I spent three days this week wandering the show floor of a conference on stem cells, interviewing scientists and corporate executives for a series of articles I am writing. As this is the first time I have met most of these people, the conversation usually starts somewhat tentative as the people try to figure out how to address my journalistic needs while fulfilling their marketing agendas. This is just the nature of such interviews.
Luckily, I have a secret that tends to break the ice a little. Early in the conversation, I try to find an opening in what they are telling me to relate a personal anecdote or observation about my own scientific training as a protein biochemist—yes, I actually used to be quite smart.
Within seconds, the interviewee’s posture changes, their voice takes on a new timber as they realize that I am a kindred spirit even if my uniform has changed. Suddenly, they know I can relate, and the conversation becomes one between friends or colleagues.
The same holds true for storytelling.
When the reader picks up your novel or short story, the viewer sits down to watch your movie, the initial engagement can be tentative as the reader tries to figure out what you’re doing, where you’re taking them. The reader holds back from completely engaging with you as they wait for that magic moment when they can relate.
No matter how fantastical or mundane your story, the reader must be able to latch onto something, to find a kindred spirit.
More often than not, it is your protagonist—the canonical Everyman or Everywoman—who has some visceral need to fulfill or challenge to overcome. Killing the dragon is the superficial challenge, but damned few of us have had much experience killing dragons. Most of us, however, have fought for the respect of our community or have had to overcome a fear and step forward to take control or responsibility.
Hell, readers might even relate to the dragon, as in the movie Dragonheart, where Sean Connery’s Draco finally explained that his assaults on the townsfolk were [SPOILER ALERT] his attempts to save the last dragon—him—from extinction.
In the rarest of cases, it may not be a character, but the environment to which someone relates. This is my situation with the series Mad Men. I find it difficult to relate to any of the characters and their hyper-exaggerated soap opera problems. Having spent more than five years in advertising, however, I can relate to the creative challenges within the office. I find myself getting angry or frustrated as I watch pitch meetings or client presentations because of my own baggage.
As a creator of your story, you cannot hope to know everyone who will come across your story. Thus, you cannot—nor should you—build your story to accommodate these varied experiences. You have to tell your story to tell it effectively, but you can broaden its appeal by making sure your characters (and possibly your environment) offer clear parallels to the current human experience. (If your primary audience is dogs or fish, then change the word “human” as appropriate.)
At their most basic levels, what are the human conditions that your characters express or are trying to repress (oooh, subtext)? When you get a good handle on that, you’ll have a better understanding of how relatable your story will be to your audience.
(Images are used without permission.)