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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XX

How do you know if, instead of creating a rounded character or a personified trait, you have inadvertently created a caricature?

A caricature is someone who can have no other existence except within the special atmosphere of the story. So what you must do is take this figure and try transferring him or her out of the surroundings you have provided, and place him in your own home. The test here is not to determine if that person would be happy or comfortable in the different environment. It is to see if he can live and breath at all outside of the fictitious world of your narrative. Can this character walk through your front door, continue his conversation at your kitchen table and avoid being regarded as insane by anyone else who happens to be there?

Bertie Wooster couldn’t do it. Hannibal Lecter would fail to impress your girlfriends. Huckleberry Finn would certainly not be comfortable, but unless you were of a nervous disposition you wouldn’t call a doctor or the police. And Sally Bowles with her emerald green fingernails may well cause a stir in the neighbourhood, as neurotics do, but people would recognise her. She would be a bit of a character.

Wooster and Lecter are caricatures. They can’t make the transition. The other two are characters.

Caricature certainly has its place, as the above two examples demonstrate. But if you create a caricature inadvertently as your main figure, out of laziness, when what was really needed for the narrative was a rounded character, then there is little you can do to correct it. Caricature has a habit of sticking around. You can try tinkering but nine times out of ten you would be better off abandoning the story and starting again.

4 Responses to “Learning to Write XX”

  1. Nils says:

    Hi John. This is an interesting way of describing the caricature, or rather, of putting your character to the test.

    As for ‘the world’s most loved serial killer’, I do feel that he was played rather well by Scottish actor Brian Cox, in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter. After that, the blind urge to keep scoring in the theatres, ‘shocking’ the audiences and raking in the cash turned the character into caricature indeed.

    But I’d love to attend a party where both Bertie Wooster and Sally Bowles were present!

    jb says: Just Sally would do for me, Nils.

  2. I’m afraid Lecter for me was a caricature even within his books. Even there I couldn’t see him in the flesh, other than that the story required him. Bertie is another story, as it’s perfectly all right to use caricature in comedy, though it’s obviously not compulsory.

    jb says: Hi Ian, I agree about Lecter. He is a caricature in the novels. But I think it’s probably OK to use a caricature in any format if you simply need a cartoon. Shakespeare uses caricatures in all the plays, comedies and tragedies alike, and gets away with it without problem. The real problem is when a writer creates a caricature, by mistake, as the main character in his narrative.

  3. Trevor Johnson says:

    John, what is your opinion regarding Ignatius Riley?

    jb says: Hi Trevor. I did pick up a copy of The Confederacy of Dunces when it was first published. Can’t remember how much of it I read before giving it away to a deserving cause, but it wasn’t a lot. It’s some years ago now so all I can really remember is that me and the book were not ready for each other. Perhaps I should give it another go?

  4. says:

    A actually fascinating read, I could nicely not agree totally,
    but you do make some quite legitimate points.