Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Caricature and Character

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?

~ Susan

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  1. Great Post, Susan.

    I think that using a caricature vs. a fully fleshed out character depends on what kind of emphasis you want that character to have.

    Crabbe and Goyle are perfect examples of this. Really they are just Malfroy's henchmen and nothing more. If Rowling had spent more time developing them, we would have expected more from them plot-wise.

    So I think this is a good way to indicate which characters will be important later on.

  2. That's true. I think caricature can be a useful device if you take a stereotype and flip it. The unexpected can be fun to discover.

    I think it also depends on the kind of story you want to tell. Harry Potter is a really huge story. Crabbe and Goyle are lumped into caricature's because, like MaryAnn said, they aren't important enough to the plot to invest in them. But Rowling does make the caricature she started with Snape turn into a powerful human character. You feel for him, understand his decisions, (by the end) and ultimately Harry learns to admire the man who he long considered his enemy. Even Draco, who starts as the smart snobby Bully stereotype, is explored and made human. I think that's because Snape and Draco are crucial to the plot. Percy, Fudge, Filtch aren't necessary. They are more set decoration.

    Great post.

  3. I second what MaryAnn said. Some characters need more development, and some can be drawn with broad strokes - especially when they are secondary characters with recognizable archetypal roles (like a mentor, trickster, etc.). Some characters are purely functional.

    Feeling very embarrassed not to have read Harry Potter right about now...

    Great post, Susan!

  4. ::waits for the hoardes to descend upon Sarah::


    I personally might be too focused on avoiding caricature, to the point where it hobbles my storytelling because I'm too busy worrying about secondary characters. But I think it might be worth it, in the end, to always have the unexpected, and to spend a bit of time thinking about secondary characters - who knows when they might start clammoring for a story of their own?

    All this, of course, is dependent on the ability to create real, breathing characters. I'm working on it.

  5. ...You haven't read Harry Potter?


    (shaking my head in flabbergastic shock.)

    You should read it... You will love it.

  6. Sarah, I haven't read any of the Harry Potters either...and I probably won't ever. I know...I know...stone me now. :)

  7. Oh, Sheena, it gets worse - I started the first book and quit once the magic hat that determined which house they were in started singing or rhyming or both... I've blocked it out.

  8. Susan, I just ran across this blog post and had to look up which Proser had written about MWT. It's "Queen's Thief Week" over at Chachic's Book Nook:

  9. Thanks for reminding me of this, Sarah! I knew that once upon a time and then forgot, so I would have missed the whole week.

    If you want to see a truly devoted fansite, check out MWT's. It takes her five years to write each book, yet the site is consistently populated by awesome, highly thoughtful people (someone even posted a quiz to see if people could figure out lines from her books translated to Latin).


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