I recently read Stephen King’s short story collection JUST AFTER SUNSET and noticed something of a pattern to the way he builds characters. King layers trauma into them, but only occasionally does it relate directly to their current problem. There is a tendency to believe that any major piece of a character’s history, especially any types of trauma, should play into their current conflict–maybe even build to some sort of epiphany or resolution for the character. This often isn’t the case for King.
For example, the main character of his short story THE GINGERBREAD GIRL, Emily, recently lost her daughter. The main thrust of the story is her discovery that a man in the neighborhood of her father’s vacation home, where she’s staying as she recovers from her loss, kidnaps and murders children. As I read, I kept expecting her story to be about saving one of the little girls the man has kidnapped, metaphorically saving her own daughter. But that’s not where the story goes, nor is it the point. SPOILER: Emily fails to save the girl, instead discovering her body after the fact and getting caught herself in the process. The story then becomes about her needing to save herself. Which, considering where she was at the start of the story, is completely apt.
In another example from a story out of JUST AFTER SUNSET, one called A VERY TIGHT PLACE, our protagonist Curtis Johnson is still feeling the trauma of losing his beloved pet dog because of his vindictive neighbor. This trauma ties more directly into the story, but not neatly. Curtis doesn’t get revenge on his nemesis, Tim, at least not in a way that feels “eye for an eye.” Instead, the death of his dog at the hands of his neighbor is used to illustrate the intensity of their feud.
There are innumerable examples like this in King’s writing. Young Gary from THE MAN IN THE BLACK SUIT lost his brother to a bee sting, and then is saved from a bee sting by the Devil himself. Roland Deschain of THE DARK TOWER series was traumatized by his premature battle with Cort. On and on it goes.
So what purpose do these traumas serve if they’re not always tied into the story at hand? Often it’s used as a shortcut toward getting us to connect with them, and in every case it’s integral to who they are. Understanding the traumas of the characters, especially early on, not only connects us to them but illuminates why they’re making the decisions they make throughout the story. Emily isn’t sure she has the inner-strength to get over the death of her daughter until she needs to physically save herself from a killer. Curtis refuses to let his neighbor get the upper hand on him, even when trapped in a porta-potty. Roland tries to protect Jake’s innocence and is wracked with guilt when he allows him to die.
These types of shortcuts are useful to authors, especially in short stories, because they can convey a lot of information in few words. And King, despite his reputation for wordiness, is a master at that kind of character work.