Writing Tips

Characterization: Avoiding Caricatures for Emotional Investment

Today I want to talk about characterization again. I know, I know, it seems like a topic that comes up a lot in storytelling. There’s a good reason for that. Your characters are one of the most important elements to your story, if not the most important. Why do characters hold such a lofty position? It’s because they are the access point through which your readers enter your world. Without relatable characters, readers cannot become emotionally invested. Without emotional investment, boredom sets in and readers stop reading.

Caricatures are a common issue in the “unrelatable characters” category. This is probably a term you’ve heard but maybe it’s one you don’t quite understand. We have all seen caricature drawings of ourselves or celebrities. It’s ridiculous and silly and meant to make you laugh.

Lincoln Goes to the County Fair

Caricatures in writing are the same thing. Instead of giving characters balloon heads and tiny feet, you expand on ridiculous personality traits. Great examples of caricatures are the tropes found in melodrama. The villain with the curled mustache tries to tie the syrup sweet heroine to the train tracks only to be rescued by the valiant cowboy on a white horse. Meanwhile, the vamp is showing a little leg in an attempt to lure the hero away from his lady love. They have over-the-top personality traits and stylized dialogue.

“Curses! Foiled again!”

These types of characters can be fun to write, but it becomes easy to fall into the trap of using caricatures too often. One or two caricatures in a story can bring about instances of comic relief if done properly. When there are too many caricatures or it is done improperly, it can ruin a story for the audience.

It’s easy to rely on caricatures in comedy to the point of overuse. Pushing every character over the top is exhausting for a reader. Although it may be funny initially, as the story continues readers want complex characters that grow and surprise them, even in a comedic story.

A lot of good comedy comes from a team of one “serious” and one “funny” character. This is a classic set up. When everyone in the room is “funny,” it can be difficult to keep reading for an entire novel. Also, if the funny character is a caricature, this can also become and issue. If the serious character is not strong enough in complexity, the caricature will take too much focus away and that can be very aggravating.

Consider Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequels and the hate that surrounds the character. Not only was the caricature unappreciated, it was also considered offensive. It was made worse by the fact that the characterization throughout the films was lacking as well. In the end, the whole story suffered due to poor characterization and having a caricature made it worse.

Building Realistic Characters

When you’re designing your character, you want to create a balance of good and bad qualities. Protagonists must not be perfect. Villains require qualities that allow their humanity to shine through. Real people make mistakes or can surprise you with moments of kindness. Just because a character starts as a caricature doesn’t mean you can’t build on that foundation to add complexity.

The first step is seeing thing from each character’s perspective. Remember, a villain doesn’t wake up saying “I’m going to be evil today! Mwahaha!” Real people have a tendency to believe they are right, even when they are wrong. Consider any political or religious argument you have ever heard. Both parties think they are correct and the other person is an idiot. This same type of “right/wrong” conflict is what drives your protagonist and antagonist instead of the pure “good vs. evil.”

Let’s look at the melodrama characters again and see how flaws and perspective can change them from caricatures into characters.

Hero: Strong, brave, and kind; he always does the right thing no matter what. The ‘right thing’ may not always be a clear cut issues. Perhaps the hero is strong and brave, but that makes him do stupid things because he also feels invincible. He might be kind, but only to the right people. This guy can also be a jerk if he thinks you’re the “wrong people.” He judges whether or not you’re right or wrong based on his own opinions rather than the facts. He’ll defend his lady love no matter what!

Heroine: Sweet, demure, and would never hurt a fly.  She’s sweet, that’s for sure, but a lot of people in the town think she’s fake. No one can be that sweet all the time. Demure? More like manipulative. She acts innocent to get her way, and is actually quite good at scheming. Playing dumb is the name of the game, but everyone knows she’s intelligent and her goal is to win and play the victim. Her family is poor now but they used to have a lot of money, and she’s not going to let some no-good businessmen push them around.

Vamp: Sultry, backstabbing, “immoral.” The vamp has led a difficult life. She wasn’t given the same opportunities in her upbringing as the heroine, and had to find her own way to survive. Falling in with the “wrong crowd” was the only way she could make enough money to get by. Dancing at the saloon may look like a bad thing to the other women, but none of them have ever gone hungry or slept in the street. Their judgmental attitude toward her only proves they’re not really as good as they pretend to be.

Villain: Mean, corrupt, and greedy. He is the wealthiest man in town. He’s a banker, and he got that position by working hard and going to school in the city. He understands the economy, and the dusty Western town is in real trouble financially. He puts the value of money and acquiring new property high on his list because it will aid in growth. Sure, he has to foreclose on the heroine’s farm, but they haven’t paid the mortgage in nearly a year and are living on credit at the general store. That kind of behavior is hurting the other people in the town. A developer is offering to buy the land and put in new business that will bring new money and new jobs, too! The farmer could probably make more money in a new job than he ever has with his farm, which could save the family. His manipulative daughter and her boyfriend are the real problem.

Looking at the characters in this new light changes the plot. It gives gray area to the story and adds to the possibilities of the plot. Instead of the “good vs. evil” it gives the story a real-world feel that gives readers a better chance of staying interested.

Do you have anything to share about caricatures? Feel free to share in the comments!


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