How do we relate to a hero that has to kill the demon lord? How do we relate to the captain of a thousand spaceships?
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To be honest, with a lot of modern slice of life stuff, I feel like the setting isn't exactly as intimate with the readers as people like to think. People who read visual novels come from many walks of life. Not everyone has had the same school experience with uniforms and cute girls and supportive buddies and whatnot. Not everyone goes out to hang out and all. However, even if the setting is slightly unfamiliar, as long as the characters are still people, people still being people, I feel like a character can be relate-able.
Even if a psychopathic madman without any logic or backstory was in a modern setting or an unfamiliar setting, I feel like I wouldn't be able to relate to him because he as a human being is too alien to me. However, if a normal person or an upstanding person or a person with social anxiety was in a modern setting or an unfamiliar setting, I would probably be able to empathize with that person because I can understand that person as a human being. Of course, there's still the character building that goes into any character out there that needs to be done. (Fleshed out characters will almost always be more relate-able than 2D cutouts of personality.)
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Relateability isn't a necessity either, rather the audience needs to either understand why the protagonist does it or at least be able to accept their choices. This can easily go wrong, look at people being upset by the protagonist being too awesome or inactive or good-natured etc. For a good way to do it, let's take your 'captain of a thousand spaceships' example (although someone commanding more than one ship is by definition an admiral or higher), specifically 'Legend of the Galactic heroes' which actually has two such characters. Neither is very relateable by most people. One is very ambitious and quick to judge the worth or worthlessness of his peers. The other, Yang Wen-Li is the absolute opposite, being by the books and dutiful to the ideals of democracy, but through those traits often on the losing side due to the incompetence of his superiors. The incomptence that Reinhard usually circumvents.
As said, neither is very relateable, though in various ways they can be a bit. However, both are considered great characters because of their well-defined and consistent personalities.
One more alternative is that one's ability to relate to someone is very flexible. I myself like playing otome games where I place myself in the shoes of the male LI seducing the protagonist, rather than the other way around. Those men are not made to be relateable, but that makes them more relateable than a blank slate if they do have traits for me to relate to. And they can be, quite easily in fact.
So, in order to make someone with an uncommon life relateable:
-Focus on the factors in life that are relateable, everyone has those.
-Ignore having to make a relateable character, make a likeable/strong personality that the audience can like without relating.
-Count upon the audience's ability to be flexible in relating to the protagonist.
One more example I'd like to add is of my own game, Stalker&Yandere. The yandere protagonist is by no means relateable by many of the people who letsplayed it. She doesn't have to be, from what I've seen her thought process can be enjoyable/weird to read, or she can be considered an ordinary girl who's about to make a very poor decision and the people are actively vying for this not to happen. Or they'll relate to the one normal character in the game, because he is the normal character.
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Who is the person, and what do they think about their job? Do they consider it a huge burden, and they hate dealing with stress and combat? Do they find it fulfilling, and they believe it's worth the effort in order to overcome evil? Do they plan to overcome the demon lord with something other than fighting -- maybe through economic domination, or persuading them through logic, or giving them a huge bribe?
It might help to think about characters in a fictional world who aren't the most proactive people, but who could be compelling. Maybe there's room for a fantasy story that can focus on a healer who the hero recruits. Let's imagine that she admires the hero, but she is torn because of commitments to her family, local temple, and/or a guy in her town. Let's imagine that she dislikes the demon lord, but she has second thoughts because the demon lord's nation does not have crippling taxes, or because they've almost found a cure for the plague.
A character's age should make a difference. Their main dilemma might be "Improve my skills to find a better job." Or their concern might be "How do I deal with my parents growing old?"SundownKid wrote:I have passed the point in my life where the lessons learned by high school students can really be applied in my life.
Likewise, a character's experiences should matter. A person living in a sci-fi universe might only understand life on one or two planets. A clone might grow up separated from the original person, and because of their environment, see the world in a different way. A couple of personal and off-topic thoughts on these two topics...
I grew up around Chicago, where individual neighborhoods can be a mile apart, but so different from each other that they seem like different planets. A lot of my experiences were defined by clashes between multiple cultures and interests. For instance, I couldn't talk to my evangelical friends about my tastes in alternative comics. My activities in video game fandom were marked by sharp divides -- basically "play Street Fighter with friends, play Dragon Quest when alone."
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Obviously, it helps a lot, but understanding the character is what I try to achieve, rather than relatability. Take Shirou Emiya for example, he's a massively broken kid who's thought processes are so wrong and out of the norm nobody can really relate to him (especially when on top of that he's surrounded by a growing harem of beautiful women who crave him). But, thanks to being in his perspective for practically all of the game, you understand his thoughts and exactly why he acts like that. You want to relate to him because of what he's been through and what he's trying to achieve and due to you understanding him, but you really can't because of how strange his thought processes are.
Crafting a character with human and relatable aspects is incredibly important to humanising a character and making them believable as others have said, but I personally don't focus much on making them relatable. I add in those human elements then prefer to focus on helping people understand their ways of thinking and perspectives.
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Circumstances and worlds might be different, but emotions and fears are pretty universal. The important thing is if we understand the character's motivations and can empathize with them.
This would be the same with historic fiction too. I cannot fully comprehend or relate to the horrifying experience Harriet Ann Jacobs writes about in "Incidents in the life of a slave girl", but I empathized, cried for and cared about Linda so, so much. Being able to read something like that from the perspective of someone who lived it gave me a perspective I never otherwise would have known.
It is the same thing for fantasy/scifi. You're describing a unique world to the viewer, and how successful that world is, depends on how the characters in it react to and experience that world. Their emotions.
Who we relate to and care about will also differ with our personality and experiences. I don't relate to the protagonist in most stories. Basically ever. The hero's journey, the clumsy, naive girl, the feisty, "never give up" guy, the audience proxy - they never mean anything to me. I care about the antagonist, the left behind character nobody remembers, the alcoholic haven given up on his life after failure after failure - the side-characters.
I'm much more likely to care about a robot/demon/warlock or even the puppy-kicking evil villain than I ever am to the standard otome protagonist, to such a degree that I very, very rarely play otomes, since I mostly spend them being incredibly annoyed at the protag's personality/dialogue/thoughts(why do we give vn protags so little agency? It drives me nuts!).
My fav character period - is Mr. Smith in the Matrix trilogy. i could write an essay detailing why that is, but lets just say he's such a complicated, broken guy - a program, and yet incredibly human.
Every. thing. he says about humans he's actually saying about himself. The only times he actually talks about Neo is when he talks himself up. He's a program so scared of the imperfection and chaos that is humanity while at the same time desperately seeking imperfection, he's a broken program chasing down brokenness, he's an eternal being seeking mortality (life), while being terrified of the idea of being shut down. His whole being rests on his denial of how broken he really is.
His end scene in Revolution - the fear and vulnerability in his eyes when he recognizes what's happening - is almost single-handedly the reason I like the entire trilogy and not just the first movie.
This character, who's a program, a villain and a scifi side character is one of the most relatable messes I know.
But even besides that, you're only looking at the surface if you don't believe that others would be capable of relating to a hero sent on a journey to kill the demon lord. Let's say that the hero has been raised since young as "the chosen one", and everyone in the kingdom places their hopes on this single child from some remote village, but when the hero actually sets out on their quest, they learn that they're just average — that there are plenty of people more skilled than them. Their self-confidence is going to plummet, and they're going to be feel like they're betraying everyone's expectations. Lots of "gifted children" and content creators can understand this feeling.
Don't force a character to be relatable; it'll come naturally.
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