I love Stephen King's books and especially his characters. I once sat on the floor reading Dolores Claiborne instead of packing for a move. I hadn't planned to sit and read the entire book. I picked it up, flipped to the first page, started reading, and didn't stop.
What did you ask, Andy Bisette?
Do I "understand these rights as you've explained em to me"?
Gorry! What makes some men so numb?
No, you never mind—still your jawin and listen to me for awhile. I got an idear you're gonna be listenin to me most of the night, so you might as well get used to it.
I did sit and listen to Dolores for awhile. A long while, the sort of thing I haven't done many times, just sit and read a book through front to back in a single rush. Yes, the pages are a bit narrower than some, and the lines are generously spaced, but it still comes in at 305 pages in the hardcover edition I read. King started writing the book the year I finished high school and it came out the year I finished college—and I still don't understand how he creates such compelling characters.
With this series of posts, we're going on a journey to study and learn characterization from the masters of fiction writing. I've written over twenty novels. I have degrees in writing fiction and in library and information science. I'm still learning about writing. I hope I never stop learning about writing. I want to do better. I always give it my best—I want to push that to higher levels.
I'm starting with a personal favorite. I love Stephen King's work and have collected his books for my private library. This is an initial foray into a longer journey of exploration and discovery. We're going to start figuring out a plan to tackle these questions, to uncover new questions, and figure out an approach.
This series isn't going to stop with Stephen King. I plan to bring in other authors' works. Compare genres, different time periods, and also look at non-fiction works on writing amazing characters.
I hope you'll join me in this process and share your experiences in the comments. I'd love to hear from you as we dig into this topic.
As we go through this post, I recommend that you grab copies of the books in print or e-book to follow along. I do use affiliate links to titles in this series, which provides a bit of support for this blog if you go through the links included. Don't want to buy copies? Visit your local library, or check out their options to check out e-books online.
It's not required, of course. I'll include quotes as we look at each, but you'll need access to copies if you want to do the exercises.
Join my readers group to follow along with this series of posts, receive news, instruction, and inspiration. You'll also get my Hail to the King 2019, a reading challenge of Stephen King titles. Read along with me in 2019 as I read a selection of Stephen King titles and share my thoughts on each.
Here's the question: how does King introduce us to his characters? In those first few pages of a book or a story, what does it look like? What does King do?
Let's start at the beginning, with the book that launched King. I'd like you to meet Carrie.
Okay, this book starts off with a news article about a rain of stones. It introduces two characters (the widow Margaret White and her 3-year-old daughter Carietta).
After the article, as the novel opens, it isn't a single character, but a group of characters that are referenced.
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had take it in the mouth again.
Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time,—
What none of them knew of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.
The novel has multiple openings. The newspaper, the opening that references what happened and flat out states that Carrie is telekinetic, and then the novel moves into the locker room to show what happened.
It's an opening rich with sensory details as King takes us into the shower room. And it is when we get our first look at Carrie.
Carrie stood among them stolidly, a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color.
And it goes on. The description picks up steam and moves. King takes us from the establishing shot of the shower room into a description of Carrie and deeper until we're into Carrie's thoughts and sensor details. Until we're right there with Carrie, the details washing over us until another character appears.
Miss Desjardin, their slim, non-breasted gym teacher, stepped in—
Type the opening of Carrie from "Nobody was really surprised..." all the way to "...they all saw the blood running down her leg."
Why? So you get what it feels like to type the opening, how it looks when you type it into Scrivener or Word, or whatever you use. If you hand-write first drafts, hand-write the opening. You'll learn so much more than just reading it. We're not trying to copy King, but we are figuring out how he breathes life into characters. It's only a bit over 400 words, easily done in 10-15 minutes.
Okay, let's stick with Carrie and figure out what's going on.
King doesn't stick to a fixed point of view (check out this Wikipedia article for definitions of narrative point of view). King moves all the way from the newspaper to the locker room, deep into Carrie's thoughts, and then back up and out until he references "they all saw" and back up to an excerpt from a scholarly piece about Carrie. We've gone for a ride with King all the way down and back up the other side. It's a third-person mode, subjective, omniscient POV.
King relishes in details, in opinions, calling Carrie "a frog among swans" and "the sacrificial goat" and more. Ouch.
The other girls are described as a group. Through the sensory details, we feel it from Carrie's perspective surrounded by the pack.
Miss Desjardin, the third character named (after Carrie's mother and herself), warrants a description of her own—and it's not Carrie's view of the teacher. We've come back up enough that we learn that Miss Desjardin won the whistle she wears in an archery contest.
One other character is named, Sue Snell, getting a single line. Enough to indicate that we'll see more of Sue later (King drops back down into Sue's thoughts after the break for the article).
In On Writing, King talks about writing Carrie, and the challenges that led him to throw it away. Fortunately, Tabitha King rescued it from the bin. Stephen King reflects on lessons learned from writing the book.
The most important is that the writer's original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader's. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.
The point of view technique King uses in Carrie—third person, subjective, omniscient—has a cinematic feel to it, don't you think? It starts from a place of commentary, drops down to show the shower room, moves into Carrie's thoughts and feelings, then pulls back again as Miss Desjardin shows up and the incident develops.
The omniscient narrator isn't an objective camera. King writes with attitude, with opinions about the characters and the situation. King includes sensory details in the environment and it all brings the scene to life as the POV tightens in closer and closer to Carrie, down into her perspective. This is a point of view that moves from one character to another and isn't limited third person. The narrator tells the reader right away that Carrie is telekinetic, stating that none of the girls who have gone to school with her know.
