Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King: a masterclass in how to write compelling characters

As Stephen King’s much- anticipated follow-up to The Shining has recently been reviewed in the press, one or two broadsheet critics just couldn’t resist taking a swipe at King, accusing him of manipulating the reader as well as writing a sequel that doesn’t quite match the original. I can’t help feeling that there are still critics out there who resent King’s right to be taken seriously as a good writer, just because he specialises in the horror genre.
Steven Poole’s Guardian review of Dr Sleep, I am glad to say, shows King the respect he deserves, making the point that it was thanks to ‘more culturally acceptable novels such as the claustrophobic masterpiece Misery that King has grudgingly been admitted by the lit-crit folk into the ranks of “actually good writers” as opposed to mere megaselling dimestore artists.’
I would put King’s earlier work, Dolores Claiborne in Poole’s category of ‘more culturally acceptable novels,’ if a psychological thriller about domestic violence is considered more culturally acceptable than one with supernatural themes. It is a testament to King’s phenomenal output that other works of his have overshadowed this particular novel. I was drawn to it primarily as it is not only written in the first person but Dolores tells her story entirely in her own dialogue as she’s being interviewed by two police officers. I might just be able to tell a story in one character’s dialogue for the duration of a short story, but to do this over an entire novel where you have to rachet up the tension and suspense, believe me, takes some doing.
Dolores, who is in her sixties, is taken in for questioning over the suspicious death of her employer, Vera Donovan. Although Dolores and Vera had their differences, Dolores is adamant that she didn’t kill Vera. Dolores does have a confession to make but it’s not about Vera, it’s about Joe, her husband, who died back in 1963.
As well as admiring the way this tale is told, I found the voice of Dolores particularly effective. Housekeeper would be too grand a title for what Dolores does for Mrs Donovan – she’s more like a cleaner and general dogsbody and although I know next to nothing about how such a person from an island off Maine might speak, I’m convinced by Dolores’s speech patterns and dialogue. Here is Dolores explaining what it’s like to be poor: ‘With Joe out of the pitcher and no money coming in, I was in a fix, I can tell you – I got an idear there’s no one in the whole world feels as desperate as a woman on her own with kids dependin on her.’
King tells it like it is for the struggling and the down-trodden and in this era of celebrity-obsessed culture, Dolores Claiborne is a masterclass in how to write meaningful and compelling characters.

1 thought on “Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King: a masterclass in how to write compelling characters

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