The problem was... well, he wasn't a character. He was a caricature of an abusive spouse, and that drained the drama and tension from the story.
|Woman, didn't I tell you to bring me a beer 2.5 seconds ago?|
Instead of all of that, though, we simply got a guy who swaggered when he walked, talked like a time traveler from the 1940s (it was ostensibly set in the modern day, though it was hard to tell that for a fact), and who threatened his wife openly and clearly in a way that was... well, which kind of underscored how shallow the character was. The story didn't have our husband struggle with his temper, trying to keep himself under control, or making excuses about how it wasn't really his fault. We learned nothing else about him, either, so his sole defining characteristic was, "Dickbag wife beater." But they're on their honeymoon... what else did he have to offer? Why is she with him? Who is he the other 99% of the time when he isn't taking his frustrations out on his spouse?
We'll never know... but it got me thinking on the difference between character, and caricature, and how it so often gets lost in the mix.
Seeing Things in One Dimension
If you've ever seen a caricature artist at work, you'll realize that a lot of the art style is deciding what their subject's most noticeable feature is, and making that the centerpiece of the image. Obama is shown as a cartoon with huge ears, for example, and Jay Leno's portraits tend to be three-quarters chin. Whatever stands out, that's the feature that gets exaggerated until it becomes the single dimension that everything else in the image is hung off of.
|You see what I mean.|
The issue with caricatures in writing is that the one feature you wanted the character to have (in this case making it clear this guy beats his wife, and that he should be despised for that) ends up subsuming the whole character... and it brings down everything around it. Because it's a shallow portrayal, and having a shallow character in an otherwise fully-rendered world is the equivalent of having Bugs Bunny walking on set while the crew is shooting Casablanca; it's a jarring flat note in an otherwise rich song.
And if there's more than one caricature, then you have a bunch of flat notes that's going to ruin whatever piece you were trying to compose.
Caricatures come in a thousand different forms, and when they get particularly crass they can turn into rather awful stereotypes. From the gang members in the bar fight who all had their pants sagging and their gold chains out, to the greedy pawnbroker with the big nose and the small spectacles, to the bottle blonde with the tight sweater and the unfocused expression, these aren't really characters... they're caricatures.
The best way to avoid turning your characters into caricatures is to dig deeper. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut, and it's particularly dirty work.
|So, better start digging.|
The best thing you can do in this situation is to ask yourself what other aspects of this character matter? What other dimensions are there to them that the audience would see, even if it's only in passing? What can you do to avoid this character being just one note?
Let's go back to the bar fight scene I mentioned in passing earlier. Before the action, you've got your gang of stereotypical hoods in the bar. They look the part (tattoos, flashy jewelry, maybe a shot of a chrome pistol or two), but what can you add to these characters? Do we see that one of them has a quote from Banquo on his wrist, making the audience wonder what this shooter's relationship is to MacBeth's second-in-command in the Shakespeare play? Do we overhear one of the others talking on the phone to his kids, sharing an earnest moment that lets us know there are people that depend on the money he brings home? Is the heated conversation between two of the younger members over anime trivia, showing they have a life outside of gang life?
Every single one of those instances adds touches of character, and suggests depths that lay beneath the surface to these people. We've seen them in what amounts to their work attire, but we've caught glimpses of who they are beyond that. Enough to make us curious, and perhaps enough to add poignancy to one (or several) of them getting wounded or killed in the violence that's about to happen.
The More We See Someone, The More Depth They Need
One of the most common push backs I hear against adding more depth and nuance is people who argue, "Oh, so I'm supposed to know the whole life story of the waiter in scene two who takes their drinks, and then we never see again?"
No, and to even suggest that's somehow a requirement is ludicrous. However, it's important to challenge yourself to add at least two facets to any character you took the time to give actual lines to in your book. And the more time we spend with a character, the more depth you need to add as we get to know them.
|Perhaps if you're still here by Chapter 7 I will tell you my name.|
If your private detective is just ordering a drink from a bartender, we don't need to really know anything about him; he's just there as a background player to make sure your character has a scotch in his hand when the time is right. But if they start making conversation, well, now the bartender has lines. Even if he's not an important character, he's part of the tapestry now. If he's a witness, or someone who has information that proves helpful, then that means we should find out a little more about him each time. For example, we might have just thought of him as a big guy working a bar and busting heads when things get rowdy. But when we see him again in chapter 6 he's reading a romance novel. Maybe he mentions he picked up books again while he was doing time, and now he's just trying to keep up on the habit.
And so on, and so forth. Anytime we come back to a character, we learn a little more about them, and you need to pull back the curtain just a little more on who they are as well as what they're adding to the story.
However, there is a risk that comes with characters we see a lot; they might become caricatures through a process known as Flanderization. Named for the Simpsons' Ned Flanders, it refers to how a character slowly has their various traits stripped away, until all that's left behind is their single, core trait blown up to ridiculous, one-dimensional proportions. Much like how Homer's neighbor started off as a considerate man, all-around great dad, and guy who actually went to church, but eventually had most of that other stuff stripped away in favor of the ultra-Christian thing.
Creating and maintaining character depth isn't easy, but it's a habit. And like any other habit, it requires working until it becomes a reflex. Once you're there, maintaining it is a cinch.
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That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!