The whole thing, the article to the break, is only about 600 words, maybe two and a half pages. King manages to create suspense, tension, and a vivid sense of Carrie in that space. King has given us a description of the teacher, Miss Desjardin, and clearly conveys her own dislike of Carrie. The section also introduces Sue Snell, and it's Sue's perspective that we return to after the next article.
Next, let's take a look at an all-time favorite Stephen King novel, Misery, and meet Paul Sheldon (we'll also meet Annie Wilkes). We're going to look at the first two chapters and see how King introduces and brings these characters to life.
Short chapter, huh?
Let's take a look at the next few lines.
But sometimes the sounds—like the pain—faded, and then there was only the haze. He remembered darkness: solid darkness had come before the haze. Did that mean he was making progress?
Unlike the opening of Carrie, this time King starts down deep. Right down in the unnamed (at this point, because he doesn't even remember his own name) character's perspective. We're with this character, just as clueless, not knowing what's happened, except there are sounds, haze, darkness, and pain. And "he."
Type the first two chapters of Misery from "umber whunnnn.." all the way to "...they all saw the blood running down her leg."
This one is longer than the last exercise, about five pages, but it's worth it to see how the characterization builds as Paul becomes more aware.
The POV here is again in the third person. It's subjective, and it limited. Very much limited, just as Paul's mind and senses are limited in the beginning. The chapter sticks to that viewpoint the entire way through. Unlike Carrie, King hasn't pulled back to describe where Paul is, Annie, what has happened, or made any mention of what is coming for Paul like a swinging—
Well, I don't need to go there right now.
The form and structure of King's writing in this introduction to Paul is driven by Paul's own experiences. The first chapter, short, confused sounds and little else. The text drifts, long blocks of text without paragraphs as Paul drifts in the haze. As Paul's awareness increases, other moments intrude. King's descriptions of Paul's resuscitation, the stink of it, "she raped him full of her air again," characterizes Annie before we actually see her for the first time, and leads up to the chilling end of the second chapter.
We've also learned quite a bit about Paul. Not physically, but we get a sense of who he is, and some history and background. It's tied into what he is experiencing, memory informing the sense of the constant pain.
Let's take a look at one more example from Stephen King before wrapping up this initial dip into introducing characters. In this case, Sandy Dearborn.
Curt Wilcox's boy came around the barracks a lot the year after his father died, I mean a lot, but nobody ever told him get out the way or asked him what in hail he was doing there again. We understood what he was doing: trying to hold onto the memory of his father. Cops know a lot about the psychology of grief; most of us know more about it than we want to.
At first, it might seem as if this opening is similar to the opening of Carrie, but that isn't the case. It also isn't down deep within a character like Misery. The first paragraph tells us something about Curt Wilcox's son (but not his name), tells us that the narrator is a cop, and sets a voice for the story.
Type in this opening, just the first couple pages and change, right up to the scene break on page three. That's from "Curt Wilcox's boy came around..." to "...Michelle Wilcox was short a husband." Clocking in at 874 words, it shouldn't take too long to type that in.
The section starts with Now: Sandy at the top of the page, giving us both the time and the name of the character narrating the story. Unlike the other two examples, this is told in a first-person POV. Sandy tells us what happened, relating the events and background, with subjective opinion and knowledge that comes from looking back at the events described.
In Misery, the POV is limited to Paul and it rides his confusion and pain. It's right there and happening. The POV in Carrie moves about, free to dip in and out, to describe and tell the reader things that the title character doesn't know. Here, we only get what Sandy chooses to share, and that's at a distance. We're not living the events, as descriptive as they are told. Sandy tells us what happened to Curt, basing part of the story on court testimony. The opening goes on to page 24 when Sandy starts to tell Ned about the Buick.
The fact that Sandy is sitting there, telling the story about telling the story of the Buick, adds distance to the events. It frames the story. How could it be otherwise? It seems right the way King wrote it, as if there isn't any other way to tell the story. Maybe there isn't. If we imagined it in a limited third-person POV, whose POV would we use? Curt, destined to become roadkill? Sandy, or the other cops? The story does move between different POVs as Sandy tells the story, bouncing between now and then like a time traveler. King wrote it the way he wrote it because that is how he wrote it. Nothing more than that, I believe.
It's a question, though, when writing. If you hitch along figuring it out as you go, it most likely won't even be a conscious answer. The words and voice will come spilling out of your fingers in the most satisfying way they can. If you're more of a planning sort, your accountant brain might weigh and measure the advantages of different approaches. When it comes to first person POV stories, there's a finger on the scales that keep the story a bit at a distance. It isn't as deep as the third-person limited POV, and not as free-wheeling as the third-person omniscient POV.
I know we've hardly exchanged a few words in this brief introduction to Stephen King's characters. With so many books and characters to pick from, I could have gone on. If you haven't done the exercises yet, I encourage you to do so. Your fingers provide a two-way access to your subconscious. By typing in work by masters like Stephen King, you're teaching your inner neural network. You'll pick up techniques that you're not conscious of—only to see them emerge in your own writing, with your own words later on.
I plan to continue this series, looking at how characters are introduced and developed by other writers. I want to keep exploring and learning from writers with more miles on the road than me. I hope you'll join me on this journey of discovery.
Ryan M. Williams lives a double life as a full-time career librarian and a multi-genre writer with over twenty books. He writes across a range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, mystery, horror, and romance. He earned a Master of Arts degree in writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University and a Master of Library and Information Science from San Jose University. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine.