What even is a relatable book?

Well, it’s a subjective term for a subjective topic 😉 As much as we hear how “relatable” a book is lately by reviewers (guilty) and vaguely know it means empathising with particular experiences (also guilty), it’s actually a hard one to pin down. Soooo I guess I’m going to have to just talk about what relatable means to me 😉

Trouble is, when readers talk about relating to a book it could be any number of things. The biggest draw for the “relatable” moniker is relating to the characters or their experiences (and the coolest thing is this isn’t genre specific!). Other times, it could be as simple as relating to the setting or time period. And all of this is great, because it can be a pathway into enjoying a story. 

That said, “not relatable” is becoming one of the most common forms of criticism for a book. And this, for me, seems to be where a lot of the issues come in. Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s of course fine to say you found it “unrelatable”. It gives some context as to why you didn’t enjoy it. It’s a similar catchall to “I personally didn’t connect”- and that’s fine, nothing wrong with subjectivity in reviews. However, the problem is when this subjective term is being applied “objectively”.

Because for some reason this seems to give people licence to collectively hate on a book (kind of ironic since it’s a form of *hyper individualism* to demand a book conforms to individual worldviews and experiences). And to my mind, shaming a book because it’s not #relatable seems daft. Let’s be real- it’s far from the be all and end of storytelling. Books should be about you empathising with people we don’t relate to *just as much* (or maybe *EVEN MORE*).

I’d also say that I have the issue- as a reviewer- of not often wanting to get into the specificity of why I relate. I very much leave it up to other people to *read between the lines* of why I find something relatable (usually because I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of why I related to it). And I’d guess that a lot of other reviewers do the same, applying the term to avoid saying why a book meant SO DAMNED MUCH to us. Problem is, this can leave a person wondering, what even is relatable?

Perhaps, then, we are overusing the term. Perhaps we could attach more clarity to it when we do use it (I’m as guilty of this as the next person!) I don’t think the word is devoid of meaning, but it doesn’t have magical powers to convey meaning in the way we reviewers seem to think it does 😉

So, what do you think of the term “relatable”? Do you use the term as much as I do? Or do you think it’s best avoided? Let me know in the comments!

56 thoughts on “What even is a relatable book?

  1. I definitely hear you on that issue. I find myself using the term relatable quite a lot, although I try to also give short points as to what exactly that relatable/unrelatable comment pertained, but I could definitely do better. Thanks for some food for thought again!

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  2. It is such a vague term that I avoid it at all costs when I review a book. Unless I before or after explicitly state the why and wherefore. Even then though, I’m much more likely to say that I could relate to that specific character than to characterize the book as “relatable”.

    Besides, with the amount of SFF that I read, just how relatable should those even be? (for the record, I’m not into “probing” at all!!!!!)

    The whole unrelatable thing really pisses me off though. Because it means the person is outright admitting that they are small minded, are happy to stay that and what is worse, are PROUD of the fact. There is no reasoning to someone like that 😦

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    1. I think that’s fair.

      Haha good point!!

      Haha yeah that part bugs me too!! It’s really weird and often sounds like someone is saying they just can’t empathise with another person… which is an odd thing to admit to. I think it’s fair if they’re saying it wasn’t portrayed convincingly or that it was far-fetched- which I suppose makes it about the context of the comment.

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  3. I’m guilty of using the term “relatable” in my reviews, but I try to point out things I did like in the book even if I didn’t find the characters relatable or that I could connect with them. Even when I use the term “relatable” in the fact that did connect with the characters, I try to make it sound like an added bonus so it’s not the only thing I’m basing my review on, you know?
    Great topic! 😄

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  4. I think I’m on a different side of this issue than the majority. Personally I love when I can feel like I completely understand a character and relate to their experiences or personality. But even more I love when a character is very different from me, especially in #ownvoices books. I love to see a new perspective and to try and understand someone who is just fundamentally different from me.

    But I also think it all comes down to character development. A character can be done well without being relatable and when that happens I can walk in the shoes of someone completely different than me and try and understand them. I think the big problem here is when character development is done poorly and a character just doesnt feel realistic. Then I cant empathize with them at all. Where I can empathize with a character that is completely different than me and I wind up feeling like I could relate to them emotionally even if I’m nothing like them.

    I can love a book even if I’m nothing like the characters, but I can’t love a book if the characters dont feel authentic.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yeah! It’s all in the character development. Theres nothing better than a book that makes you understand an issue through someone else’s eyes like immigration. (The Farm by Joanne Ramos opened my eyes on that topic!) And I love being able to understand someone from a different culture or someone who has been through different experiences. But if the character isnt developed well and I cant empathize with them I just feel disconnected. I guess I’m unable to relate to a character that isnt well developed. But I can relate to a character that is different from me if the character is written well enough. I kinda hate the term relatable because it comes across as being a close minded reader who just wants to read about people like them, when really I think the issue is the disconnect because of poor character development where you’re unable to empathize or picture yourself in that characters shoes. So I dont think it’s a term I will use in a review without more context.

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  5. To me, a relatable book is one where the author introduces me to characters i believe, whether or not the plot is ridiculous or realistic. If I care about the characters because they depict human qualities and concerns, then I’ll likely enjoy the story. Some authors, however, craft stories that engage on all levels – characters, plot, suspense, atmosphere, and sufficient surprise that I can’t come to the conclusion on my own. I also love an author whose language builds a world I can sense in multiple dimensions and causes me to leap into unknown territory. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m exactly the same, Sharon. You’ll see all my 5-star reviews are for those authors who wrote characters were “relatable”. It doesn’t mean that I experienced the same situations as the character, therefore, could relate to them, but rather the author wrote in a way that the character became real; their emotions, thoughts and actions were credible.

