Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Exaggerated characters

In part, I'm building on what Scott discussed yesterday regarding writer reliability and on what Michelle wrote regarding trust. I wanted to get your opinions on the effectiveness of exaggeration.

As part of an in-person writer's group, I've often faced a phenomenon that can happen in our writing when the idea we have in our head somehow gets diluted on the page. I'll try to create a character that's annoying, and she'll come out seeming ordinary. Or, I'll try to create a character that is cowardly, and he'll come out seeming ordinary. I often feel like I have to exaggerate the character personality I'm trying to convey before readers can experience it on the page.

The idea of exaggeration isn't new, of course. Hardly anyone would argue that Shakespeare's characters are real or realistic. But, what Shakespeare manages to do is to evoke the reality of the world by representing it with exaggerated characters.

"The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!"

(Lady Macbeth from Act 1, scene 5 of her play.)

Really, who talks like that???

And, have you noticed that many of our favorite literary and cinematic characters are not the main protagonists, but the exaggerated side characters with the quirkiest of traits? I tend to be a stripped down stylist, but I often find that my readers respond more to my writing when I feel like I'm overstating my point just a little.

While we absolutely should strive to be reliable as writers and to trust our readers, I think it's a difficult balance as we also try to combat the dilution factor of writing to create drama and vitality in our stories.

Have you all faced this sort of thing yourselves? How do you calibrate your writing so that you can get your point across without talking down to your reader?


  1. Davin, this really is a tough balance, as you say. I always exaggerate my characters. Always. If I don't, they don't feel real to me. And I think it's because the characters are exaggerated in my head to begin with. I'm a dramatic person. Everything is drama. And we're writing fiction, not a journal entry. But even my journal entries are dramatic!

    I think this might fall into the melodrama post I did awhile back on here. It's about intention and trust and knowing what we want to say. So it is a fine balance.

    Okay, this is a weird example, but it works for me... in the Lord Of The Rings movies, actor Ian McKellan who plays Gandalf, had to have a prosthetic nose applied to his face after his wig was applied, and his other makeup was done. Why? Because his nose looked WAY too small on screen with the rest of the his costume. So to make it look normal, they had to exaggerate it. He has a big nose to begin with, so they had to make it like his normal nose without the costume!

    When we plop our characters into these fictional worlds, surrounded by events that focus only on the essential things without all the mundane, things feel a little larger than life. I think at that point we have to exaggerate the character to make them fit into the rest of everything else.

    Maybe this makes no sense! I'll keep thinking it over. Awesome post, Davin. I never thought of it this way!

  2. I think Michelle has the root of it in her response: when we're telling a story, it's all artifice to begin with, and is supposed to be a dramatic device. In real life, we spend most of our times doing mundane things, even if we're superheroes or supervillains. Not much happens. We can't fill our stories with that; we have to fill our stories with drama instead.

    Stories aren't real life, and they aren't realistic. They just have to appear realistic. I think the trick isn't necessarily to exaggerate, but to focus on the dramatic (or the comic, or the romantic, or the weird or whatever) and cut out most of the mundane (though the mundane can go a great distance toward character).

    And Shakespeare? Everyone talked that way in Elizabethan plays, though Shakespeare did it best.

    This has been an interesting week here at the Lab. On Friday, I think I'm going to continue in this general vein and write about the purpose of stories and how that influences what we put into them. And how stories seem to have fewer purposes these days.

  3. I have to exaggerate my characters or they don't come off the way they were meant to, just like you said. It's hard to find balance between gentle exaggeration and over-the-top in your face obviousness though.

  4. Davin, I think this is where a good critique group shines. Because this has happens to me over and over again. I've learned that if at least three people don't get a character, then I need to do a rewrite. The tricky part, is staying true to the character in my head without settling into the character that everyone else sees. It took me awhile to learn about timing - when to share my work, and when it's too early. If you share too early, then the character never develops into what he was meant to be.

  5. I won't strive to expand on Michelle's LOTR example because I think it's a direct hit. You're fine as long as you don't take the leap to hyperbole (unless there is good reason for it, e.g. humor).

    And while a degree of exaggeration is suitable in most cases, don't fear an ordinary character, as long as the situation that character is involved in is extraordinary.

    While there is an attraction to the quirky side-characters, oftentimes we will connect with an ordinary character because we seem to have more in common. For example, more comic book fans relate to Peter Parker than Clark Kent.

    Then, when something out of the ordinary happens, it has a more profound emotional impact.

  6. To the best of my knowledge, limited at times, I don't exaggerate my characters. Do I exaggerate, to a certain extent, what happens to them? Yes. As the other Scott so aptly wrote "it's all about dramatic device". Without the drama, what's the point of reading?

