Question: I've been wondering whether or not a main character/POV character has to be relatable to the reader. Is it enough that the reader can sympathize with the character's circumstances or find enjoyment in his/her personality traits or is that the same thing as relatability?
I'm asking this because I often find myself more enthralled with side characters in most stories rather than the main character.
Using the Harry Potter series as an example, while I liked Harry and his character arc, I never found him to be the most interesting. I realize that he is suppose to be the audience surrogate but I've always felt that the side characters were more interesting, possibility because their personalities were less neutral.
Recently, I've watched an anime series in which I found the main character to be the most interesting part of a story that was superb in its own right. The character in question had many villain protagonist traits and a personality that probably didn't match up too well to anyone who was watching. I felt that we weren't so much supposed to relate to him, rather I felt that we were suppose to be "in awe" of this person who had both positive traits such as determination(though to an unhealthily extreme level that I imagine few people could relate to) as well as negative traits that few people would want to attribute to themselves such as arrogance.
All in all, my basic question rounds out to be: does the POV/main character have to be an audience surrogate in some way, and if not, how far would I be able to stray away from the "everyman" in his/her personality?
And thank you for reading my question.Answer:
While you can create empathy for the main character by making him/her like the average reader, with problems the average reader shares, that's not the only effective approach. Main characters often are quite different from the average reader. In fact, you may only need the main character to have one thing in common with the reader to generate empathy.
For instance, Harry Potter, may be similar in age to the audience his story was written for, and like many boys he prefers sports to academics. On that other hand, only a few boys are orphans with a compulsion for saving people from terrible dangers.
I would also hate to think that the average kid was as ruthless or amoral as Artemis Fowl or Ender (from Ender's Game
Just as a person may have friends whose personalities are different from their own, readers will often like characters who are different from themselves.
Admirable qualities, for example, can make a character likeable. For instance, if you admire power, you may find yourself drawn
more to Darth Vader than Luke Skywalker. If you love big ideas, you might be drawn more to Ernst Blofeld than James Bond. (This is why it's very important to demonstrate your villain's unlikeable qualities.)
Many people found they liked Dr. Evil more than Austin Powers because Dr. Evil was not too evil and had human frailties they could relate to.
Try giving your main character some qualities that your reader can admire. For instance, we usually like characters who do things we are not brave enough to do - such as go on adventures, or be ourselves in social situations, or follow our dreams. We tend to like characters who make moral choices rather than immoral ones. And many people like underdogs who deserve to win (because most of us feel like that from time to time).
On the other hand, some main characters are rather nasty people, who nonetheless charm the reader into liking them or seeing their point of view. An example would be Alex in A Clockwork Orange
, who enjoys nothing better than an evening of rape and violence. Using first person narration and treating the reader as a confident, Alex charms the reader into sympathizing with his plight. Readers can be flattered by the feeling that they are the main character's special confident.
On another level, Dramatica theory states that females (or holistic thinkers of any gender) tend to relate more to characters who are running out of options, whereas males (or linear thinkers of any gender) relate more to characters who are running out of time. Further, it argues that males are more likely to empathize with male characters and only sympathize with female characters - whereas females are more likely to empathize with characters of any gender, provided there are other factors involved.
This is why, among children and teens, most girls will read books with either male or female main characters, while boys will tend to only read books with male main characters. Dramatica states that to attract the widest audience, a film should have a male main character who is running out of options.
These are not hard and fast rules, of course.
As you point out, sometimes a story benefits from having secondary characters who appeal to sub-sections of your audience, just as Hermione appeals to smart, bookish, slightly unpopular girls - many of whom became Harry Potter readers. Luna Lovegood appeals to those girls who are often bullied for not playing the social games that matter so much at that age.
As I say, it's a complex issue. Sometimes you are better off just trying to create a character who will appeal to one particular reader. If you do it right, the character will work for many others as well.