Do you ever feel that you can relate to the characters in the books you read? Me too. It’s one of the main pleasures in reading fiction, and something that most of us who enjoy reading can testify to.
Of course, not everyone values character-to-reader relatability.
Apparently, “any dipshit can relate to a character in a book.” Or so thought one of my old English professors from university. This wasn’t the professor’s most tactful moment (though neither was it his most profane), and I do understand that he was trying to force the class to engage with texts on a deeper level (a worthwhile goal if ever there was one).
But his words stung. Though a writer’s mastery of language or contemplation of new ideas are compelling reasons to pick up a book, most of us appreciate and seek out fiction that is relevant to our personal experiences, beliefs, hopes, and fears. Sure, we want to broaden our horizons and challenge our understanding of the world, but we rarely wish to do so in some unfamiliar and abstract way.
Let’s face it: the best books are the ones that compel us to read them. That effect is most often achieved through character, or, more specifically, through a character’s relatability. And the results can be surprisingly powerful.
Personally, there have been times when I’ve been struck so severely by a character—or, more precisely, by the writer’s understanding of that character—that I’ve nearly broken down and wept. I don’t say this in some silly attempt to appear tender hearted or “In Touch With My Feelings.” The few times that it’s happened, it’s caught my off guard and left me visibly shaken.
Like I said—surprisingly powerful. I call it the ache of recognition: a moment when you discover that who you are–your fears and ambitions, your hungers and longings, and your successes and disappointments–has been captured, has been understood. The cliché is true, after all: you’re not alone.
If one thing is undeniably clear, it is that words have a power that few of us ever fully acknowledge. Sometimes the simplest story—one removed from hot topics and current events—can be the most powerful.
Of course, this experience is not exclusive to just one art form. Music, film, painting, photography—all of it has the capability to affect us deeply and profoundly. I’m sure that for every English professor admonishing the petty delights of popular fiction, there are an equal number of professors from other humanities disciplines just as aghast at our low-minded response to various artworks.
That’s okay—let them lament our pursuit of simple pleasures. After all, such delights may be simple, but they are no less meaningful.
In any event, I for one hope you read this and can relate. That would mean the world to me.
Rowing For Pleasure is a weekly opinions column written by Z S Roe. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.