Thursday, May 24, 2012

Writing Characters Not Caricatures

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature."—Ernest Hemingway
Now I'll be the first to admit that Ernest Hemingway had his fair share of flaws. He was perpetually drunk, didn't treat any of his four wives very well and when it came to writing, well, he didn't care who he had to hurt to get ahead. 

Questionable character aside, though, the guy really could write, and his emphasis on keeping your sentences simple—and true—has always challenged me since I naturally gravitate toward the verbose. On a side note, if you ever find yourself in the creative doldrums, read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Not only are the descriptions of his everyday life in Paris downright breathtaking (yeah, you can practically smell the whiskey), but so much of what he says about the writing craft still resonates today...

As you may have already guessed by now, one of my favorite Hemingway soundbites is the one I led the post with. Ever read a novel where the author is clearly in love with his/her leading man or lady? Or the one where the protagonist is being handled with veritable kid gloves? There's nothing more annoying than a story with people who don't feel flesh-and-blood real. 

See, the trouble with characters is that many writers tend to pattern them after themselves—be it a little or a lot. And when we're borrowing from our own life experiences, it's tempting to put a shinier veneer on life's rather cringe-worthy moments. Perhaps, we're even afraid that people will view us differently if we make the subjects of our stories TOO flawed. 

But if we're doing that, giving readers the caricature rather than a living, breathing person, we're robbing them of something that truly resonates on a deep, deep level.  After all, nobody's perfect, and that's something Hemingway really understood as he even wrote about himself in true warts-and-all fashion.


  1. This is a great post! Thanks for the reminder to be real with what we write.

  2. Thanks sooo much, ladies! Mucho appreciated and happy weekend all!

  3. I have plunged myself into my first story recently... I find I'm vulnerable about what I write because I feel anyone who reads it will analyze me based on what I've written.

    I am not writing my life experience (though I see fragments of it like the small veggies in a dish of fried rice), but I do feel my heart beating on the pages...

  4. Congrats on being knee-deep in your first story...that's so exciting! :)

    I think it's impossible for any writer to NOT think about (briefly or otherwise) what people might think our writing has to say about us and our own life experiences. But at the same time, that's what's so great about fiction.

    You can have pieces of yourself in the story...but under the guise of fiction, it frees us up to just write.