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What Best-Selling Crap Can Teach Us

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

But — back to interesting characters.

For Stephen King, the list is far longer, simply because King is a more insightful writer than Grisham. King, however, tends to write characters with personality when he’s not looking and a random character happens to emerge as a major player.

I call these kinds of characters “darkhorse characters,” and I hold deep, undying affection for them. A few have emerged in my own writing, like I said, in the guise of a minor character that I introduce with the intention of killing or ushering offstage immediately, but who winds up hanging around for the whole damn story. For King, I’ll offer an example of a darkhorse character along with what remains King’s greatest triumph in characterization to this day.


Tom Sizemore as darkhorse character Owen Underhill.

The random darkhorse: In the novel Dreamcatcher — which King wrote while convalescing after getting hit by a car — King wrote a scene with a bunch of soldiers. One of the soldiers had a line of dialogue, and for whatever reason, King assigned this bit player a name: Underhill. King wrote four lead roles into this book, and made the genius move of killing the two most interesting ones. That left us with two personality-free pinballs bouncing around the hectic-apocalyptic plot. From that wreckage, Underhill quietly asserted himself as an intelligent, good-hearted guy who enlisted in the Army because he couldn’t afford college but whose competence and street-smarts had no doubt put him on the radar for officer training school.

King’s greatest triumph: Harold Lauder in The Stand. Harold remains stunning and terrifying to this day. Somehow, for whatever reason, King understood the psychology of the angry sexless loser so well, that he wound up turning a minor character into the most interesting creation (and villain) in an 1,100-page novel. Harold makes many interesting and tragic choices, yes, but King also lets us spend time inside his turbulent and furious mind, where he writes countless stinging one-liners and comebacks to everyone who has ever or will ever wrong him. King’s prose, which isn’t bad, vibrates at awesomer frequencies when he inhabits characters like Harold, whose semen dries “like a scale” on his stomach after he masturbates to a fantasy about a woman he’ll never have.

2. Interesting backstory:
Here is where writers like King and Grisham trick well-meaning literary critics into thinking they haven’t fucked up. (Tiresome clarification: I’m not arguing that Grisham and King consciously try to fool anyone.)

Grisham and King, but King especially, fall into the trap of what I call “dossier writing,” in which immediately after introducing a character, they spend a few hundred (or thousand) words telling us that character’s life story. These arias suck because they contain very little that’s interesting, or they contain tiresome, trite details that the writers mistake for “character development” — a phrase from junior-high English so loathsome that I shudder to write it.

For a really shitty example of dossier writing, pick up The Stand and flip a few pages into it to find the introduction of the novel’s nominal lead, Stu Redman. King takes a few pages to tell us such key details about the Texan Stu like: He grew up in Texas, or his dad’s a piece of shit. King strays into trite detail territory when he recounts an all-nighter Stu pulls to read the classic novel Watership Down. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of Richard Adams’ animal Aeneid — but that detail does not add to Stu’s character, especially because the most King could squeeze out of Stu’s love of the book were a few cutesy references to it.

Grisham and King also very often mistake tragedy for character. Usually their characters have some tragedy or personal failing (alcoholism, drug addiction, a death in the family) that haunts them the whole book. Case in point: Peter in Dreamcatcher is a drunk. That’s it. That’s his character. He’s a drunk. In one of King’s most recent (and better) novels, Cell, his lead character is a comic book artist. Late in the novel, he takes a break from working to sit down and draw, even though he has no art supplies. Another character mentions this, and this character says he’s going to “draw in his head.” How cute.

King writes an even more infuriating dossier near the beginning of IT, when he writes the following scene:


• Husband and wife at home.
• Husband receives shocking phone call.
• Husband disappears.
• Wife, puzzled, finds husband dead in bathtub from suicide.

