I just finished reading a book called 11/22/63, and it is a massive tome, dear readers. It clocks in at 842 pages, excluding the afterword.
Quick now: who can tell me the setting of the story? What happened that day?
Never mind, we’ll come to that later (or you could just cheat and scroll to the end of this post, but that wouldn’t be very nice now, would it?). For now, the first pertinent point is the author. His name’s Stephen King; you may have heard of him. He’s written a few books, and from all I’ve heard, they’ve done pretty well commercially. According to the all-knowing and always reliable internet, thirty-two (yes, that’s right, I said thirty-two) of his books have made the number one spot of the New York Times Bestseller List.
And here I would be perfectly happy to get a story published in a magazine no one’s ever heard of.
The second pertinent point is that 11/22/63 is also the thirtieth Stephen King book I’ve read, something of a milestone, I’ll admit. Which makes King, if we define ‘favorite’ as ‘having read the most books of’, my favorite author. Of course, it helps that he’s written over fifty books, while most of the other authors on my favorites list would be hard pressed to present half that number.
So I have to ask myself: why?
Why have I read thirty of King’s books? When his previous book, Under the Dome, came out, why did I curl up in the corner of my couch and plow through all 1088 pages before falling asleep that night?
(I feel like I have to add a disclaimer at this point: I’m not in the habit of recommending Stephen King, and so don’t take this as a recommendation. The reason? Simple, really. The books are offensive, pretty much across the board, as in, in nearly every aspect that could get a movie slapped with an R rating. And if you’re fine with that, go ahead. But consider yourself warned. . .)
If I could pinpoint and isolate the reason exactly, in all its variances and nuances, well then I’d also have thirty-two books on the Times Bestseller List. But as near as I can get it—and don’t get me wrong, I know there are many other factors—I think one of the biggest reasons is that his characters seem every bit as real as the people I interact with every day.
The characters might be sympathetic, endearing, eerie, or downright revolting, but they are all fully themselves. Pennywise the psychotic clown had us all shaking in our boots because some part of us believed in him—not necessarily that Pennywise actually existed, of course, but that he could exist. That, in the world of Derry home of the fiends land of the lost, it made perfect sense for Pennywise to exist and terrorize an entire town. And from there, it was only one small step for man to our world.
It doesn’t matter whose head we’re in—Jack Torrance, Roland Deschain, Eddie Dean—we’re there to stay. It is as if our lives and theirs have become intertwined, and so to abandon them is next to impossible. They get up there in your head and take up residence, get a lease. After that, walking away from them is about as hard as walking away from your best friend.
Them’s the breaks, kids.
Why do I say all this? It strikes me that such character, and not just character but this essential rapport between character and audience, is missing from a lot of books. Oftentimes, I finish reading a book and struggle to remember the main character’s name. I could tell you the plot, but not a whole lot about the guy or gal whose life was just turned upside-down.
But my favorites? With those, it’s the characters that get me. And character? Yeah, Stephen King’s books have got that in spades.
So just a thought, a musing, really. For all you storytellers out there, those of you who, like me, find that there’s nothing quite like weaving the tale that brings a tear or a peal of laughter, to you I ask: What are your characters like? Does your story rest on plot or character?
And for all you readers out there, those of you who, like me, find that there’s nothing quite like stepping into a world that is foreign and familiar at the same time, nothing like seeing the world through the lens of another heart and mind, to you I ask: What is more important to you, plot or character? Can you even separate the two, or are they like the negative and positive sides of a battery?
Oh, and 11/22/63? It’s about a man who travels back in time through a wormhole to stop Kennedy’s assassination. But the past is obdurate (842 pages of obdurate) and doesn’t want to be changed.