Relating to Unrelatable Characters: Mirror People vs. Door People

This is an essay by Joseph Dante.

Sometimes, I find myself browsing book reviews online just to get a taste of what I might be getting into. Stumbling upon accidental spoilers is inevitable, but I like being informed if I’m still a bit uncertain. Unfortunately, frequently, I also stumble upon a comment that never fails to irritate me: “Sorry, I couldn’t finish this book because I really couldn’t relate to the character at all.”

Empathy is always a nice feeling to experience, but I often wonder if it should be the primary reason why we read fiction at all. I don’t understand why some readers always complain about this lack of connection. If every character was so entirely relatable to you, would any be unique? Would any even have anything to say at all?

Because of this prevailing attitude, it seems as if many readers get stuck inside a literary bubble and are often unable to get out. As writer and social commentator Fran Lebowitz once said, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror; it’s supposed to be a door.” The people who complain about a lack of connection are mirror people—they want to see themselves in every character they read, they want to get cozy with words they agree with and nod along. But with characters always this palatable, we’d hardly see any opinions that make us reflect on or question our own. They wouldn’t behave in ways that frustrate or haunt us—they’d be parrots, echoing our own sentiments that were echoed by other parrots (who were probably a bit more colorful, anyway). It reminds me of people who can’t appreciate The Catcher in the Rye simply because they found Holden Caulfield too whiny or because they’re no longer teenagers, or people who avoid African-American or LGBT fiction entirely just because their own identity is outside of this realm of experience and they’re uncomfortable or unwilling to take that extra leap.

I think Ms. Lebowitz’s analogy is very appropriate—we should always try our hardest to be more like door people. We should treat books as a way in to a new world, of possibilities and ideas we hadn’t considered. Books should require some act of imagination not only on the writer’s part, but the reader’s as well. Shouldn’t learning and broadening your perspective be a much more important part of the process rather than slipping into another skin that’s a bit too familiar already? One that maybe, at times, you should have shed long ago?

I can understand why some people flinch at books that feature sexist or racist characters, or maybe even just insufferable misanthropes. But I think, every once in a while, we need to read more books that make us bristle a little and take us outside our bubble simply because these people and topics do make up parts of the human experience. Otherwise, it becomes the literary equivalent of the overprotective parent who sets out to preserve their own idea of innocence. We have to try to grow up and understand who’s out there. David Foster Wallace once said that good fiction’s primary aim should be to give the reader “imaginative access to other selves.” I also have a hypothesis that it’s really this friction (in fiction) that sustains and remains relevant to us. It’s often the literature that disturbs us that lingers the longest—it’s the books that get banned because a character is unacceptable or behaves in ways that are unsavory, for one reason or another. Ideas that are uncomfortable, taboo, question the social norms in novel ways. There are books like Lolita that can be so horrifying because you’re making a connection that you’d want to typically avoid.

What I think people really want the most out of good books is simply a way to burrow into a character’s personality (or story) and have it resonate. It might be a comfortable process, or it might not—personally, I think a few parrot feathers should be ruffled—but even if you disagree with their thoughts or behaviors, you should still be able to feel what they’re experiencing. It beats like a heart should, and you can trace their development and have it make sense, even when it appears irrational or incongruent to your own.

But here arises the differences.

Mirror people would say, “Oh yeah, I definitely would have done the same thing.”

Door people would say, “Well, I may never experience these things or think this way, but I can understand how it started and where it went, and my god, wasn’t it an exciting process from start to finish?”

Which would you rather be?

Some related video clips:

Fran Lebowitz on Jane Austen

David Foster Wallace on the role of literature

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Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida. He runs a blog at josephdante.com, and is currently a reader for online literary magazine Hobart. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.

Photo: Some rights reserved by marc falardeau.

11 Replies to “Relating to Unrelatable Characters: Mirror People vs. Door People”

  1. Just as we need both introverts and extroverts, common sense folk and deep thinkers, Democrats and Republicans, we need mirrors and doors. As authors, it makes us not only make the characters believable (and therefore relate-able) but also exciting and escape-able. I find it amazing how I can suddenly relate to someone in a book that has nothing normally in common with me. That’s good writing.

    C. Hope Clark
    http://www.chopeclark.com
    http://www.fundsforwriters.com

    1. I think most of it actually does have to do with good writing (as well as careful, open-minded readers) – where relating to the characters kind of becomes irrelevant because you’re enjoying it so much. If Lolita were written by someone else, it would’ve probably been a huge disaster and seen as disgusting filth that should be banned everywhere (granted, it was still seen like that in some parts of the world, even by a terrific author).

  2. Great post. I find that I like walking through doors with a good writer that helps me to understand a character’s motivation…..because I don’t have to sympathize to understand, but if I don’t understand, I do tend to get frustrated.

  3. Your post made me think, which is always a good thing. Although I do believe that just about all reading is positive, my own favorite writers do tend to push me through doors. (Nice analogy, by the way)! On a somewhat related subject, one of my pet peeves is the reader who criticizes a book because he/she didn’t “like” any of the characters…

    1. I think it’s pretty ridiculous to expect that with everything you read and to judge books accordingly. Even while taking my top favorites of all-time into account, there are still only a handful of characters I’d actually consider sitting down and having dinner with.

  4. I enjoyed your guest blog and writing style and had to then check out your website. Happy Birthday. There have only been 1 or 2 books in my lifetime of reading that I could not finish. The titles escape me at the moment. My irritation begins when they make a movie out of a good book and change the ending so the characters will be more appropriate. An example is The Horse Whisperer.

    1. Thanks so much, Karen. It just turned midnight around here, so the happy birthday was very timely!

      I’m one of those people who usually finishes nearly everything – I’m kind of obsessive when it comes to that. Occasionally though, I just give up…the last book being The Iliad. I just couldn’t do it.

      If I read the book first and then see the movie, I inevitably end up feeling disappointed too. I think the important thing to remember is that movies are a completely different medium anyway, which are usually being recreated and interpreted by someone else who isn’t the writer.

  5. What helps me when seeing movies, is to look at it as a different art form, and a different story, and trying not to make comparisons. For example, I really like the new Sherlock Holmes movies, but have been reading the original stories lately, and they’re not really alike, but since I’m keeping them “separate” in my mind, it’s not made me dislike the movie….

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