I’ve been thinking recently about relatability, moral ambiguity, and the way that misunderstanding how these two concepts can work together in a book is part of what feeds a lot of online morality policing and accusations of Being Problematic.
(Warning: there might be some mild spoilers for The Butterfly Assassin in this post. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a great time; it’s only 99p on Kindle!)
There is a tendency, in this day and age, for the main metric by which characters are scored to be how ‘relatable’ they are. “I couldn’t relate to them” is sometimes presented as the start and end of criticism. This is understandable. We want stories where we can see ourselves, and which tap into emotions we ourselves have felt: if we relate, we feel all of it more strongly, because it has resonances with our own lives.
Of course, this has also historically limited the variety of books on the shelves, since cishet white abled stories are seen as a ‘default’ template onto which all others should find a way to project themselves, while stories featuring marginalised characters are seen as ‘niche’, only appealing to those who resemble the characters, and thus hard to market. This has started to change, but there are still those who see it as a fundamentally political decision to include women in a book, let alone any other groups, so it’s an ongoing process.
But more and more people are a) finding stories with characters who look like them (yay!) and to whom they can relate, and b) realising that they don’t need to look like the characters to relate to their experiences, because many emotions are universal.
The trouble comes, however, when those ‘relatable’ characters make morally questionable or outright bad choices. We don’t want to relate to the character who did the evil thing, because what does that say about us? And this, in turn, leads to two phenomena: the purity policing of media consumption (“if you like X, you must condone Y, which makes you a Bad Person”), or the refusal to allow fictional characters ever to be truly morally complex (leading to ‘morally grey’ characters who are honestly just vaguely off-white, and anything actually bad that they do has to be strictly off-screen).
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to The Butterfly Assassin and its sequels. This is an unabashedly political series (I am certainly making a point about societal cycles of violence and what happens to vulnerable young people when a society decides war and weapons are more important than their lives), but that doesn’t mean the characters act in ways that reflect my political beliefs. In fact, they very often do the opposite of what you’d expect someone with my values to do, and aren’t ‘punished’ by the narrative because of it. And while certain aspects of the characterisation draw directly on my own experiences and are very relatable to me, in other regards I have very little in common with my own characters.
I don’t see this as a contradiction at all, in part because I think the purpose of fiction is to give us questions, not answers — and because I think what makes a character relatable is their traits, and not their circumstances.
Let’s start with that second point there.
Isabel, the protagonist of The Butterfly Assassin, is a survivor of an illegal training programme for child assassins, and she first killed somebody when she was twelve years old. I very much hope this is not a relatable circumstance — ideally, nobody who reads this book is thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to me!” True, as the story continues and she’s manipulated into signing her future away in service to a murderous organisation, the parallels with real-world military recruitment of teenagers become stronger (see my very angry author’s note about that), but generally speaking, the reader is not expected to relate to her circumstances.
Furthermore, the choices that Isabel has to make are a direct result of those circumstances, which frequently results in her choosing to hurt others in order to save herself. These are also hopefully not choices that readers will face on a regular basis — at least not with such high stakes. Most of us will never be put in a position of feeling like we need to kill our classmate to protect ourselves (thankfully!), so again: not relatable.
At the same time, Isabel has character traits that are deeply relatable. She’s a teenager who feels like she doesn’t have control over her life, because everybody is trying to make her decisions for her. She feels trapped by other people’s expectations, and doesn’t want to spend her life doing what her parents want her to do. What teenager hasn’t felt that, to some extent? Isn’t that just fundamentally what being a teenager is like?
(I often say that the popularity of dystopian YA may well be because being a teenager is one of the most fundamentally dystopian experiences there is: constantly feeling the weight of the future while being given no autonomy over the present, your experiences and activities curtailed by higher authorities, a life ruled by exams and grades and league tables, a body that doesn’t feel like yours, etc.)
Some of Isabel’s other ‘relatable’ traits are more specific, but even if they’re minority experiences, they’re not rare. Pain and illness have left her feeling like she has no control over her body. She craves interpersonal connection, but feels like an outsider and doesn’t know how to make friends. She’s prone to sabotaging the good things in her life, because past trauma has taught her that she won’t be able to keep them, and she doesn’t know how to trust that they’ll stick around. All of these are things that real people experience (ask me how I know).
The reason that readers can engage, emotionally, with Isabel’s unrelatable circumstances is because these universal, or at least real, aspects of her character function as a window. No, we don’t know what it’s like to be trained as a killer from childhood. Yes, we do know how it feels to struggle with other people’s expectations of us. No, we’ve never killed a burglar who broke into our house. Yes, we’ve made a social interaction weird because we didn’t know how to respond to somebody’s friendly overtures.
But if somebody whose base-level traits, freed from their circumstances, are similar to ours can do the terrible things that Isabel does… what does that mean for us?
And that’s where we get to the issue of questions and answers.
