Friday, March 2, 2012

Exaggerating your character

Happy Friday, folks!

So, I'm curious about character exaggerating. I've been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, and his style is to exaggerate his characters and their situations in a way that makes me recall reality. He's not writing about reality directly. And I know other writers like Shakespeare do that too.

In my own work, I feel like I exaggerate my characters a little to make them more interesting and more dramatic. I might combine two characters, for example. And I always make sure they run into difficult situations more frequently than I hope one would run into them in real life. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning that I don't exaggerate my characters at all over what I consider to be "reality," I'd say I work at about a 3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I'd say, works at about a 6.

Where are you?

I'd love to see a scene with one or more of your characters, followed by a little indicator of how much you think they're exaggerated. I'll do the same this afternoon.


  1. Oh, this is interesting! I think it depends on which book. For Monarch, I'd say a 3. For The Breakaway, I'd say a 2. For Bonded, I'd say maybe a 4 (but do you consider magical elements exaggeration? I'm not too sure about that). Maybe I'm way overestimating. You've read my stuff. What do you think?

    1. Michelle, No, I wasn't talking about the magic elements, you're right. I sort of think of it as volume or something. I find that your characters are often highly emotional, which may or may not be an exaggerating. But maybe the fact that it comes out in the writing when, normally, outsiders wouldn't see a person's inner emotions is a form of exaggeration.

  2. I'm also reading Love in the time of cholera, because you mentioned it last week, and I do notice everything in this world are larger than life. The setting is grander or more dilapidated, the air more fragrant, and the characters uglier or more dignified or more depressed. Didn't really think about exaggeration for my own characters until you brought it up.

    I think fiction will always involve a degree of exaggeration, if only to compress them and make more things happen in a shorter span of time. For my MG novel, I've definitely exaggerated my characters quite a bit. 4 or 5 maybe? There is less of that in my current YA, except in scenes When Important Things Happen.

    Definitely something else to keep in mind as I read and write.

    1. Yat-Yee, how are you liking the cholera book? I had some interruptions, so only picked it up again this morning. I'm only on page 50, but I really like it.

    2. I'm liking the cholera book a lot. Even though there is no real magical elements (so far anyway that i can tell), there is some sort of magic being created. Not so much that makes me gasp and not be able to breather, but enough to make my thoughts a little lighter.

  3. I think characters need to be exaggerated at least a little bit. People read to escape reality, to be entertained, and to learn something about their life. They don't want to read something that is so realistic that they become bored. Readers want adventure and drama. It's really nice when you read a character that really clicks with you, but they're never someone exactly like you know in real life. Maybe similar, but a bit more exaggerated for effect and for entertainment.

    1. Aimée, I do think you're right. For me, when I see something that I would call "realistic" it's sometimes refreshing, but even that realism is a commentary on drama in a way. It's like a strange exaggerated realism.

  4. I think that someone like Dickens would exaggerate his characters all the time; his people aren't realistic but you see real life when you see them. I think someone like Chekhov or Tolstoy would not exaggerate his characters. I'm guessing I fall more into the Chekhov camp. I try to make my characters are true to life as I can, I think. What I exaggerate, I guess, is the drama in the story. But I don't know if that's exaggeration so much as compression. Water is still water even after you turn up the heat enough to boil it. But boiling water is more interesting to put your hand into. Or maybe I just don't understand what you mean and your example will enlighten me!

    1. Scott, yeah, I'm more aware of my own compression techniques lately. Maybe because I'm thinking so much about pacing or the lack of it. Right now compression is a major tool I'm working with.

  5. I adored Love in the Time of Cholera.

    Yes, I do think characters sometimes need to be exaggerated, made larger than life.

    I'll share a scene from my first book, a steampunkish fairy tale type thing, where one of the main characters is a fairly exaggerated villain. (It's short, don't worry). This is the first meeting between the story's heroine, an imaginative orphan, and the Dickensian villain, an industrialist who doesn't believe in imagination.

    The tall and dark man went on looking at Belle. He worked his jaws as he looked at her, as if her image went straight from his eyes to his mouth where he ground it up. He was as long, as grey and as gaunt as a wolf.

    “What do you like to do, child? How do you occupy your time?” he asked.

    “I like to read. I also like looking out of windows.”

    “What do you think about when you look out of windows?” he said.

    “I look at the hills and I wonder what is beyond them.”

    “To wonder how you might be elsewhere is to be ungrateful to the Powers that have put you in a moment. It is the beginning of a rebellion in your spirit that would prove very costly to you. I see something in you, child, something very troubling.”

