When I first took this Scribophile blogging gig, I immediately looked forward to writing about King’s then-upcoming monster of a novel, Under the Dome. I picked up the book the week of its release and, after doing a few weight-training exercises with it, I delved in. I finished this morning and, while its still fresh, let’s see what we can learn from the King of Horror.
What King Does Best
Characterization. There are a lot of characters in this book. King himself has claimed there are 100, and I believe that. The fascinating thing is I think I could name about half of them with at least a sentence on who they are and their personality. He said in an interview that he kept a pad beside him as he wrote to keep track of all the different characters which also acted as a reminder to return and check in on each. This is a valuable habit to pick up. Even if 100+ character rosters aren’t your forte, keeping notes along the way and looking back can help in keep tracking of all the little details and/or personality quirks so that you can utilize them to the best of your ability.
He also does a great job in making characters multi-dimensional. Even one of the most twisted and demented characters in the book has a soft and loving side towards a pair of small children. The main protagonist has a deep regret from a stain on his past (who doesn’t) that becomes a central theme of the book. It reminds us as writers that no one is perfect and no one is completely flawed.
That also brings me to a criticism: the main antagonist doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. He becomes remorselessly evil and I don’t know if I quite buy it. Usually King gives us in depth background on the baddies to shed some type of light (if not understanding) on their flaws, but not here. The lack also exists in some of his smaller characters. I’d like to think it was something left out for length, but it doesn’t feel like a fair trade-off. I like having my characters feel real, almost to the point where the line between good and evil is most deliciously skewed.
He also has a great way with dialogue. In On Writing he said that, as a writer, you should actively soak up the different ways people talk for use in characterization. This could include jotting down peculiar phrases or common speech patterns you’ve heard throughout the day, or making mental notes on how people talk in different geographical regions. A moment that stuck out in Under the Dome was when a woman said, “Whatever,” and blushed before going right into her next point after she’d said something embarrassing. At that instant I could picture that scene perfectly because I felt I had experienced the same reaction from so many real people. Another was when two important characters were playing 20 Questions across two jail cells to pass the time, a reminder of how the human spirit continues on even when the odds are against them.
King has fun in this one, fully utilizing his role as omnipotent narrator. The book is split up into unnumbered sections which have mini-chapters that usually switch from perspective to perspective. There are moments when he follows a character closely, others when he might observe a small meeting from the corner of a room, and the most intriguing as he spans back and soars over the whole of the town, talking directly to the reader in first person, as if he’s a storyteller in front of a group huddled around the camp-fire. He even tells some (a very small some) of the story from the perspective of animals, an interesting and impressive take on the workings of a considerably simpler brain. It’s truly refreshing all around.
As a writer, it is important to decide which point of view will work best for your story. King set out to create a commentary on how people as a whole may respond to a devastating phenomena, so a limited perspective wouldn’t work. In the same light, if he had decided to showcase an introspective look into how one particular family or person deals with the predicament, another style would have been more appropriate.
And the most important lesson…
The story of Under the Dome acts as commentary on a lot of things: global warming, politics, the human spirit, the list goes on. But for us writers, it exemplifies a very important lesson: let the characters drive the story. In the book, an impenetrable dome is dropped on a town…and that’s the only significant act performed by forces other than the characters themselves. Everything after that, from the mayhem, the bloodshed, the destruction, and the complete dismantling of government, was all a result of the characters. A lot of the bad could have been avoided, but the mesh of personalities trapped under this dome made it inevitable. Throughout, I felt like events happened or plans failed or people died not because the author was making it so, but because it couldn’t have happened any other way with the characters involved. And that’s satisfying.
That’s how I believe a writer should treat their characters. You make them so unique and alive that once you put them inside the scenario you have created (their ‘dome’), they should lead the rest of the show. So, next time you’re stuck in where to go with your story, instead of asking the question, “how should I solve this situation?” ask “how would my characters solve it?” The result should be amazing.