Character Building

I was watching a very English television program — very English even more than very British — and I got to wondering what made the programme so endearing. The setting is idyllic: an old English Village, with cute cottages, picturesque village church, delightful old pub, set in the middle of beautiful countryside. But that’s not what makes it a charming programme.

It’s the characters. They are all there, gently caricatured. And that’s the secret of that particular program’s success. We recognise the characters as ordinary people we know and love, but the writers have exaggerated their idiosyncrasies just enough to keep them real, but give us that wee bit something that let’s us laugh with them, cry with them, and live with them.

That seems to me to be one of the secrets of creating interesting characters in our short stories and novels as well as TV dramas: this gentle exaggeration we call caricature.

Just think of some of the characters who become popular.

The eponymous Miranda, the wonderful mixture of characters in Jam And Jerusalem, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the list is long and varied, but what they all have in common is that they are memorably captured through a form of caricature. Can there really be anyone as gauche and awkwardly clumsy and funny as Miranda? Was the Sheriff of Nottingham truly so scheming and blundering? Was Robin Hood really such a handsome rogue?

What about Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, Julia Roberts in The Runaway Bride or Pretty Woman.

What about Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

w1 car

Caricature courtesy of Andrew Campbell

Is anyone really that cheeky? That quick witted? That mixture of endearing and annoying? But, if the writers made him any less so, would the series have been so popular? Would the character have been so memorable?

So, when we write fiction, whether we create heroes or villains, they stand out and are more memorable when we pick out their flaws and idiosyncrasies and gently caricature them, building characters our readers can identify with and care about.

But there’s a secret to doing it, and that secret is encapsulated in the word ‘gentle’.

Subtle caricature works. Make it too brash, too harsh and we risk losing our reader’s ability to sympathise with or identify with our characters. So, when character building, gently does it.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle Stanley
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 01:44:19

    The post is lovely, and it made me remember the many entertaining versions of Robin Hood and the other movies mentioned. “Gentle” is a word I hadn’t associated with character building until you explained why so clearly in the content of this post.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. cicampbell2013
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 01:46:00

    Thank you, Michelle. I’m pleased you found it interesting 🙂



  3. Vashti Quiroz-Vega
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 02:39:56

    Hello Christine! I like to think of my characters as real people with moderately exaggerated traits and quirks, which is basically what you’re saying. I love the characters you mentioned. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire is one of my favorites. 😉

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Ernesto San Giacomo
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 05:56:13

    Thanks for this post/observation. It’s a great model for fine-tuning a character.

    Liked by 1 person


  5. Katie Cross
    Apr 14, 2014 @ 12:13:19

    That’s what makes both TV programs AND books successful: great characters! I have to constantly remind myself that carving out the characters and taking time on them really DOES pay off in the long run! Great post!



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