    I personally read to escape. I don't want the mundane when I read. I want the D-R-A-M-A!!!

    I don't always, though every now and then is fine, want overly exaggerated characters which make me go 'huh'! So, I agree with Lady Glamis that it is a tough balance. How do I interest my readers in my characters, and yet not push them away?

    Interesting post, Davin, and great comments from everybody. You're really delving deep and giving me lots of things to think about! Thanks.


    For Margarita Nights, the majority of the characters are real and down to earth. I didn't exaggerate any of their tendencies, though the drama surrounding some of them, at times, is very intense. I wanted (and hopefully achieved) a realness people could relate to when reading the book. I didn't want Jack on Will & Grace, or any of the other stereotypical (and not realistic) characters portrayed in television/movies.

  7. Another thought-provoking topic. I think for me, I try to create characters that are like real people. And think about the real people that you know. They aren't ordinary or vanilla--at least not the interesting ones. And we want to write about interesting characters, that's what makes them well, *characters*.

    So I think exaggerating just a little, like you said, is necessary to bring out those interesting characteristics that make our characters characters.

    Should I use the word characters again? LOL.

  8. Hmm, I exaggerate the strengths of characters more than I exaggerate their emotions and/or dialogue; it's easier to believe a character in a fantasy tale can breathe fire than it is easy to believe a woman would say this after meeting a man:


    Okay, so that dialogue has other issues, but you get my point. Right?

  9. My non-main characters are fairly flat right now. I need to add in some more characterization, but I'm not going to worry about that for a while. So, that isn't a function of needing to exaggerate. I just need to DO it :)

    My main characters seem to be coming across as I'd want it without too much exaggeration. I do know what you mean about the words getting diluted on the page, however, mine is more with scenery and feelings rather than characters.

  10. Yes. My first draft characters come across as either caricatures or bland. I'm just beginning to get a grasp on using details to make them real.

    One of my goals this year is to write better character reactions in my first draft so revising is less painful.

  11. Another thought-provoking post from you guys.
    Fictional characters are exaggerated because we must strip away their ordinariness or bore the reader. They are the essence of a person, the most striking features and what is necessary to drive the story, goal, dilemma.
    But we don't want melodrama, thus causing rolling of eyes and slamming shut of books, either.
    An example again in a movie. I read Inkheart and liked the dark, scary children's story, but the movie was melodrama. Over-the-top, cartoonish characters that left me a bit bored and not scared. I wonder if Hollywood thinks kids need stories dumbed down or what? But that's another discussion.

  12. I think the dilution process you mentioned is an effect of the divide that lies between a writer's intention and a reader's interpretation. When I'm writing a character, I know how I intend for her to come across and the role she is the play in the story, and I write just enough to subtly bring that about. But then the reader comes along, with only the words on the page for guide, and finds it too subtle to get the meaning. The problem is I've limned the character just enough to evoke her to someone who (like myself) is already thinking along those lines, instead of making her clear to someone who has their own background and point of view, and sees nothing but the words on the page. So I either have to exaggerate the character, or try to put on my metaphorical blinders and think hard about what the words alone are conveying. Two ways of saying the same thing, I think.

    But it's definitely something I struggle with. I write something I think at the time is subtly but well evoked, and look at it later and find that it's flat and bland.

  13. Michelle, That's a really great point about having to exaggerate to make things work in a high drama world. I never thought it about it that way, but I think that explains the dilution effect I was talking about.

    Scott, For me I try to focus on the dramatic. That part's a given in my book. But, the question of the exaggeration is a separate one. I'm not sure one takes the place of another. Hmm. I have to think about that more.

    Mariah, yes, that's the balance that comes up for me. I think having readers give me their opinions helps me to better see this.

    Amy, right on. Yes, like I said to Mariah, the readers help. It's interesting what you said about showing too early or too late. I showed my critique group an earlier draft of my novel, and as a result, they inspired me to write an entirely new half of the book based on my characters' pasts. Since then that second story line has been deeply integrated into the story, but I always wonder what would have developed if I had just stuck to one time.

    Rick, Yes, Michelle's example was perfect for me too. And, you also bring up the important concept of contrast. Sometimes ordinary can work really well.

    Scott, you seem to be more in the Scott camp. Again, I'll have to consider this. I do feel like in my writing I have to exaggerate more, but maybe that means I'm not always choosing the right moments to write about.

    Elana, That's interesting. I also try to write realistic characters, and like you I find myself exaggerating them slightly to make them come to life.

    Justus, that's also an interesting point. For me, I feel like I work on all aspects of the character when I exaggerate, including things like dialog. My dialog isn't at all realistic, but I hope that it feels realistic in the context. I think of it as exaggerating personality, which covers a broad scope of things.

