October 10, 2011

In praise of caricatures


As I observed a while back, the supporting (stock) characters in How to Train Your Dragon are caricatures, but they come across as more "real" than flesh and blood actors in most live-action movies.

One thing that caught my attention early on was the running joke where the adults all speak with thick Scottish brogues and the kids don't. I think it's brilliant--because every teenager knows his parents speak a foreign language. They turned a caricature into a meaningful metaphor.

You can't play against types and expectations unless there are types and expectations to play against. This applies to storytelling. Just as cliche has great utility, so do caricatures. You can expend only so much time and so many words before getting a story underway.

It's the literary equivalent of the pyrotechnic crew adding gasoline to a cinematic explosion, because that's what people have come to expect. And it looks really cool. If "reality" is what you want, watch Mythbusters instead. As Sarah Hoyt puts it,

Don't be afraid to give your characters outrageous characteristics or to make them larger than life. Even if you're writing "real life" you'll need to do that to some extent, or people will think they're blah and boring.

It's a balancing act at both ends of the scale. One of the great delights in genre fiction is starting with a stock character and watching as he first defines  the caricature of a "bad guy," then moves beyond it, while doing what a stock character is supposed to--move the story forward.

A good example is Karl Urban in Red (he's McCoy in the latest Star Trek). For about 99 percent of the movie he is trying very hard to kill Bruce Willis. He starts off as a ruthlessly over-the-top stock villain, but slowly evolves into somebody we can almost empathize with.

This isn't one of those insipid gotcha! switcheroos, where the bad guys turns out to be the good guy (a truly uninspired dramatic device 99 percent of the time), but a simple recognition that making the bad guy a tad more interesting makes the good guy way more interesting.

To be sure, Karl Urban can't be more interesting than Bruce Willis. Especially in genre fiction, the protagonist is the character who changes the most or causes the most change. Bruce Willis goes from being a retired spy to action hero with a babe on his arm, plenty of change for an action flick.

Karl Urban doesn't have to do a one-eighty, just a ninety, or a forty-five. His character has to change enough to convince us of the open-ended possibilities in the big climax, and no more. Otherwise, the movie would be about him.

In Under Siege, Tommy Lee Jones gives us a caricature with two twists. Like Alan Rickman in Die Hard, he starts out as the sane thief pretending to be crazy. By the end, he really is nuts. But not without reason. He had this great plan and then Steven Seagal went and ruined it.

He's still the bad guy. We're not rooting for him to nuke Honolulu. But, yeah, I get where he's coming from, and that makes the cliffhanger ending all the more believable. Jones walks away with most of the movie in the process, but there's nothing wrong with that either.

Related posts

In praise of cliche
Playing by the rules

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