    This wolfish guy is a fairly exaggerated fairy tale-ish villain. I wanted to establish early on that he's a bad guy because, well, I like for the story to move along, you know? And I write for young readers so subtlety is not exactly required. ;)

    1. Cynthia, that villain is fantastic. I love that first image you start with, and the dialog is strong too. Thanks for this!

  6. I don't think I exaggerate beyond a 3 most of the time, though I'll share a short bit from my current book, "Seattle Sleuth", that goes a bit higher. The setting is an illegal gaming club (in 1921), where my hero and his partner have gone in search of an unpleasant fellow:

    All we had to do to find Stinky Sellers was to follow our noses.
    [ description here...]

    I could see as we drew near Stinky's table why people didn't bother complaining about his hygiene to his face. He was a brute of a man who required two of the club's flimsy chairs to support his malodorous bulk. Tiny blank eyes stared out from a meaty face and each time he slapped his cards and chips down he grunted like an old sow. Anybody who's ever been on a farm knows there isn't anything meaner than an old sow who's been crossed. It would be wise, I decided, to tread very carefully.

    We slinked closer just as a hand of five-card stud finished up. Sellers won; his huge hands dragged the pile of chips across the cloth. He squinted up at me. "Table's full. Skedaddle."

    [...dialogue with Sellers' henchman cut; Stinky Sellers agrees to go somewhere quieter to talk...]

    He tapped his fingers on the green felt table top, then said, "All right, what the hell. One drink. Come on." He shoved his chairs back, stood and glared at the three men at the table. "Nobody takes these seats, you got that?" He stuffed his chips in his pockets and we all trundled off to the back room.

    We secured seating in the crowded bar courtesy of Stinky, who simply walked up to an occupied table and ordered everyone to scram. The men bolted and we took our seats.

    I did exaggerate Stinky Sellers, mostly just for fun. Though it's mainly his physical presence that's exaggerated - when I did his dialogue with my hero (which follows this excerpt), I kept him fairly low-key in contrast.

    I'm looking forward to seeing your excerpt, Domey!

    -Alex MacKenzie

    1. Alex, thanks for this! I think what makes it work so well is that all of your details are adding to a bigger image. They are all fitting in together to make the character seem so vivid. I had a writing teacher who really focused on this, and it can make writing so much stronger.

  7. Thanks for putting up examples! And thanks for the comments too!

    Here's an excerpt from my own work. To me, I exaggerated almost everything about this scene, but not to such a dramatic degree. But I made the woman more desperate and the man a little colder. I also punched up the descriptions. I do think part of exaggeration that probably every writer does is a sort of compression. But like Aimée is saying, I also think, in general, you have to exaggerate a little to get above the dampening effect that happens in writing.

    Adriana pulled at a loose thread on the edge of her crocheted shawl. “Do you remember when I bought this, Oskar? In Florence from the old woman in front of the church?”

    Oskar nodded.

    “You said it was the color of pearls. You said it glistened on my shoulders.” She laughed. Her chin sunk into her chest and her eyes closed. “It’s just a dull gray now. It’s the color of my hair now.”

    “I don’t like it when you talk that way,” Oskar said.

    She sat silent for a moment.

    “Do you remember, Oskar, when we went to the Philippines? We went to an island, a small island where the water was so clear you could see straight down to the sand at the bottom, and those colorful fish, do you remember?”

    “That was Boracay,” Oskar said, nodding. He thought of the corals that felt rough against his hand when he was under the water.

    “I remember having lunch in a hut on the beach, and the crabs were still crawling around in their little baskets just minutes before we ate them. There was…” She let her fingers play over her arms. “There was dry salt on our skin from the diving, and I remember that my face was red from the sun. You were burnt too, remember? You were as red as a lobster.”

    “Maybe someday we will go back there again,” Oskar said.

    1. Domey, I thought this was very nicely done. It kinda reminded me of a conversation my parents might have. The imagery and dialogue are very evocative and a bit mysterious.

  8. Hmmm, this is an interesting point - one I haven't run across before actually. What exactly do you mean by "exagerating characters"? Like, make them sort of typical or obvious? Or over-state /over-do their personality traits? Or perhaps black-and-white personalities (eg either extremely cruel/horrid, or incredibly angelic/caring)??
    To be honest I like my books full of drama, so there is a lot of action and such popping up all over the place. I'd say MAYBE I work somewhere around 5?
    I'm not sure....

  9. I definitely exaggerate my characters, especially in the women's fiction where the focus in on the drama. I'd call my exaggeration about a 6 also.



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