I often feel like I state conflicting things on here.
I don’t believe in rules.. these are the three rules of storytelling..
Don’t write just to be different… So sick of the same old thing..
I like to think when I see the same faces popping up that it’s a testimony that I’m not the only one out here, that many of us understand that sound bite advice is shallow and incomplete and the reality is good writing is a finely spun web that binds together many different, even superficially contradictory techniques and approaches and allows context to shape them. And when I come out with something like, embrace the caricature, you’re willing to listen.. hello?
The reason most will almost immediately baulk at that is because they will make the assumption I am talking about stereotyping. They run close and its not uncommon to use them interchangeably. And I’m not instinctively against either, but try finding someone who uses stereotype without negative connotations. The presumption being that your characters are unoriginal, simplistic and conformist. Stereotypes have their place, try and write a Chick-lit that doesn’t play to stereotype. The key being to do it with warmth and wit.
Which brings me to caricatures. A caricature is not a fixed and recognisable pattern within certain contexts – its an exaggerated pattern which is recognisable within any context. A stereotype within chick lit would be the hapless, lovelorn Bridget Jones type. She is also a caricature, recognisable by certain key features which are blown up for comedic effect – foot in mouth syndrome, clumsiness, ability to mess up anything. Caricature accentuates her individual features and makes her stand out. Caricature works for the very same reason that stereotypes are unavoidable. People when taken in broad strokes tend to fall into certain categories. Think of your favourite book. One of mine is Little Women, each character clearly defined by one characteristic which set them apart from others. Characteristics which stuck a label on them. The tombyoy Jo, sweet Beth, responsible Meg, naughty Amy.
The more exaggerated feature is always recognisable and can just like a stereotype, make us feel that we already know a person. In books, as opposed to life, that works to the writer’s favour. The alternative all too often is muddy indistinct and vague. It may be realistic, people are all of that and many fade out of life without us even noticing for precisely that reason. But no one wants their work to fade out of a readers mind and character is a key hook – our guide through the literary landscape. .
The caricature works like a frame, literary wirework structure that allows the character to keep their shape and be recognisable no matter what the situation. The writer often runs the risk of appearing to contradict themselves.. Again it isn’t unrealistic for people to contradict themselves, sometimes within the same paragraph, or on the same blog :), and yet even when reasons, rational, acceptable reasons, for any action are given, the reader can still feel it is a trick; a cheap ploy to carry the plot forward. If however you tie it up within their personality – a tendency to love antagonising authority, a need to self sabotage every happy relationship – a characteristic which has been put front and centre, exaggerated to a noticeable level, then the reader will accept it without question
We can, in fact, use cheap ploys to move the plot and completely get away with it. As long as we keep those core features, the big nose ever present, then the rest is ours to manipulate as we wish. However, an interesting thing to note about the caricature is how much it can shape our own thoughts about the character and you may find that because you have such a clear sense of who they are, their actions and beliefs that the plot starts to flow from this. In Little Women the tomboy Jo who rejects love as a restrictive distraction taking her away from her family, eventually does fall. But there is a subtle reversal of roles with her beloved professor when he elects to stay and work with her, something quite revolutionary for the time.
Caricature and its effects are not limited to the personality of our characters. Many of the most beloved characters of fiction are most recognisable by the image they conjure in the readers mind. In the grand tradition of showing and not telling, a distinct physical appearance, whether rooted in a item of clothing or physical feature seems closely linked with our ability to remember and attach to a character. And for anyone still thinking repetition is bad, ask how many times Agatha Christie used the phrase, ‘little man with the enormous moustaches’. How we interact with the world and in the turn the world interacts with us, is greatly affected by our appearance, the more out of the ordinary it is the more out of the ordinary the response. In contrast, the ordinary, like Miss Marple, can slip into the most extraordinary situations like a wolf in a nicely knitted cardy. Her very ordinariness became her most distinguishing feature and almost every scene was shaped by this.
But never think a big nose is a big nose is a big nose. Caricature may overlap stereotype, but it is never an excuse for cliché. A little old lady can be sweet. A little old lady can be grumpy. A sweet old dear can be a madam to her ‘nieces’ or she can be partial to a nice stew of poor lost tourist. The point is always to exaggerate individual features, not eradicate individuality. The key is to start with a clear idea of who your character is – not a ten page bio, but a very short summary of what is most important. Its not uncommon to be advised to write out a bio for your character, and for keeping backstory and timelines straight it works well, but in terms of character it’s best used as a device to help you clarify and distil the essence of who they are. If you cannot, as with, say, Sherlock Holmes and other notable literary legends, sum them up in a handful of words and images then you haven’t got to the heart of them yet. And if it doesn’t grab you, if you aren’t curious to see where this character will lead you through each story you write, then start again.