“Relatable”: A Complaint

“I want my characters to be relatable.”

“I like so-and-so because she’s so relatable.”

“I can’t get into so-and-so as a character because she isn’t relatable.”

Curmudgeonly writers and English professors (like myself) sometimes complain about this odd word relatable. It isn’t a real word! some will say. Well, it is now (and has been one for at least fifty years) because people use it with such frequency.

So it’s a “real” word. Fine. But I still think that we ought to stop using it, especially to describe fictional characters.

Wait! Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon and go on to another blog, hear me out:

There is a class of words that try to pass something subjective off as something objective. For example, the word “cult” in one popular usage passes off one’s attitude toward a religion as an objective fact about that religion. So in 2012, it was fairly common to hear people say that Mitt Romney was a member of a “cult” (because he’s a Mormon). But when people call Mormonism a “cult,” they’re really only describing their own attitude toward Mormonism, not an objective fact about the religion itself. Don’t believe me? Ask all of your friends to define “cult” for you without consulting the dictionary (and to provide examples).

There are other words like this in English (for example, the popular usage of epic—as in, “That movie was epic!”). Most of these words originally had an objective meaning (cult comes from the Latin word cultus which simply means “religion” or “worship”), but in their popular usage today, they’ve lost that objective meaning and merely express the speaker’s attitude toward something. The problem with relatable is that it belongs to this class of words which disguise subjective attitudes as objective facts.

When someone says, “Peter Parker is a relatable character,” this can mean one of two things:

1) Peter Parker is capable of being related to by an undefined somebody (as in understood or sympathized with). This is the most literal, objective meaning of the word.

or

2) The speaker can relate to Peter Parker.

Meaning #1 seems very unlikely, since everyone is relatable in that sense. The word isn’t even worth using in that way, since it describes literally everyone on earth. So we’re left with meaning #2. When Gina says, “Peter Parker is a relatable character,” she simply means that she can relate to Peter Parker.

So? you say. What’s wrong with that?

The problem with calling someone relatable when what I really mean is that I can relate to him is that I’ve taken a subjective feeling or attitude (my ability to understand or empathize with someone) and presented it as an objective fact that applies to everybody. Peter Parker is relatable, meaning that everyone can relate to him.

But is that true? Can everyone relate to a young, white, teenage boy from Queens who gets picked on for his interest in science? No, of course not. People come in lots of varieties, and not all of them can relate very well to all the others.

But, you object, when I say that someone is relatable, don’t I just mean that this person has those universal qualities of humanity that everyone can relate to?

Of course, there are certainly  experiences, feelings, and opinions that are common to us all, but if we try to reduce our fictional characters to those universals so that they become “relatable” to everyone, then they cease to be real people and become simply mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected back.

And as I’ve argued before, what we need from our fiction is not a mirror, but a window though which we see the world with fresh eyes. We need characters who are familiar enough that we can make sense of how they think and feel, but who are different enough from ourselves that they help us get outside of our own minds and see things from a different perspective.

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