Lately, I’ve been writing Harry Potter.
Yes, yes I have. I’ve also been writing Shannon Hale’s, The Goose Girl, and Megan Whalen Turner’s, The Queen of Attolia.
Okay, I can only wish I was writing them for the first time, but I have been copying them and plotting them out and trying to glean every ounce of craft I can from them. And I’m hoping a few things will start to sink into my thick cranium.
Now before I begin this magnum opus, I have to give a disclaimer. Having had exactly one college writing course (graduate level technical writing – not exactly a repository of literary nuance), I may have my definitions a little skewed, but I see caricature as having certain characteristics over-emphasized and others minimized. Like the pictures that street artists draw, or like a helium balloon, larger than life, but filled with nothing but air. Am I getting close?
Early on in figuring out this writing thing, I learned the importance of well rounded characters, deep backstory, motivation and on and on. But what I think I see in copying JK Rowling is how much, and how successfully, she relies on caricature. Sure, the main characters in Harry Potter all have characterization in spades. But how many other beloved characters are basically overly exaggerated caricatures? When I hear Crabbe & Goyle, I think lumbering, not-too-bright brutes. Percy? Fudge? Filch? Even the names of the characters are so evocative of their traits. And yet I love to loathe Lockhart and Umbrage, particularly because they are overblown.
Megan Whalen Turner, on the other hand, takes great pains to make sure almost every person in her novels is complex, both personally and in their relationships with other characters. The father of the main character could be considered a moderately minor character, but we learn that he’s had a turbulent relationship with his son: disappointed expectations, not being able to save his son from himself, pride, acquiescence to his son’s choices, but never quite being settled with it. He is completely realistic in his actions and reactions. And yet, in four books, this well-rounded, this utterly human man has remained nameless.
These are, imho, two brilliant authors with two equally brilliant approaches. As a writer of MG and YA, I mull these things over in my head. When is it appropriate to use caricature and when is deeper characterization needed? Are there types of writing or age groups that respond better to one or the other?
Walkin’ Down the Street
And when I start putting the same assessments into real life I realize we’re probably wired to make snap judgments, to sort and categorize: Look! it’s the bubbly intern, the frazzled mom, and that salesman that always makes us feel a little greasy.
Maybe all we really need of the pimply cashier slouching at the end of the self-checkout is for him to be a caricature in our lives. But sometime, something might happen that lets us see a little deeper to the kid saving for college and worrying that he’ll need to pay the electric bill instead because his mom lost her job. Maybe in real life, even more than in books, it’s important to try to see beneath the surface and find the real person behind the caricature.
What do you think? How do you view caricature and character?
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