- In discussing literature, we shouldn't dismiss claims about "relatability."
- The "relatability" of characters matters for political as well as artistic reasons.
- By helping us imagine characters' sensations, writers can help us imagine their emotions and thoughts.
The day I found the word “relatable” in a dictionary, I stopped telling my students it didn’t exist. I apologized. For years, I had objected to this term that readers use to define literary characters more according to their own feelings than to identifiable artistic techniques. Those of us who teach and study literature at universities cling to the illusion that our analyses differ radically from those of book clubs, where readers discuss characters as though they were real people. Thirty-five years of teaching have convinced me that the difference is small. Entering the minds of people different from oneself motivates many people to read, and whether readers are discussing metaphors in classrooms or bashing fictional mothers in living rooms, getting to know complex characters makes readers turn the pages.
I still worry that “relatable” says more about readers than about the characters they're assessing, but I’ve allowed the word into discussions because of the issues it raises. If one gives readers credit for imagination and grants that they can relate to characters of different ages, colors, nationalities, incomes, genders, and sexual orientations, then “relatability” reveals something about an author’s skill. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I don’t believe that readers can identify only with characters similar to themselves. Many of us read to share unfamiliar experiences and discover other ways of living, and if we can relate to characters different from ourselves, it is because of the ways that writers create them through language.
In my research, I study how writers use combinations of sensory impressions to help readers imagine life in a character’s body, and consequently, to imagine the character’s emotions and thoughts. Hearing about a character’s sensations as she enjoys a chocolate cupcake doesn’t guarantee that one will understand her thoughts and feelings, but sensations offer a way into a character’s mind. Flannery O’Connor advised fledgling writers that “the nature of fiction is in large measure determined by the nature of our perceptive apparatus. The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions” (O’Connor 67). The taste of chocolate and the “mouthfeel” of gooey icing create the potential to imagine a mind by making life in a character’s body imaginable. Minds can’t be separated from bodies, and emotions and thoughts emerge from bodily activities. If readers can imagine life in a body, chances are, they will also be able to imagine life in a situation, a place, and a time.
For these reasons, describing characters’ sensations well matters as much politically as it does artistically. Until recently, published fiction has disproportionately depicted the experiences of people who’ve had the time to write and the opportunity to publish, omitting or misrepresenting the lives of the poor, the colonized, and all the other people whose humanity has been disrespected. In “MFA vs. POC,” Junot Díaz reports a conversation with a young writer of color who told him that “… in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved” (Díaz). When the MFA student brought up this problem in class, her fellow (white) writers dismissed it.
As a creative writing issue, failing to show a character’s complex inner life is first of all an artistic failure. Reproducing stereotypes is lazy; it doesn’t drive the author or reader to imagine. But the inability or refusal to do mental work matters for reasons that go beyond art. Stereotypes thrive where imagination lags, and as readers discover the intelligence, sensitivity, joy, and pain of literary characters whose lives vary from theirs, they may abandon unrealistic ways of depicting unfamiliar people.
Yvonne Vera’s novel The Stone Virgins (2002) vividly depicts the sensations of a protagonist whose life would challenge most readers’ imaginations. A Zimbabwean writer, Vera earned her Ph.D. at York University in Toronto, published a story collection and five novels, and directed the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo until shortly before her death at age 40. In The Stone Virgins, Vera’s character Nonceba survives an attack that would destroy many people: a psychologically damaged soldier beheads her sister, then rapes and mutilates Nonceba in a horrifying way that readers discover only on the novel’s last page. The Stone Virgins depicts the suffering of impoverished women caused by the violence after Zimbabwe’s liberation from British rule in 1980. The Stone Virgins doesn’t come entirely from Nonceba’s viewpoint: Vera also offers that of Cephas, her murdered sister’s lover who helps Nonceba heal; and even that of Sibaso, the rapist and murderer. As literary scholars have argued, however, by grounding the novel in Nonceba’s point of view, Vera offers a vital alternative to patriarchal narratives of liberation that give women no voice (Armstrong; Kostelac).
How does Vera make Nonceba “relatable”? By depicting her sensations poetically and compellingly as her wounded mind reengages life. Early in her healing process, Nonceba perceives, “I am alone in the room. My arms rest neatly on my sides. The skin on my mouth breaks and cracks like clay. I move a finger over the edges of my mouth. The skin peels off in small bits like a broken shell. I open and close my mouth. I suck air into my body. I move my mouth all night, in the dark. I am chewing the air. Anxiously, I test my ability to speak. I have not heard my voice for so long” (Vera 124). To show Nonceba’s consciousness reemerging, Vera uses the intimate sensory modality of touch. Vera reinforces surface touch with movement, proprioception (somatosensory activity indicating one’s bodily position), interoception (somatosensory activity in one’s inner organs, such as the lungs), and hints about sound and vision. Lying alone in a dark room, Nonceba can’t see or speak, but touch awakens vision and hearing. The sensations she can perceive lead her to imagine those she can’t, and the interplay of her senses helps make her dire situation imaginable.
Over a year later, the interaction of vision, hearing, and perceived motion helps to show the changes Nonceba has undergone. She is now living in the city of Bulawayo with Cephas, who supports her emotionally without expecting any sexual attention. A narrator reports that: “A window looks out to the busy street below. Pigeons perch on the roof of the building opposite. She can see into the offices across the road. On the edge of the building, a flag beats against the air. It is darkened by the smoke from the cars; torn, flapping in the wind. A flag for a new nation” (Vera 171). Standing up and looking out rather than lying prone in the dark, Nonceba registers the city’s action with several senses. The dirty, “beating” flag suggests the violence that has accompanied Zimbabwe’s emergence. The “busy” life of Bulawayo conveys the force of the new nation full of women like Nonceba, most of whose stories have gone untold. In the next scene, Nonceba asserts herself by telling Cephas that she wants to take a job she has found herself rather than one that he has found for her. As a character, she has gained strength from groundedness in her recovering body. Vera’s descriptions of Nonceba’s sensations help readers relate to her recovering identity and will to live.
Yvonne Vera’s artistry makes a life remote from many readers accessible to the imagination. Murder, rape, and cutting elude the minds of most people who haven’t experienced them, but dry lips, whipping flags, and pigeons are conceivable. We can’t know how greatly sensations vary from culture to culture, or from person to person. But readers can learn from any author whose characters’ lives differ from their own and who does the mental work to make those characters’ sensations imaginable. “Relatability” matters when writers and readers both do their parts to make the relation count.
Armstrong, A. (2015). “Turning a Savage Eye/I: Writing Survival and Empowerment in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 16 (2), 245-58.
Kostelac, S. (2010). “‘The Body Is His, Pulse and Motion’: Violence and Desire in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins.” Research in African Literatures, 41 (3), 75-87.
O’Connor, F. (1969). “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Mystery and Manners. Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Vera, Y. (2002). The Stone Virgins. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.