act bravely anyway. She loves her family and wants what’s best for them. She laughs and cries and hopes and dreams. These are things that everyone, regardless of their background, race, or life experiences, can relate to in one way or another.
Do we need a more diverse representation in our movies and books? Do we need characters who speak other languages, who practice different religions, who come from different backgrounds? Absolutely. Of course it is important for a person to read or watch a story and be able to say “I relate to this. I see myself in this story.”
Diversity and relatability in fiction is important. But I also believe that the most relatable elements in any story, featuring diversity of any sort, are the human elements. Regardless of our ethnic backgrounds or life experiences, we all experience love, fear, hope, sorrow, joy. We all have dreams and goals and wishes. In my opinion, any story that features well-rounded characters that express these human elements is fully relatable.
Because, in the end, we are all human.