    Lauren, Hmmm, I'd agree with the feelings. I haven't thought about it in terms of scenery. I tend to limit my scenery, probably too much, so that probably makes it stand out already.

    Jill, that's an admirable goal! I keep telling myself to do the same thing. Work harder on earlier drafts, but I find it slows me down too. That's another sort of balance, I guess.

  14. Davin, I think that the exaggeration you feel is, well, exaggerated. I agree with Jabez, that our characters might feel flat on the page because we have so much of them in our own heads that they will always seem more complete and alive to us than to anyone else, and whatever we write for them will be less than what they are to us, as their creators. This leads, I think, to our having to heighten the dramatic impact of everything about them on the page. Their lives might be exaggerated, but their personalities aren't (not in good literature, anyway).

    I can't think of anything about characters in "Rooster" that's exaggerated. We focus in our writing, and I think that might *seem* exaggerated to us, because real people don't lead focused, dramatic lives. Well, most of us don't. When I was working on my protagonist's character this spring, I didn't exaggerate anything about him; I just dramatized more of his actions.

  15. Tricia, I often wonder if people dumb things down for the viewers/readers. I guess we'll never know that unless we can talk to the makers directly, though.

    Jabez, I think you expressed my situation well. The process you described has happened to me often. Thanks for your input!

    Scott, you may be right on that. I do think it is a perception that I experience. I feel like I'm exaggerating to get my message across, and I don't expect a reader to feel that the character is exaggerated. So, maybe it's an internal technique that I employ just to calibrate myself.

  16. Hmmm....I don't know if the issue I face is that of exaggeration, but attention to detail. I mean, if you think about it, everyone has boring stuff, ordinary stuff about them and everyone has interesting stuff. But, as the writer, I get to divulge whatever I want to about my characters.

    The struggle is not to share just the ordinary stuff. For me, it is attention to detail. What are the things about my character that make him/her ALIVE in my mind?

    That is what I need to share.

    I have read several (and you have, too) characters in books that are so exaggerated that they seem flat, stereotypical, or suffering from trying-too-hard syndrome.

    If a character is alive enough to get you, the writer, to seek to immortalize it on the page, then it is probably not a dull character. But if you are making him/her sound dull....well, that's another story.


  17. Wow--fascinating discussion!

    I think putting extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is what makes the reader connect emotionally with a story. We want to read about people who have some attribute we admire or want, or else who we fear becoming. Everything has to be slightly larger-than-life to stir emotions.

    It's like Greek or Shakespearian tragedy. It's not tragic unless someone falls from a great height, like being king or emperor, or being on top of the world in some other way. A farmer having a really bad day isn't a tragedy. It's normal life.

    And who really wants to read about that anyway ;)?

  18. I try to take one part of my character and exaggerate that trait. then, make the rest of the character a little more 'real'. I don't know if it works, but that's what I do.

    Good discussion over here today (as always!)

  19. Sometimes exaggeration is essential. For example, when showing emotions. Most of us wouldn't shout or cry or outwardly show strong emotions--but unless your character is a complete stoic, you've got to SHOW that emotion somehow since you can't just TELL it.

  20. I think I agree with what Scott is saying. We fill our stories with conflict, drama, tension, EVERYWHERE (maybe not always to the same degree), but it's there (or should be nonetheless). Thus we leave out the mundane and so our stories will look exaggerated.

  21. Storyqueen, Yes, exaggerating too much also makes the characters flat, potentially. It is a matter of choosing wisely, as you say.

    Rebecca, Maybe that's what I'm dealing with--wanting to be larger than life. And, maybe it is a combination of what people are saying, that you have to choose the RIGHT details and make sure that they are visible against the background of the extraordinary circumstances.

    Tess, I haven't read much of your writing, but I loved what you posted a few days ago. Your characters came to life, and it makes sense given what you say here. They seemed real, but they were also interesting, which was probably because you exaggerated some aspects of them.

    Beth, that's another good point. You COULD tell it, but if you chose not to, then they have to externally emote somehow, and for many of us, that is an exaggerated action. I like to hold all of my pain and frustration inside, down deep in my belly where it can quietly fester. ;)

    Jody, It seems like there's two sides to this. On one side, it's what we as writers perceive as exaggerating while we're writing. That's what I feel anyway. It's more than just focusing on drama for me. But, a reader my not see it as exaggerated when they read. Then, there's the readers' experience of the exaggeration, which can either be bad writing, or just the focus on the dramatic, like you say.

  22. It's a really tough call to find the balance to make your characters just right for the story they are in. People who have read my story like the main characters esp. the guy, but, just like you, there are certain side characters who do things that are over that top that make bigger impressions on people, and they love them, in some ways, more than the main ones.

    I love Michelle's response. I think she nailed it.


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