Characterization has never been one of King’s strongest elements. He likes to reuse certain templates over and over again rather than regularly inventing new people out of whole cloth, taking his stock types—The Writer with Demons, The Smartmouth, The Magical Negro, The Supernaturally Gifted Kid—adjusting a few characteristics here and there, and throwing them into the mix. There are certainly exceptions—Annie Wilkes is terrifyingly original—but they’re few and far between.
Not to say that King is a terrible writer because of this. There are plenty of literary darlings who have the same problem—every single Philip Roth protagonist is more or less a variation on Philip Roth. Just to say that the best way to judge his characters isn’t (usually) by whether or not they’re original creations, but by how successful they are compared to King’s other variations on their respective themes. It contains a jumble of success and failure in this regard, a batch of characters who are both among the strongest of their archetypes and among the absolute worst. For sake of space, I plan to cover only the Losers’ Club in this particular chapter; Pennywise is vast enough a presence that It will rear its tufted head up again and again in subsequent posts, while Henry Bowers and his friends aren’t quite developed enough to dedicate a significant amount of space to.
Bill Denbrough: the Mary Sue
Unfortunately, the leader of the Loser’s Club and It‘s ostensible protagonist (the book begins and ends with him) is certainly its weakest member. If Nathan Zuckerman is Philip Roth, Bill Denbrough is Stephen King, and while Roth had the self-restraint to render Zuckerman a deeply flawed antihero, Bill is an author fantasy through and through.
The problem doesn’t lie in his being a writer. After all, Misery‘s Paul Sheldon is also a spinner of tales, and he may be King’s most successful protagonist. The problem lies in Bill’s utter lack of personality. Here’s a comparison of the two characters to more clearly lay out this problem:
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Paul is an intensely fallible character. He’s prone to arrogance and bravado, which at best cause him to be woefully overconfident—his conviction that Fast Cars, his first literary novel, will win him the establishment respect that he so clearly deserves—and at worst lead to disaster—his deciding it’s a good idea to drive drunk through winding Colorado roads without calling anyone first, his willingness to think he’s controlling Annie to an extent that he really isn’t. It’s also easy for him to be reduced to a rather pathetic state; his desperation to survive frequently induces pitiful, childish pleading and wheedling with Annie. He has an addictive personality, which leads him to become hooked on Novril and later on alcohol.
On the other hand, his weaknesses also form some of his greatest assets in his fight to stay alive. The same bravado that gets him into his horrible situation in the first place also allows him to push at Annie at crucial moments, gaining leverage at vital moments in order to secure himself better writing supplies or to save his skin (or, ultimately, to kill his captor). His desperate need to survive, while it can induce pathetic behavior, is also manifested in fierce determination and wild improvisations that a less desperate man would never have thought of. And his addictive personality also keeps him addicted to the story he is writing for Annie, which keeps him going even when his desire to live has faded away.
Bill stutters. He’s angered and grieved by the death of his brother George, which drives him to take revenge on Pennywise. Equally upsetting to him as the death of his brother is the absence of his parents in the wake of the tragedy. Despite the trauma in his past, or perhaps because of it, he is a phenomenal writer whose books, with little effort, become bestsellers and enable him to meet his wife, a beautiful Hollywood actress.
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Now, the above comparison isn’t quite fair, but it gets the point across. Paul is an excellently drawn deconstruction of King himself—of the genre writer fed up with his fans and with the silence of “serious” critics. It would be easy for Annie Wilkes to overwhelm Misery, as wonderfully over the top as she is, but Paul is a complex enough character that he’s able to match her. His mingled faults and virtues are those of a real person, his struggles are horrifyingly realized, and his success is hard-won and bitterly Pyrrhic. While he’s clearly intended as a twisted mirror image of his creator, the reality of his character is such that the reader sympathizes and identifies with him. He’s not perfect, but that’s exactly what he needs to retain his humanity (this is an apparent reason as to the lukewarm reception to the Broadway run of William Goldman’s stage adaptation—it’s hard to see Bruce Willis as a human being these days).
Bill, by contrast, is impossible to identify with. His only major flaw, his stutter, has a negligible impact on his character; it serves as a reason to explain why he’s an outcast with the rest of the Losers’ Club, but his personality and decisions aren’t particularly impacted by this disability. And outweighing this flaw is a complete caricature of Stephen King’s career.
King’s success is positively remarkable, but it was not acquired without hard work. Much of On Writing is devoted to descriptions of rejection letter after rejection letter, failure after failure. Even after King began selling short fiction, he and his wife Tabitha barely scraped by until he managed to land a publication deal for Carrie, and a decade after that he was financially successful but mired in alcoholism and cocaine use. This is one of the chief reasons that On Writing manages to come off as the portrait of a sympathetic everyman despite King’s incredible career—he’s highly forthcoming and realistic about the struggle that comes with getting published, much less making a living out of it.
