Character and Caricature

By Maeve Maddox

In an NPR story about the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s vacated Senate, a Massachusetts legislator, Jim Vallee, declared:

“He’s not a one-dimensional caricature.”

Caricature does not mean the same thing as character. And it is character that is often characterized (!) as being “one-dimensional.”

Novelists do not want to be accused creating of one-dimensional characters: imaginary people who are entirely good or entirely evil. Real people are rarely one-dimensional. Hitler is said to have liked dogs and classical music. Hannibal Lecter enjoys a nice Chianti. In a novel, a one-dimensional hero who never has an unworthy thought, or a villain who lacks some flicker of humanity, comes across as flat and uninteresting.

The OED offers nineteen definitions for the noun character. The definition that applies in the context of the Vallee quotation is:

The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual . . .

A caricature, on the other hand, is intrinsically one-dimensional, or at least lacking in depth. As an artistic rendering, a caricature exaggerates a person’s most noticeable feature. For example, Obama’s ears, Leno’s chin, Bette Davis’s eyes.

Defined by the OED, a caricature is

An exaggerated or debased likeness, imitation, or copy, naturally or unintentionally ludicrous.

Here’s a quotation in which the word caricature is used correctly:

The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade. –Simone Weil

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5 Responses to “Character and Caricature”

  • Kay

    In the NPR story, what is the context of the comment? Was the legislator saying that Brown was not all good or all evil? Or was he saying that Brown was not a ludicrous likeness of something?

  • Robert

    Technically, a caricature (or any other drawing) is not one-dimensional, but two-dimensional (with an x- and y-axis). The “depth” you mention is the third dimension (the z-axis).

  • L Newberry

    Character vs Caricature – Jim Vallee of NPR used the word Caricature intentionally, not accidentally! It was a lovely twist of words that said exactly what he meant. Someone likened to a cartoonish, bigger than life, one dimensional being with exaggerated characteristics can be described as a caricature. If you listened to the entire broadcast you would have known why the use of the word was appropriate, even brilliant.

  • emmie

    Hello, I’m enjoying this site quite a while, but since I’m a natieve speaker of Japanese living in Tokyo, there’re many thing I can’t understand well, sigh. But today’s last quote grabbed my mind. I’m a part-time teacher, so.
    Could anyone teach me which book of Weil’s those words come from ?
    I’m eager to read her work in English.

    Thank you in advance.

  • mailav

    very informative, thanks for share

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