There are many reasons some stories resonate across cultures and through time. This post focuses on the intricacies of one revealing aspect: relatability.
The story of Faust’s bargain with the devil has been retold many times but there are core elements that remain the same. Each new version of the story changes according to a variety of factors such as cultural and historical contexts. Olivia Giovetti recently wrote a great article on Faust that looks at various versions from its original in the 16th Century. Giovetti describes Goethe’s version of Faust, from the early 19th Century as ‘one of the first to become relatable rather than revilable’. She writes, ‘Faust has continually been reinvented as a metaphor for whatever we desire and fear most’.
The survival and retelling of stories like Faust’s reveal a key element of successful storytelling: empathy in the audience for the main character/s. This is different from the audience liking the characters. Consider Dexter Morgan, a psychopathic serial killer from the eponymously named TV series who only kills other serial killers in order to justify his deadly deeds. He is not a character to be liked, but his efforts to turn evil urges to good outcomes connects with our desire to assuage guilty feelings. To create empathy with a character they need to experience something that the audience can relate to.
To achieve the kind of empathy that leads to a story being retold across centuries requires a relatable experience of conflict. Superficial associations such as having the same job, living in the same country, or being of the same gender, are insufficient. As a mechanic of storytelling, conflict is seen as the story’s engine: it’s what makes the story move forward. Writers are told that when creating characters, it can help to determine their inner and outer conflicts (inner being their psychological conflicts and outer being their conflicts with the external world). Conflict that creates tension is a key element of most storytelling. It is the magnet that draws the audience to the character and makes them want to learn the character’s fate.
Seeing a character experience a problem that the audience can relate to makes the audience want to see if and how that character will get out of their predicament. This is true even if the audience are not currently experiencing any difficulties like those of the character’s. Our minds are hungry for solutions. We store them for a rainy day against the possibility that we may suffer a similar fate. The higher our probability of sharing that fate, the more we want to know how the story ends. Faust’s story has survived because it taps in to the very common fear that giving in to our desires may get us into hot water, or fiery hell. Romeo and Juliet plays on our fear of being kept away from someone, or something, that we love.
The Romeo and Juliet example flips us onto the other side of problem resolution. Ideally, we like to see problems solved, but we know that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the outcome is tragic. We want those stories as well because feeling the other character’s sadness makes us less alone in our own and gives us catharsis, an opportunity to release some of that pain.
One last thing on relatability. Most people have not literally sold their soul to the devil, very few are serial killers seeking redemption, and perhaps only a few fall in love with someone from a rival house. The point of connection is in the type of problem, not in its specific details within the story. Faust’s problem is dangerous desires. Dexter’s is a need for acceptance, and Romeo and Juliet want to requite each other’s love. The specifics of those problems within a story serve a different element of engaging storytelling: drama (that’s a topic for another post).
The problems that characters experience, fiction or nonfiction, are metaphors for our own. They make us feel like we are not alone, they create some distance between us and the problem to enable analysis, and they provide some cathartic release. The popularity of a story is boosted by the ability of audiences to relate to and connect with the character’s trials and tribulations. Understanding that point of connection tells us a lot about ourselves and is a crucial component of good storytelling.