Animator, Editor and Character Designer, Javed Sterritt reflects on what really hooks people into your story.
Why your story needs relatable characters Sitting in a crowded bookshop in Newtown, a group of children watched wide-eyed as kids entertainer and writer, Charlotte Hamlyn, read an excerpt from her new graphic novel, Opposite Land.
What was interesting though, were the children’s parents. They stood at the back of the room with arms crossed but as Charlotte continued to read, they too become more and more captivated by the story. Before long, the entire room was well and truly immersed.
This is because Charlotte is executing a secret technique when it comes to storytelling: She’s using relatable characters to connect her audience with her story.
Notice I’ve put the word ‘story’ as the last element of that sentence?
This might seem contradictory, but when it comes to storytelling the ‘plot’ is actually the last thing you should be thinking about.
Whether it’s your personal story or the story of your business, your audience will not be impacted if they don’t feel that it relates to them. This is where relatable characters come in — relatable characters are like mirrors.
Through everything we engage with, audiences are looking for that someone or something they can relate to. It’s the reason we sometimes see faces in our food, or shapes in architecture. We are looking to relate to what we know. This is where a relatable character can mean everything to us.
If you can make your audience relate to a character your story becomes important to them, because — just like a mirror — they can see themselves through the decisions that character makes.
But what does a relatable character actually mean?
A few months ago, I was in charge of designing and animating characters for an internal project here at Taste: a kid’s e-book titled, ‘I Didn’t Like Hubert’. One of the characters in the story, Hubert, is this kind of misunderstood, rag-tag boy with a big imagination, who incidentally sounded a lot like me in my school years. So when I sat down to begin designing Hubert’s character, I tried to think back to who I was during that time in my life and I landed on something pretty funny.
For about a year during my high school experience, I developed this weird affinity for strange hats, especially those nerdy ski-hats.
(That’s a photo of me wearing one of my old ones just after I graduated)
I knew it was weird, but I kind of took pride in being the point of difference between my friends at school.
With that in mind, I began to sketch out rough shapes for Hubert’s design and immediately drew him in a ski-hat, that’s pretty much how he stayed throughout the entire project. Hubert character sketchesThat strange hat-loving era for me is now forever represented through Hubert’s design. There is honesty to his design and this is the key to a relatable character.
I Didn’t Like Hubert will be launching on the app store next month so you will be able to see Hubert in action very soon!
When I caught up with Charlotte about her new book, she told me that she approached the writing for Opposite Land’s protagonist, Stevie, in a similar way.
“I was the arty kid growing up and I always felt a bit out of place at school. I saw myself in Stevie and I learned that as much as I’m the one telling the story, it was also important that I was listening to what the characters in Opposite Land needed from me. I tried to write from a place of honesty"
Relatable characters take many different forms, but the origins universally remain the same. No matter how fictional your story is your characters need to come from a place of truth.
This is the reason why everyone at Charlotte’s book launch became invested in the story. Through learning about Stevie, they were actually learning about themselves — and no one can resist an honest insight like this. Once she connected with her audience through a character they could relate to, Opposite Land became important to them.
If you want your audience to care about your story, first give them a relatable character to care about. Only then can your message be delivered and your audience might just learn something about themselves along the way.