When we start relating to a character who does terrible things, we are being asked a question: in their place, would you make the same choice? The story has given us the pieces we need to understand why that character made the choice they did, but only we, the reader, have the necessary information about our own lives to know if we would do the same.
There isn’t necessarily a right answer to this question. Which is to say: there might (or might not) be a morally right answer, but this is fiction, not a court of law or a moment of divine judgment. There isn’t a right answer in the sense that a story isn’t better or worse as a result of whether you’d make the same choice as the character. Probably, a story is better or worse if you cannot understand why the character, in their circumstances and with their traits, made that choice — but you can say, “No, I wouldn’t have done that,” and it doesn’t make it less appropriate for the story that they did.
Sometimes, as per the morality policing of problematic media, it can seem like there’s an expectation for the story to give you the answer: you should do this. you should not do that. this is correct. this is incorrect. Characters who make ‘morally wrong’ choices should be Punished By The Narrative, so that the reader understands that this was the wrong thing to do. Characters who make ‘morally right’ choices may be Permitted A Happy Ending.
But I don’t think we should be asking stories for answers. I think stories are supposed to give us the questions, and we are supposed to answer them ourselves. And often, the answers aren’t that simple.
Isabel interests me to write because her story asks, “If the only way you could survive was to kill others, would you do it?” and I don’t know the answer. I value life. I think death is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person, because almost anything else still carries the potential for improvement, but death is an ending. Death means nothing can ever get better, ever again. It terrifies me, and the idea of taking life from somebody else is absolutely horrifying.
Which is why I don’t have an answer. Death terrifies me, so I would do many things to avoid it. But it’s so horrifying to me that I can’t imagine being able to live with the knowledge that I’d caused it, either. What would I do? I have no idea. I have no idea because I have never been put in that situation; because my imagination cannot decide what level of guilt is livable; because I have never truly been forced to confront the question of how badly I want to survive.
But Isabel has.
Isabel, in her circumstances, with her training and her trauma, is not me. Some of her underlying personality comes from me, and some of her traits are relatable to me; other aspects of her personality and nature are wildly unlike mine. (She’s good at science. I haven’t done a STEM subject since 2012. We are not the same.) Her circumstances, though, are what make the difference, and for her, the choice is clearer. Would it be clear for me, if I were in her place?
These questions mean that when I write Isabel, or when I read her, I do so with the knowledge in the back of my mind that I cannot guarantee I would do any differently in her place. I like to think I would. In fact, I like to think I’d magically find a third option where everything would be okay for everybody. But the story gives me a question I can’t answer: who am I, when it boils down to it? Whose life do I value more: mine, or others’?
Now, The Butterfly Assassin is making a point about violence. It is not morally neutral. The entire trilogy is underpinned by the idea that violence begets violence: further violence can’t break the cycle, only perpetuate it. But it’s also saying that those trapped within that cycle don’t necessarily have a choice. Kill or die is a question where the answer is always a dead body, and the only question is whose; there is no solution. The only solution is to destroy the very system asking that question in the first place, and that is not something you can do as a powerless seventeen-year-old suffering from severe pain.
And of course, the very fact that Isabel isn’t in a position to dismantle the system she’s living within is asking other questions: who is in a position to change it? What would it take to create a society that is safe, and where people can thrive, and where an economy of violence doesn’t take priority over people’s lives? (And is that something we should be doing closer to home?) But spelling out those questions too explicitly runs the risk of presenting the whole series as a didactic parable, and that’s never been my intention. Sure, I’m making a point, but I want readers to be asking themselves those questions, not trying to answer me.
Maybe we’ll see the answers to some of these questions as the series goes on. Plot, of course, requires a certain amount of answers, others you end up with an unresolved mess and a lot of disappointed readers. But characters, and morality, and just how far we’d need to be pushed before we’d snap in the same way that they’d snap… that’s not necessarily something an author can or should be trying to answer. That one’s for the readers.
So, yes, I think it’s valuable when a character is relatable. There’s also a lot to be said for the questions asked by a character we can’t relate to at all, but that’s a different blog post. But when we relate to a character, it makes the story’s moral questions feel real. When we understand a character as somebody we could, in the right circumstances, become, the questions become harder and the answers ever more slippery. But a character’s relatability should not lure us into thinking the author wants us to do what the character is doing, and by extension, condones what the character is doing.
No — the character does what they do because that’s what’s most interesting for the story, and sometimes (often!), the interesting option is not the most morally correct option. It’s the one that raises more questions, that perpetuates the state of crisis, that forces us to confront something about the assumptions we make. The ones that leave us without answers, because it’s by not being given them that we start to find them for ourselves.
If you would like to see a potentially relatable teenager making truly terrible choices amidst an array of bad options, The Butterfly Assassin is out now and The Hummingbird Killer is available to pre-order, or to request on NetGalley!
This was really interesting and thought-provoking.