Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing Question of the Day: Characterization vs. Caricaturization

I've taken a few literature courses in my lifetime, read hundreds of books, and written hundreds of thousands of words. I've fallen in love with heroic couples in Jane Austen books, laughed with Shakespeare's fools, hated and feared Voldemort with the rest of the world.

I want to pen (or type, in this instance) characters like those.

In writing contemporary fiction, an author needs to create characters who are complex, yet believable; believable but not predictable; realistic but not bland. They need to be "real people," yet real people rarely further the story along if you have to show both sides of their thought processes to prove that they are indeed "real" people. Besides, real people do fit into categories like athletic, nerdy, selfless, and academic, and sometimes that motivates their actions. Does that mean that if a writer fashions a character after one from a subgroup, that the person is a caricature --and if that's the case, is that necessarily bad?

For example, right now I am reading, at the request of my two older children, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It's contemporary YA--not one of my favorite genres, because I don't prefer reading about teenagers: you can guess there will be some swearing, a sexual experience, some rebellion and "deep thinking" with teenage problems usually pretty far-removed from my own. Does this mean that the characters in Green's books are characteritures because they fit that mold? Does the fact that the MCs are cancer patients excuse them from the "teen" group, or does that put them into another  caricature, "The Cancer Kid"? Let's assume that they aren't, they're fully-formed characters, but the author they meet in the story is the proverbial drunk writer. He's definitely a  caricature if anyone is, yet I can imagine a whole background for the pathetic guy and see a reason for him in the narrative.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, because I write LDS fiction. And every LDS ward has people in it who have, shall we say, gospel hobbies--people who believe Scouting should be one particular way (which happens to be more extreme than what everyone else thinks), or a family who always eats from their food storage, or a diva who thinks her main purpose in life is to run the ward choir because she used to sing professionally. Yes, most of the ward is made up of people who are a little less extreme, but would it be LDS fiction if the character didn't have to deal with some of those other philosophies that are slightly skewed from their own? And don't those people with the gospel hobbies have other, "normal" sides to them as well? There's always a reason for their over-the-top focus that may be understandable, so if that factors in to the story, why not bring that into the book? And if that character is presented, does that make the person a caricature just because we can recognize similar people in our own wards?

So my  question for today: What do you think a caricature  is? Is there a place for them in literature? How do you make someone who might be considered a caricature into a character?

Post Script one day later: So I was thinking about it this morning as I was reading the end of the book I mentioned above, wiping the tears off my face as I read, I realized that what I said about the book may sound flippant or in some way a criticism of said book or YA in general. Just because I don't prefer the genre, doesn't mean it isn't good writing. Anyone who takes the time to write, edit, and produce a novel obviously has something important to say. It should be regarded with respect, enjoyed for its beauty, and regarded for its truth. John Green does a wonderful job in his book, and the characters are vital and complex and real--even the drunk writer--which was exactly my point. Even if a character is what you think you've read before or seen before doesn't necessarily make him or her a caricature  the character is there for a reason--it is your job as a reader to figure out why.