On Writing Relatable Characters

“Good evening Lizard, I hope you can give advice about this. If I’m going to write a story about a teenager character how I can make teenagers readers identify with her? I am an adult and when I was a teen I was kind of wasn’t too teen I was more like a troll, so how can I write good teen character?”

I want to start this off by saying there isn’t just one way to write a teenaged character. That might sounds a little obvious, but it’s easy to forget just how much wiggle room there is.

Let’s see an example. Clay Jensen from Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher or Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky or Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. These are all male protagonists from realistic coming-of-age stories. While they all have qualities in common, they are all unique characters in their own right.

And how? Generally speaking, though all of these novels have a specific interest in mental health, we are able to learn about the world of these characters through their choice of friends, their hobbies and interests, and the choices they make.

When Holden Caulfield is expelled from school, he takes off and runs to New York City for the few weeks before he’s expected to return home. He actively avoids having friends. As for his interests, it’s easier to make a list of things he doesn’t like. Regardless his personality comes across loud and clear.

We could look at Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower and he’s not at all like Holden. While he’s initially resistant to friendships, he connects with Patrick and Sam and makes more than a few friends. Charlie is creative and ends up helping out at Patrick and Sam’s performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Through these friendships, Charlie begins to open up about his long repressed feelings and change his situation.

So moving on, let’s talk about relatability.

A well-written character can be relatable even if they in no way resemble yourself. We can relate to Remy the Rat from Pixar’s Ratatouille even though he is a rat. I have never aspired to be a great cook, though his ambitions are incredibly relatable. As viewers, we could connect with his aspirations and root for his success – whether we care about cooking or not.

What makes Remy relatable is the emotions behind his drive. We see his love of cooking and experimenting with flavor and his excitement and we want to see him succeed. To some extent, most of us have felt some kind of similar passion about something even if it is completely unrelated to cooking, and the emotions he expresses are ones we, as viewers can identify with.

Now, the weird part.

Any character can be relatable. We know that. But what makes a teenaged character incredibly relatable to teenagers – you know, the details that really hit home? Usually, they’re the most particular peculiar things. Sometimes it’s not the big picture stuff that makes something relatable, but the tiny, quirky details that only a very specific audience might understand.  For me, the book I identified with as a teen, which if you haven’t guessed it by now, it should be obvious. I still reference it all the time – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

I know this book is not always a favorite. It’s definitely controversial. Most people I know either love it or hate it – there’s not much middle ground. I read it constantly in high school. At least a dozen times. It rarely left my side. I even asked for a red hunting hat one Christmas. So, I clearly found it very relatable, but why?

The first thing that comes to mind is the single-sex private school element. At the start of the book, Holden is expelled from a boys’ school in Pennsylvania called Pencey Prep and throughout the novel, he relays a lot of his experience and general grievances that are about going to a single-sex school. The 15 year old Lizard who loved this book also happened to be hating life at a single-sex school and found the mundane details and complaints of Holden incredibly relatable.

The next thing, Holden’s New York City. In this novel, the city is a bit romanticized. It seems like world in itself. There isn’t just one way to view a city, especially one as big and multi-faceted as New York. His view matched the one I had had as a teen who loved to go into the city and wander around.

Beyond just these specific elements, there are so many incredibly particular passages that are so relatable to a narrow audience. Here is one example that jumped out to me where Holden fantasizes about being deaf-mute:

I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everybody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone … I’d cook all my own food, and later on, if I wanted to get married or something, I’d meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we’d get married. She’d come and live in my cabin with me, and if she wanted to say anything to me, she’d have to write it on a piece of paper, like everybody else.” – Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Ryeby J.D. Salinger.

This is probably not something that even most teenagers have imagined, but this particular resentment towards people and conversation is what makes this passage relatable. The idiosyncrasies that belong to Holden and Holden alone are what makes this passage stand out. He doesn’t stop at just wanting to pretend to be deaf-mute, his imagination extends out to having a deaf-mute wife who will live with him and be no more able to talk to him than anyone else. Part of the charm with this passage is just how elaborate this fantasy is. He’s really thought about this. This is one more instance where we can see Holden’s world and his perception of himself unable to fit neatly into it.

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