The Meaning of Caricature

An introduction to the term caricature and what it means for writers.

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If you’ve ever had a street portrait done by a cartoonist, you’ll no doubt be familiar with what a caricature is considered to be. Used mainly to describe an amusing drawing where one’s features are exaggerated by the artist for humorous effect, it’s essentially a shorthand way of describing what most people think of as a cartoon. This concept, however, is insufficient—for writers, ‘caricature’ has a deeper meaning in a literary sense, which applies as much to fiction as it does to art.

The word caricature originates from the Italian verb caricare, which means to load, so it is no surprise to see it describe artistic works being loaded with embellishment for humorous effect. In fiction, the aim of caricature is not just to emphasise physical qualities like a cartoon would, but also to exaggerate certain aspects of a character to render them more amusing or noteworthy. This tends to be done to make a satirical point, hence why it’s so popular in works of satire, but if done tactfully caricature can even be used to make your characters more engaging and memorable.

In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, the description of Uriah Heep is as vivid a caricature as any cartoon, from the very moment the author describes his ‘cadaverous face’:

[…] whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded […] He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand […]

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Even Uriah Heep’s hand-wringing mannerisms and clammy handshakes scream of caricature, which goes a long way to make the reader despise him, in Dickens’s words, as a ‘monster in the garb of man.’ Having said all this, these descriptions would be nothing if it weren’t for Uriah’s motivations, which the reader eventually learns are insincere and sycophantic, making the caricaturisation of his behaviour all the more pertinent. It’s for this reason I regard Dickens as a caricaturist as much as he is an author—after all, many of the leading Victorian cartoonists of his day (such as Phiz and George Cruikshank) brought Dickens’s characters to life in book illustrations immediately upon publication.

But caricature can go beyond mere character motives, particularly if they have a social message. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the tale of a doctor who creates a monster from an inanimate body—we see a birth myth that comments not just on the rise of men playing God in science but also satirises society’s views on parenting. It’s worth noting that Shelley herself was the daughter of a single parent, as her mother died within a month of her birth. Therefore it’s easy to interpret Frankenstein’s monster as a child much like Shelley felt she was, adrift in a world which believes a mother–father unit is ideal, and anything less is an aberration.

Throughout Mary Shelley’s novel, the monster’s mental age remains that of a child, and we see him suffer at the hands of a baying mob who despise his deformities and decry him as an abomination. Frankenstein’s monster is a caricature in many different ways; not just in the way he looks or behaves, but as an embodiment of early 18th century attitudes to parental estrangement, or even to Regency-era’s views on disability. Caricature in literature has a wider canvas than a cartoonist could ever dream of, so a writer would be wise to master its uses.

Over time, the meaning of the word caricature has been amalgamated with the words cliché and stereotype, and is therefore regarded negatively. A writer who resorts to such techniques risks being considered unsophisticated or out-of-touch; guilty of opting for lazy character portrayals for cheap laughs to avoid making their stories (and their characters) more complex. Having said this, I still believe caricature has many positive uses and should not be completely disregarded. While it’s true to say a story which depicts a fat greedy banker with cat-like whiskers would indeed be yawn-inducing, there are other ways caricature can serve a purpose beyond stating the obvious.

You will need to have a clear sense of who your character is. How can you describe them, or depict them, in ways which make them more striking to your audience? What sets them apart, or makes them different from other characters in your story? Visually speaking, should they have features or mannerisms which are worth emphasising for humorous, or sinister, effect? Are there aspects of your character’s personality you can exaggerate to make the reader understand them better, perhaps foreshadowing later events in the plot? Or better yet, are there metaphors you can use to describe your character’s behaviour to convey their motivations more abstractly, again to hint at something deeper? These are your first steps towards embracing the use of caricature and all questions can be addressed without jeopardising the quality of your overall story.

It is only by remembering the similarity between visual ‘caricature’ and literary ‘caricature’ that you will uncover new ways of writing a story to apply it more broadly. To start with, you will need to avoid seeing caricature as a mere cartoon and start seeing it as a non-visual way to give your characters extra facets. Picture them in your head, by all means, but your depiction in prose should aim to be more poetic in how you use exaggeration to express their thoughts, their appearance, and their actions. Once you’ve learnt this, you’ll realise that caricature is more elaborate and more rewarding than many writers realise, and is well worth embracing. Perhaps it’s time to revive it.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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