But that’s not the scene he wrote. No, instead, King wrote this scene:

• Husband and wife at home.
• Husband receives shocking phone call.
• Husband disappears.
• Wife has 900-page flashback about going to her senior prom and feeling really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really ashamed about being Jewish.
• Wife, puzzled, finds husband dead in bathtub from suicide.

This is a perfect example of King at his most blunderingly self-indulgent. Quentin Tarantino has said that he writes every character like they’re the lead in his movie. I guess you could argue that King is doing the same thing here, except that instead of giving us something as interesting as Capt. Koons in Pulp Fiction or James Gandolfini’s goomba in True Romance, King falls back on what I call the “You’re a _____!” flashback. There are lots of ways to write shitty backstory, but this is one of the worst, where a writer gives us a scene where all that happens is someone yells an insult or racial or ethnic slur at our character. King does it again with Mother Abigail in The Stand.

OK, now that I’ve outlined how all these choices suck, let me chastise any book critic who has read a tiresome flashback or introductory dossier and mistook it for improvement. It’s a baby step in the right direction, yes, but it’s a lateral move toward a ladder that leads to actual characters like Harold Lauder and Mark Sway; characters who, incidentally, tend to spring out of best-selling authors without their bidding.

So, what makes an interesting backstory? Can they even involve tragedy or personal failings? Of course, but they have to dovetail with my third requirement:

3. The backstory must cause the character to make interesting choices: Remember when I said that simply including tragedy in a character’s past doesn’t count as personality or character? Let me expand on that to say that an interesting backstory can involve tragedy and it can involve personal failing, but more important, an interesting backstory simply recounts a life lived. Sounds easy, right? But the reality is that fascinating, quirky and interesting details fill everyone’s lives, and it’s a writer’s tough job to pack the same madness into the lives of their characters. Mind you, I’m not saying you have to write crazy backstories like John Irving, but it doesn’t hurt.

No, backstories simply have to ring true, and again, they have to make the characters do interesting things. A lot of writers waste a lot of time thinking up twist endings, when if they spent more time coming up with interesting, resonant backstories, their twists would write themselves.

Again I digress, but let me cite a great example of a good King character with an interesting backstory: Lloyd Henreid of The Stand. King does some dossier writing with Lloyd, if memory serves, but despite that, Lloyd is a success. Lloyd, a longtime criminal, survives the viral outbreak that devastates the world’s population. Early in the story, the novel’s chief villain, Randall Flagg, frees Lloyd from prison and makes him his chief lieutenant. Lloyd spends the rest of his time onstage in the novel debating whether or not to abandon the forces of evil, but remains loyal out of his sense of honor — Flagg saved his life. That’s interesting! Lloyd brims with personality and tragic details, and his character makes me think that if Flagg hadn’t drafted Lloyd into his ranks, Lloyd would have used the global reboot caused by the virus as a second chance — that he would have made his way to Boulder to chill with the good guys, sooner or later.

Grisham gives us a moderately interesting lead character in what is essentially a conflict-free, full-length exercise in first-person narrative and moral sanctimony that rode Grisham’s pedigree to best-seller status: Rudy Baylor in The Rainmaker. Let me stress: There is no conflict in The Rainmaker. None. Recent law school grad Baylor sues a big insurance company, and he absolutely kicks their asses in court. Grisham hints at the possibility of conflict by introducing a nasty judge for the trial, only to replace him with a judge friendly to the inexperienced Baylor. Ugh.

But Baylor ain’t a bad creation. Personally, I’ve only written a few brief passages in first person, and I couldn’t imagine writing an entire novel in it, at least not now. So I applaud Grisham for giving us some insight into those nervous first few months after passing the bar.

There’s a lot to refute in this essay, including my status as an unpublished novelist. That said, I stand by my three main tenets — personality, backstory and choices. Yes, great characters, like great writing, tend to happen when you’re not looking, but as an old-fashioned journalism school geek, I stand by technique, and I stand by the need to avoid the pitfalls that Grisham and King so often fall into.


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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet,, Offscreen, and He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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