Character or Caricature?
I know, I know, I post too infrequently. But life has happened in the life-iest of ways of late.
One of the bigger things I hope to avoid in my writing and am sometimes successful with, is the character vs. caricature problem. If you’re writing fiction, your characters have to be real for you as a writer and for your readers. They have to bleed when pricked, cry when betrayed, and make stupid choices just like human beings always do. They need depth in other words. But the problem with making them real is just exactly how you do that.
I can’t speak for all writers, but I can speak for myself. I rarely pluck a person out of real life and then write them, as I perceive them, directly as a character. I won’t say I never do this, but I rarely do. Why? Because often enough writing a character as simply a copy of your total perceptions of a person can lead to some wonky problems. Oddly enough, it often seems like that person isn’t very realistic. Yes, that person who you simply projected directly into print, can seem unbelievable. I can recall once writing a character reacting to having morphine injected into them and one of my readers took specific note of that moment and said, “That’s not how it feels to have morphine injected.” I was curious about this reasoning and asked what they thought it should be and how they knew. “Well there’s a better feeling that’s supposed to come with it. It’s supposed to be euphoric.” This reader had never had morphine. Ever. I had. I once had a botched surgery and got to know morphine a little too well. But taking that exact experience and injecting it into my story so specifically and with great detail made this user feel like it wasn’t realistic.
When I create characters I usually build them as an amalgam of several people. I cobble together several real people into a character until such time as that character, more or less, raises their hand and says, “Excuse me?” Then I listen to who they really are and we get on with the story. I find that doing it this way, for me, produces authentic and deep characters.
So what do I mean by caricature? I believe caricatures are absolutely a necessary part of nearly any work. There was a character in my sci-fi trilogy named Kim. Kim was, without a doubt, a caricature. She was a caricature of several people I knew. She had a consistent part through the story, as a background character, but almost no depth. It was intentional, though, because I didn’t want my readers ever connecting to her or sympathizing with her. It was okay for her, specifically, to be a caricature. But the danger for all writers is turning your primary characters into caricatures.
What do I mean? The ever present danger for speculative fiction authors is that they will write a Mary Sue, a character that is a wishful version of themselves. But just as dangerous is that they will create a character that isn’t themselves, but the idealized or stereotypical version of someone else. So maybe if a Mary Sue is the author in a bad costume, a Bobby Joe can be an author projecting “should be” onto a character.
“Meet Bobby Joe. Bobby Joe grew up in an abusive household. Bobby Joe is now an abuser. Bobby Joe hates everyone because he secretly hates himself. Bobby Joe is loud. Bobby Joe drinks. See Bobby Joe smash: smash Bobby Joe Smash.”
Bobby Joe might have gotten counseling when he was in his teens. Maybe Bobby Joe refused to ever by like his abusive father. What if Bobby Joe got the hell beaten out of him because of an undiagnosed mental illness? But if all you hope for is to use Bobby Joe to move your story along, he’s a caricature, not a character. He’s a McGuffin. And you will disconnect your readers from your story at large because you needed a placeholder and were too lazy to flesh him out.
“This character is a teenaged girl, she must not fit in with anyone. She must have a horrible family. She must have X event in order to motivate her to Y action.”
“This character is an authority figure. They will either do everything right to such an absurd degree that no human being in the history of human beings can relate to them, or they must be secretly vindictive and evil with no real reasoning or motivation.”
So how do you avoid Bobby Joe’s? I think time is critical. And by time I mean time spent “with” that character, getting to know them. Time they are displayed on the page. Time they spend interacting with the events of the story itself. Time is a big deal in character depth. But beyond that, try to ask yourself how much a character is the way they are because of your own views on how they should be. Write against your own biases, if possible, and see the world through other eyes. No more Mary Sue’s and no more Bobby Joe’s. Write what’s real, write what matters.