Monday, February 6, 2017

Maine Authors: The Grand Old Man

I spent close to two decades living Away, and I can tell you: let a group of Iowans know that you are from Maine, and someone is bound to mention Stephen King.

I made up a lot of lies about Maine - I used to tell people, for instance, that you had to register your chickens like dogs, and that everyone has a snowmobile, because there's only one road. I never had to make up a story about Stephen King, though: the truth was more than enough.

I'm not a big fan of horror as a genre. Dean Koontz leaves me cold. I love King, though, for his characters.

[Herein follows a rant about writers and characters. Tl;dr: most writers create cardboard cutouts of characters. If you're a writer, don't do that.]

Begin rant: I'll read anything; the back of a cereal box if nothing else is available. In seeming paradox, I am also a very fussy reader - I read many many books, complaining all the while (often on twitter!) about giant holes in the plot, improbable plot twists, and most of all bad characters. Before I got most of my books on Kindle, I was occasionally known to throw a paperback across the room in response to an unusually bad bit of dialogue.

I read a lot of crime fiction, and in that genre, female characters are often written particularly poorly. Sometimes the only female characters in the book are the past, current, or potential sexual interests of the male hero. Look around the world, crime writers! Do you see any women you haven't and don't plan on fucking? Lots of them, right? Take a clue. (HAHA get it? A clue?? ) Stereotypes abound in crime fiction, as a result of the use of female characters as a plot device, rather than actual developed characters. The tough cookie, the ingenue, the socialite, the bitch.

It's a bee up my nose, for sure, but it's also the proverbial canary in the coal mine: if your female characters are wooden, your male characters probably aren't great either.

Emphasis on physical description is a symptom. Honestly I think all writers should remove the word "beautiful" from their vocabularies, except (maybe) for use in dialogue. It's lazy. If your character (male or female) is meant to be attractive, you can lightly sketch an appearance, and let us deduce attractiveness from other characters' interactions - if it even matters. Often we don't need to know what someone looks like at all. The waitress can show her dimples to your hero, and we get that she is flirting, regardless of whether or not she is pretty. Tangential to this point, if you have to tell me one character has feelings for another, you're doing it wrong. That is maybe the easiest thing in the world to demonstrate. The old adage is none the less true for its hoariness: show, don't tell.

[End rant]

Which brings me back to King. His latest trilogy is a set of crime dramas (with a bit of the supernatural...he is still King, after all) which feature retired detective Bill Hodges. Hodges has sidekicks, supporting characters, and adversaries...none of whom he is hoping to fuck! Imagine it. One of three main characters is a woman, and nowhere do we discover whether the average guy would want to fuck her! She has her personal strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, but she stands on her own, a fully formed character, not merely a device to create situations for Hodges.

The same is true of all of his characters: they have flaws, they have struggles, and as a result they feel real. I care what happens to them. When they triumph - not just over the bad guy but over their own weaknesses - I exult with them. It's why I always loved King's work even when he only (or mostly) wrote horror. Write good characters, and I am yours for life.

Anyway: if you haven't read these books, you want to. If you've passed over anything with the Stephen King name on it because horror is not your bag, give Bill Hodges a whirl.

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