Bill Denbrough, however, has none of these struggles. We are presented with no scenes of his character struggling with disastrous attempts at storytelling as a teenager; no rejection strips hung (as they were by King) on a spike; no harrowing tales of poverty or addiction. Instead, the reader is treated to Bill rubbing his success with a published short story in his writing professor’s face, almost immediately launching a career full of runaway bestsellers, and with little effort managing to charm a Hollywood star into becoming his wife. It’s pure fantasy, and worse, it’s an obvious one. Bill is not a realistic depiction of King, he’s a caricature of him.
All this could be forgiven if there were some great, defining heroism to him, but there just isn’t. We’re certainly told that there is—there’s moment after moment of each and every one of the Losers thinking to themselves how much they love him, how they are willing to die for him, how they would be lost without his leadership and bravery. But the author doth protest too much. This almost obnoxious fawning over Bill Denbrough comes off as a frantic attempt to mask the fact that Bill is not particularly a leader. He doesn’t come up with the idea to stage a smoke-hole ritual in order to divine where It came from, or to take a silver slug and kill It—Ben does. He doesn’t make the decision to find It in the sewers and kill It—the Losers are forced there by Henry Bowers and his gang. He isn’t the one to stay behind in Derry and keep the faith, or to call his friends back when It resurfaces—that’s Mike. Bill is at best a good-luck charm, kept around by his friends because for whatever reason he inspires a near-suicidal passion in them.
All of the preceding rant is inordinately harsh, because I don’t hate Bill. He’s blandly pleasant, and the epilogue in which he beats the devil one last time is among the most emotionally powerful moments of the book. But even in that moment, the reader is moved not for Bill, but for all that he represents—the loss of childhood friends and memories, the mingled beauty and tragedy of growing up, etc. Bill never really exceeds this level of characterization; he’s a cipher and nothing more. As far as author surrogates go, he’s arguably King’s worst, and certainly the least successful character in It.
Beverly Marsh: the woman
King has a mixed track record with female characters, though he’s capable of writing excellent depictions of women. Dolores Claiborne in particular passes the Bechdel test a thousand times over, and was an admirable effort on King’s part to remedy his past deficiencies and write a realistic female character over the age of thirty. Carrie, despite its relative juvenile status, has some keen moments of feminist insight, as is to be expected in a book largely based around the dangers of sexual repression in young girls. But for every one of these, there’s an early book in which female characters mostly exist for male protagonists to fall in love with, fight over, and rescue (or not)—Franny in The Stand, Susan in ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.
Beverly Marsh is herself a mixed example of King’s treatment of female characters. There are many things to love about her, but for every one of these there’s a problematic element to her character or to other characters’ reactions to her. There is a case to be made for a feminist reading of It, one I’ll get into when I discuss that scene in further detail, but I’m not entirely sure King manages to pull that off.
To start with, there’s the rather obvious problem of Beverly’s singular status in the Losers’ Club; she’s the only female member, and the only female character in the book touched on in much detail. To compound this problem, every single one of her male friends sees her at least partially as a sexual object. Each of the male members of the Losers’ Club is described at least once as having fluttering feelings of sexual arousal whilst gazing at Beverly, and for Ben in particular it forms a defining aspect of his character. In a vacuum, this is a problem. In context—Beverly is routinely abused by her father, and later her husband Tom, both of whom desire her as a sex object—it’s a glaring crack. Beverly cannot escape the perception of her existence as a sexual being, even when among the boys who are her closest friends. Depending on your opinion, the infamous orgy in the Derry sewers can either redeem this troubling element or make it even worse—again, this will be dealt with later. Beverly’s own infatuation with Bill is also disturbing; she is not the only Loser who is prepared to die for him, but where this is due to loyalty on the male friends’ part, it’s due to romantic feelings on hers. This denial of one’s self due to complete romantic dependence is troubling, to say the least.
This said, there are many aspects of Beverly’s character that are quite positive. She’s brave, resourceful, and loyal to her friends, and has a wonderful inability to be reduced to a damsel for boys to rescue. She does meekly submit to Tom’s abuse for several years, relapsing into a horrible inability to resist an abuser who she happens to love just as she did with her father—however, when the moment comes to run she’s not rescued by a male who happens to be standing by. Beverly rescues herself, seizing her husband’s choice instrument of “punishment”, a belt, and beating him into near-unconsciousness with it. She’s just as determined against Henry Bowers and his friends in her childhood, delivering just as many injuries to them as any of the male Losers in the Apocalyptic Rockfight and other confrontations. It’s her who deals It the first blow with Ben’s silver slug, saving the lives of Ben and all the others. And while she appears to revert horribly in the moment she offers herself up to the others in order to find their way out of the tunnels, there is at least an argument to be made that this is in fact an empowering moment rather than a degrading one (again, more on this later).
She’s not a perfect heroine by any means—she has perhaps the most tragic flaw of any of the Losers, a desperate desire to be loved by the men who hurt her. This imperfection, however, renders her a thoroughly believable human being, and makes her decisive turn against Tom even more powerful when it does occur. Beverly is flawed, but she is able to overcome her flaw when the moment comes, drawing on deep reserves of determination and independence rather than relying on others to rescue her. Her position within It‘s pantheon is not without its problems, but in and of herself she’s one of King’s better female characters, and probably his best before the 1990s.
(to be continued)