Character, Not Caricature

OK, the first thing you should do is follow the blog tour trail over to Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s blog and Katharine Owens’ blog to see what they have to say about why they write what they do and how they go about it. I had a feeling they would have some great things to say, and they did not disappoint. Go on, read. I’ll be here when you get back.

Great stuff, right? I hope you left comments!

I’m really glad that Jenn tagged me in the writing process blog tour, because it fits in perfectly with what I had decided to do this summer. Back in May, I received notes from an agent about some changes I should consider making to my novel, FINDING KATE. I have been doing a lot of thinking about what she said, and a few weeks ago, I posted about the time line in my novel. After that, I decided that it would be fun and interesting to write blog posts about what I’m working on around those suggestions that the agent made. In that way, I can crystallize some of the thoughts that would otherwise remain ephemeral, keep track of some thoughts that would otherwise slip away, and hopefully get some feedback from you readers about where I’m headed.

One of the things that the agent asked me to take a look at is the character of Blanche, Kathryn’s sister. (If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s play, Blanche is Bianca). The agent said that sometimes Blanche seems over-exaggerated, almost a caricature rather than a character.

My initial reaction, of course, was, “No, she really is that over-the-top!”

The thing you need to know about Blanche, if you don’t know the play, is that Blanche is That Girl from your high school. You know the one:  she is pretty and perfect, never a hair out of place, even in gym class; she is a trendsetter, at the cutting edge of fashion; all the boys want to date her; all the teachers love her, even if she isn’t the brightest student, because of her can-do attitude and involvement in after-school activities. Only the girls know the truth:  she is ruthlessly controlling, relentlessly cruel, and a skillful dissembler.

Tina Fey did a movie about her. Rosaline Wiseman wrote the definitive book on her.

Until I saw the play for the first time, I had no idea that William Shakespeare had gone to high school and knew That Girl.

So, changing Blanche. Part of me resists. I don’t want to humanize Blanche. I don’t want to give her backstory and emotional moments so the reader can feel sorry for her.

I don’t want to feel sorry for her. She’s a horrible person.

But, okay. She’s still a person.

I have to at least think about it.

In the same way that Kate clings to her old wounds, surely Blanche has such memories, such stories too. Of course she does; everybody does.

What are Blanche’s stories?

Oddly enough, the short-lived TV series “Freaks and Geeks” helped me with this one.

In one episode, the Bully pranks one of the geeks to die by sneaking a peanut into his lunch. The Geek, unfortunately, is deathly allergic to peanuts. The Bully goes to the hospital, dragged there by his father to apologize, only to learn that the Geek is in a coma and may not survive. The Bully goes in to talk to the unconscious Geek, and after blaming the Geek for a while (wow, Bully, really?) he finally opens up. “I used to look up to you,” he confesses. “In fourth grade, I thought you were so smart, and when you brought that Soyuz rocket to school, I thought it was so cool. I asked if I could shoot it off with you guys, and you said no.”

Whoa. There it is.

I had never considered the possibility that Blanche might be jealous of Kate. My focus was completely the other way, and for good reason:  Blanche is the ideal of her time, so of course Kate has every reason to be jealous (and to reject the ideal to which she does not conform). But what if Blanche had always admired, and been jealous of, Kate’s way with words, her ability to always know the right thing to say, her book-smarts, her usefulness to their father…? Combine that with a younger sibling’s natural hero-worship for the elder, and Kate’s rejection of Blanche would have been extremely hurtful. Devastating, even, depending on how old Blanche was when it happened.

Oh crap. That humanizes her, doesn’t it?

Going along with this, I realized that Blanche knows very well that her power is, as Kate never fails to point out, entirely bound up in her physical beauty, and she is also well aware that it will fade (as my ever-perceptive writing group buddy Trudy points out, Blanche has only to look at the wreck of her mother to figure this out). Therefore, those shots Kate takes at her looks are kidney punches landing very hard and doing more damage than Kate realizes. All I have to do is show that — even once — and the reader will understand just what Blanche really feels about what Kate is saying and gain insight into why she lashes out so viciously.

I also realized that I allowed Blanche’s meanness to spill out too much in public. She would have been much more careful about who she allowed to see her cruelty. It would have been limited to Kate almost exclusively, with her followers and hangers-on getting a few shows of power to keep them in line (there-but-for-the-grace-of-Blanche…).

Now something that seemed huge and unmanageable seems a lot less daunting. I’ll do a read-through solely for Blanche, looking at scenes from her point-of-view — something I never even imagined doing. I’ll make small changes, most likely, but they will have a big impact.

Do you have any tips for ways in which you have humanized a character who otherwise might have been too extreme? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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4 Responses to Character, Not Caricature

  1. Fantastic, Mare– this is a wonderful way to “crystallize” characterization. I think it is easy to make our villains “evil” without really thinking about their motivations, but of course every character has them. I love that you’re doing this!

  2. shadedcorners says:

    I think it’s hard to give “evil” characters background, because it’s just easier to hate them if they aren’t human. If we kind of understand them, we don’t WANT to hate them…
    For my story, Izin, I originally blame all of the political turmoil on an insane, evil, magical sorceress. But I eventually let one of the main characters take the majority of the blame… it gave him a lot more depth, but it made him much less likeable. And as the romantic interest, that was a particular bummer (and a huge challenge!)

    But it sounds like the changes you’re making to Blanche are gonna make an awesome difference!

  3. Pingback: Beshrew The Shrew | A Writer's Notepad

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