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  6. I don’t know if I’ve ever described a book as relatable. But I don’t really want books to be about me, or like me. I like to expand my world. However, I usually find quotes in books that I love and think about

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  7. Great discussion! I’m not sure I’ve described characters as relatable, but I know I tend to point out in my reviews whether I find a lead character relatable or not. For me, this doesn’t mean “just like me” — but it does tend to mean someone whose actions or motives make sense to me or whose values might align with my own. It’s very subjective!

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  8. Another great discussion post. I agree with your fear that people jump on the “unrelatable book” bandwagon on social media. Maybe that’s more to do with pack/mob mentality on social platforms. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  9. If the reading material is in my language I’ll give it a go. That’s how I learn new stuff. I agree with cutting one’s losses if a book is so far removed from one’s ‘life’ as one might know it. Eject!

    Still, I like a good romp through prose featuring sentient plant-life or encounters with badass furry woodland creatures. Excuse my trespasses into institutions of magical education, and my failures at dinosaur taxonomies.

    I always know where my towel is, but I lose a lot of book markers. So I try to keep reading and sometimes [more times than not] I find something of value, true ‘meaning’ even.

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  10. I have used “relatable” and “not relatable” in my reviews or opinions before without giving much context. It just seemed a simpler way to put my feelings or thoughts towards a book out there, but when giving it more thought, all of us have different experiences and different thoughts. What we relate to might not necessarily be what others relate to. As you mentioned, it is subjective. Thank you for sharing! This is indeed a lot of food for thought.

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  11. For me, relatability comes with experiences and whenever I use the term I mention HOW I relate to it. The way I relate to books will be different than most people because I mostly relate to experiences that are wholly Indian like community gossip, oppression at home in the form of love, saying “no” to food even though you’re hungry, and other things. I also don’t take relatability as a huge point from others’ reviews because who knows if I will relate. In the end, it’s a point to be mentioned because it influences how you experienced a book but it’s also not guaranteed for everyone.

    Aaanyway, great discussion! I loved it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah that makes sense. I get what you mean. And yeah I definitely agree with you there- I think if I see someone saying they found it relatable I take it with a pinch of salt, cos it’s more nice for the individual reader and not necessarily going to be the same for everyone.

      Thank you!

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  12. Excellent point.

    I do think the term “relatable” has a core meaning that is NOT the same as “I personally connected with it.” And I do agree with you that perhaps it’s overused.

    When I hear “relatable,” my core understanding of the term is that the person is showing a human foible that is nearly universal, but that people don’t usually admit to. For example, Seinfeld was often about socially awkward moments that the characters didn’t know how to handle. Jim Gaffigan talks a lot about his gluttony.

    For a book character, then, “relatable” basically means a character who is flawed, particularly in ways that lot of readers are likely to be flawed, because the character has a problem that is common, such as social anxiety, family problems, or addiction.

    Flawed but not relatable would be a character who is a sociopath or a cannibal or something. Also not relatable would be the dreaded Mary Sue.

    Obviously, there are other senses of the word “relatable,” like the character who has an unusual kind of mental illness or something, but the character is written so well that readers are able to feel what it’s like to be him or her, and this helps us better understand the condition. But I would call that a secondary sense of relatable, not the core sense.

    Sorry, this got kind of long.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you!

      Yeah I do think it is getting overused.

      Oh yes I love that description. I think from the comments I’m learning that the idea of “relatable” might just be a certain aspect of humanity that translates into a book and everyone can understand (I really like that way of describing it).
      And yes I agree with that. Haha!

      And I think you’re right- there is a secondary form of relatable.

      No worries! I love long comments! And yours was very interesting and got me thinking! Sorry it took me so long to respond!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Excellent point! I can’t recall using the term because it IS so personal. I think I’ve used the word “connection” more and it’s usually regarding the subject matter or a personal experience. I see a lot of reviews on Goodreads that are quite sad. Many lack a positive and negative experience and tend to attack the author or characters because they didn’t necessarily do what the reader wanted them to do.

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    1. Thank you! I think that’s fair! I’ve definitely also used the word connection as well. And me too. It’s really sad, cos it’s not really something that you can critique in that way- more a bonus if it’s there!

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  14. This is a brilliant post. I do find that I use the term “relatable” every now and then in my review, but for me, it’s the emotional component that drives me to use it more than experiences. Like you said, relatable is subjective and the argument of not being able to relate to the book or the character as a form of criticism is weak at best because even if you can’t relate, you can gain perspective on these events/issues – if that makes any sense whatsoever.

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  15. Half the time I don’t even know what *I* mean by relatable. But often I don’t necessarily mean that I relate to the characters personally or that I have much in common with them. I tend to say characters are “still relatable” when pointing out that they have more “average” experiences in addition to whatever crazy unique things are going on in their lives Like, they might be a ten-year-old pulling off a jewel heist and living with a band of criminals in an underground city (not relatable…), but they still worry about their math homework! Hence…relatable! (Even though I never had too many particular worries about math homework so that’s not necessarily something I strongly relate to myself…)

    Yeah, I’m now second-guessing using this word at all, and I try to use it sparingly already….

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  16. I use the term relatable but I wouldn’t judge book harshly just because I couldn’t connect or felt characters unrelatable as I know not all books, either characters or setting, are written for me. What I can’t find relatable might be relatable to someone else and I think everyone should keep it in mind. Great post!

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  17. It’s not a term I use very much in my reviews but to my mind the true masters can make a character we have nothing in common with relatable as we can see their base humanity and relate to that if nothing else. For example, the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment is a horrible human being, a man who murders his landlady for money, but the way it’s written the reader relates to him, despite having nothing in common and doesen’t want him to sabotage himself as he inevitably does (although how the writer achieves that is a mystery to me).

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