Have You Thought About This? Relatable Characters
(A quick author’s note- I’m sure you were all expecting the wise and lyrical Hannah to be writing this post but due to unforeseen circumstances, you get me instead. I will try and be as philosophical as I can).
When I was in my final year of school, I read a book called Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. It was, in my eyes, one of the most perfect books I’d ever read. The main character, Lee Fiora was almost my doppelganger. We shared almost exactly the same situation in life (only the details were different), we shared the same insecurities, the same fears, the same hopes and dreams. Near the end of the book, Lee leaves school and goes to college, something of which I was terribly afraid. Now looking back, again, my experience in college mirrors hers almost exactly.
I wanted to write to the author and tell her just how much her book affected me, to thank her for giving me this other person that I could hold onto, somebody that made me feel less alone in that awkward phase. I hunted out her contact address, and was reading her biography on some website when I read that Curtis and Lee, while sharing many characteristics, were not the same person. The events of Lee’s life were just that, and not the events of Curtis’ life.
I was shattered at the time and the letter never got sent (though maybe someday it will). But now looking at it, that’s a pretty amazing feat. For an author to write a character so alive, so real, that not only do we relate to the character, but we are sure that that character is real. And if the character were real, we would assume it was the author. All I wanted to do was grab the Lee of the future and have her tell me how everything worked out.
As writers we often work on making our main characters relatable. We work on making them seem real enough that people feel bad for them when something bad happens, and feel good when something good happens. But how often have we written a character who is honest-to-goodness real? That they are actually out there, walking down the street? Or do we do it every time, and never realise it, and no one ever realises it until, by chance, the person who resembles your character the most reads your book and finds themselves inside?
Do you think this happens? How well developed must a character to be for somebody to recognise not just a part of their self but the whole of their self inside the covers of a book? Must the character be completely drawn, or should there be edges unfinished and gaps left where a person’s difference might quietly slip in?
And is it too big a responsibility, as an author? Do we shy away from making characters too powerful, making them too real, because the alternative is not only difficult, but heartbreaking? Is it a conscious decision?