Monday, May 11, 2009

The Art of the Caricature

By Ali Cross

Have you ever watched a street artist draw a caricature of someone? Or, perhaps you’ve sat for one yourself? It’s always good for a laugh, in case you haven’t ever tried it. 

What makes having your caricature done particularly fun and funny is that the artist looks at you and makes immediate assumptions about your appearance, and then he’ll magnify those assumptions in his drawing. He may also ask a few cursory questions, like what is your favorite color, or do you play a musical instrument or sports.

In short order the artist produces a finished product that, if he’s done his job, sums you up fairly well.

At the recent LDStorymakers conference, Rebecca Shelley presented a lesson on writing for children. However, one piece of advice she gave seems just as applicable to any writing, as it is for children.

She said to focus not just on characterization but on caricature-ation. 

Rebecca made the comparison between the Mona Lisa and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Seem like a stretch? Actually … no.

People have been looking at the Mona Lisa for years and no one has been able to define her. Is she beautiful, or not? Is she happy, or not? Some say she is sly and secretive, some say she is vapid and unemotional. The definitions of the Mona Lisa are endless and as a result, we have no definitive idea of who she is at all.

But that’s not a problem with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

One look, and we know a great deal about them. Among other tell-tale features, the turtles all wear a mask in their own signature color. We can make assumptions about the character based on the color of mask he wears. Red generally makes us think of power or passion—in Raphael’s case, he is hot-headed and quick-to-anger.

I think the use of charicatur-ation is applicable to all writing, not just for kids. Our characters should be larger than life, more bad than us, more good than us. A character that makes terrible decisions comforts the reader because at least they’ve never done anything that stupid. A character that does amazing things can inspire your reader to greater heights. 

As an actor on the stage, you do a similar sort of thing—exaggerate your features. Extra blush on high cheekbones, eyeliner pulled far out from your eyes to define them, false lashes, and ruby red lips. You would never want to be seen looking like that, but under the bright stage lights the make-up looks just right, even natural. Your stage make-up is a representation of yourself—a caricature.

The same goes for your writing.

Characters that are perfectly lifelike can spell disaster for your book—your characters should jump off the page, be immediately identifiable, knowable. So, while you’re working on character development, practice coming up with one or two sentences that sum that person up—as if you were having an artist draw a caricature of them—then magnify those qualities in your writing. A larger-than-life character will make your reader feel right at home.

Have fun!


Karen Hoover said...

This is really good, Ali. I'll have to give it a whirl.

Kimberly said...

I just had one of those lovely ah-ha epiphany moments. Thanks!

Ali Cross said...

Hi Karen ~ thanks for commenting!

Hey Kimberly ~ so glad I was able to open the door for you so you could get a breath of fresh epiphany. Yay for you!

LexiconLuvr said...

Great post, Ali! Here's a question, what do you do if you have a character that jumps off the page TOO MUCH? (One of those "spotlight" stealers?)

Ali Cross said...

Huh. That's a good question LT. I haven't encountered that problem yet ...but I do know about characters who get too big for the britches and are suddenly MORE than you anticipated them to be.

Maybe someone else in the group has a suggestion?

Keith Fisher said...

Consider leaving them out of the current story and making them the star of the next story. I've found that if a character has that much bravado, they need their own story. other than that you might consider a cattle prod to get those pesky charactors in line.