What Makes a Hyper-competent Character Relatable?

The day after I wrote my Ten Questions for Characters post I had a discord conversation about a question asked in the #writerspatch twitter chat on Sunday, Jan 13:

“Does relatability to the reader make a character more believable?”

And sure, the answer is obviously yes. But where’s the rest of the owl? How do you make a character relatable, particularly a hyper-competent protagonist in a book about the space program? (I’m still on my astronaut kick, thanks to reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal – A GREAT BOOK that I enjoyed very much, and it’s been lingering in my thoughts for days now.)

But let’s look at the protagonist, Elma (a wonderful person who I admire greatly!)

Elma is a Jewish woman who can do extremely complex mathematics in her head and who wants to be an astronaut in 1950’s USA. She winds up on the headlines of major newspapers, magazines, national television, she’s an expert pilot and a war veteran, she’s a whole barrel of competencies and skills and experiences that I don’t have anything in common with. So where am I connecting with Elma, as I’m reading about her?

One place springs to mind immediately. I remember wanting to be an astronaut when I was a little girl, and being told that I could not be an astronaut because I was a girl. Elma’s experience with sexism is a connection point for me, particularly because of my age (I’m going to be a level 50 human this year.) Her determination to fight a system that wouldn’t even consider her because she was a woman is a point I can relate to.

But there’s another point that makes me care for Elma even if I didn’t have an inkling of what it was like to be a woman before feminism, and that’s her experience with anxiety. I don’t know what it’s like to be able to recite prime numbers into the four-digit range, but oh boy do I know what it’s like to be scared. I know what it’s like to be scared to fail in front of an audience. I know what it’s like to avoid things that trigger that fear. So when Elma has problems facing all the attention she’s getting for being so extraordinary, I get it. I get her.

That one-two punch of fighting against an obstacle that’s really too big for one woman to fight and Elma’s personal vulnerability – her anxiety – combine in a way that captures my interest and my empathy. I connected with Elma through these struggles – the external and the internal – and so I became so preoccupied with reading the book that losing my Kindle reader for three days was hell because I wanted to read the rest of the story so badly.

This was something that I knew, but never actually verbalized until recently – that readers are connecting to characters through their weaknesses and vulnerabilities – that the personal, internal struggle is the reason why a reader identifies with a character even though their life experience is probably very different from the reader’s.

(Hold on while I indulge in a little rejectomancy, okay?) I think that this might be what agents and editors mean when they say, “I couldn’t connect with the character.” If you’ve been getting that rejection, maybe go back to your opening pages and see if you are showing not just your protagonist’s skills and strengths, but the soft spots/vulnerabilities that relate directly with the character’s internal journey.

The opening of a story introduces a reader to the protagonist and what they can expect, and it’s two threads, not just one: The external struggle the character is going to fight against, and the internal journey to heal or face the problem that holds them back from winning the external struggle. The combination of the two is the intersection where you’re going to find your readers and the people who “get” the story you’re trying to tell.

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