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Characterisation #2: Exaggeration

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March 10, 2012 by jcfarnham

“To exaggerate is to weaken.”
Jean François de La Harpe, Melanie, 1770

Yes, another out of context quote. It illustrates a point I’m going to make, what can I say?
Exaggeration in Character is a line that must be toed cautiously. We, who are supposed to be writing “serious fiction”, would never want to see our beloved characters become caricatures. That would be the territory of cartoons, parody and humour. That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s purpose.

I’ve often thought, as have others no doubt, that real life people are more or less boring. It’s a fact though, we are. No one wants to read fiction about some poor schmucks’ day-by-day battle with weight loss and a toaster that insists on burning everything in it (well I certainly wouldn’t want to, at least). So why then should we strive for such levels of realism? Genre fiction especially needs some level of abstraction to its protagonists otherwise they would fall flat on their boring little faces. They need that “abstract realism” to be … not interesting, but intriguing. Intriguing will drive the plot.

“Ah, but Jean François said an exaggeration weakens it’s straight-played counterpart,” I hear you cry. And I’m sure he was right in context, but I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t quite ring true.

Exaggeration can be overdone yes, but we as readers have become spoilt of late. In order to get a particular trait across to us an author often needs to exaggerate. If they didn’t, their character would fade into the background like everyone else you pass of a morning on the street. I’m certain all those anonymous some ones are VERY interesting character’s in their own right, but do they stand out? Not usually – not unless they’re obvious morons, or bawling children, but that just illustrates my point further. You only trully remember the weird, the unusual or the down right irritating, don’t you?

To hook their audience and pull them in (and more importantly leave them with a lasting impression) a character should be somewhat of an exaggeration.

It’s certainly something to think about, anyway.

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