Three-Dimensional Characters: How Stephen King Does It

Stephen King.  All I can say is, no matter which of the three methods for creating three-dimensional characters you prefer, Stephen King is ALL ABOUT the three dimensions of character. Especially in The Shining.

To make this exercise more manageable, I’ve merged Frey/Egri’s dimensions (physiological, sociological, psychological) and Brooks’s dimensions (Surface Appearance, Backstory, and Meaningful Choices) into Wiesner’s character sheet, which, per her dimensions, we’ll complete for the character’s past, present and future.

We could easily fill out this character sheet for Wendy, Danny and the Overlook Hotel–really, for almost all of King’s characters–but I’m only going to do Jack.  I’ve reread the first three scenes and pulled relevant quotes, but the rest I’m going to fill from memory.

Expect overlap.  I tried to combine fields to make for less overlap, but there still is some.  That’s not a problem.  Overlap is actually a sign of a cohesive story.

Here we–Wait!  Do I need to say “spoilers ahead”?  The book’s something like 45 years old so . . .

Here we go!

THREE-DIMENSIONAL CHARACTER SHEET

Name and Character Role:

  • Jack Torrence, Protagonist

Physical Description/Physiological/Surface Traits/Ticks and Habits:

  • Present:
    • “Jack smiled, a big wide PR smile.”  He flashes this smile three times in the first scene. One time it’s “large and insultingly toothy.”
    • Another character says Jack talks “just like a book.”
    • Jack’s about 27 years old. He’s developing a play “from a novelette he had written seven years ago as an undergraduate.”
    • The narration says about the man with whom Jack is interviewing: “Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men.” Given how contemptuously Jack thinks of “small plump men,” Jack is probably neither small nor plump.  He’s probably of at least average height and fitness, and likely handsome.
  • Past:
    • “He rubbed his hand harshly across his lips.”  This is something Jack always did when he was drinking.
  • Future:
    • Jack will start rubbing his hands on his lips more and more as the hotel and the need to drink start getting to him.
    • By the end of the story, from Danny’s perspective, Jack will morph into this: “It [Jack] was not his father. The mask of face and body had been ripped and shredded and made into a bad joke.  It was not his daddy, not this Saturday Night Shock Show horror with its rolling eyes and hunched and hulking shoulders and blood-drenched shirt.”

Personality Traits/Strengths:

  • Present:
    • Jack is bitter and resentful: “Jack Torrence thought: Officious little prick.
    • Jack feels that he’s better than his current situation.  “Humiliating situation. Did this officious little prick actually think . . .” and “Could you at least spare the salestalk.”
    • Jack keeps up with current events. He makes a comment about presidents Harding and Nixon and recognizes the name Horace Derwent, a millionaire who once owned the Overlook Hotel.
    • Jack has a temper. His internal chatter is hyper aware of his temper and what it makes him do and that he needs to control it.
    • Jack’s curious. “Jack stared around, fascinated. The Overlook’s entire history might be here, buried in these rotting cartons.”
    • Jack’s got a sense of humor not everyone appreciates.  There’s a couple above Jack and Wendy’s apartment who fights. “The Friday Night Fights, Jack called them, but it wasn’t funny.”
    • Jack’s proud. “Jack and his pride! Hey no, Al, I don’t need an advance. I’m okay for a while.
    • Jack likes putting people in their place. “Ullman offered a patronizing little smile, ready to explain as soon as Jack admitted his ignorance, and Jack was happy to respond quickly and crisply.” “Ullman looked rather nonplussed, which did Jack a world of good.” Jack also tells Ullman a couple of times, “That was your mistake.”
    • Jack holds a grudge. ” ‘No. No hard feelings.’ Jack flashed the PR grin again, but he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them.”
    • Jack’s self-aware. Thinking about when he broke Danny’s arm: “Danny had cried out a little . . . no . . . no . . . tell the truth . . . he screamed.”
  • Past:
    • Jack’s been jealous.  We’re not sure, but we think he was jealous of at least one student at the prep school he taught at, the student he cut from debate team.
    • Jack’s a doting father.  He’s brought home toys for Danny when he’s been out.
    • Jack’s always had a temper and it’s made him violent. He broke Danny’s arm.  “He had whirled Danny around to spank him, his big adult fingers digging into the scant meat of the boy’s forearm, meeting around it in a closed fist, and the snap of the breaking bone had not been loud, not loud but it had been very loud, HUGE, but not loud.” He also beat up the student who slashed his tires.
    • Jack’s not afraid of confrontation. “The next morning Jack caught Tom [the man who fights with the woman in the apartment above] going out and had spoken to him on the sidewalk at some length. Tom started to bluster and Jack had said something else to him, too quietly for Wendy to hear, and Tom had only shaken his head sulleny and walked away.”
    • Jack likes to argue. He coached the debate team at the prep school. “Arguments for fun, right?” echoes Danny.
  • Future
    • Irritable. Jack’s going to get very irritated very quickly with both Wendy and Danny.
    • Secretive and cold. When he sees the topiary animals and the lady in the bathtub and knows Danny’s seen them too, he doesn’t comfort Danny and Wendy with what he knows, doesn’t commiserate with them.
    • Jealous. Jack becomes jealous because the hotel wants Danny more than it wants him.

Sociological/Relationships:

  • Present:
    • Jack has a wife, Wendy, and a 5yo son, Danny.
    • Jack’s still got a friend in Albert Shockley, “a powerful man with a large interest in the Overlook.”  Mr. Shockley used his influence to get Jack the job at the hotel.
    • Jack’s currently lower or lower-middle class.  Danny wonders, “Do you think the bug will break down?”
  • Past:
    • Jack’s dad was an abusive alcoholic and a nurse.
    • Jack and Al Shockley were drinking buddies until they got in a car accident and sobered up.
    • Jack broke Danny’s arm while he was trying to spank him after he dumped beer on Jack’s manuscript.  Danny still loves Jack like it never happened.
    • Jack and Wendy’s relationship has been strained since Danny’s “accident.”  “He [Jack] was standing there and his eyes met the eyes of his wife and he saw that Wendy hated him. It did not occur to him what the hate might mean in practical terms; it was only later that he realized she might have left him that night, gone to a motel, gotten a divorce lawyer in the morning; or called the police.”
    • Jack used to be solidly middle class, living in a neat brick home in Vermont.
  • Future:
    • Jack won’t have any relationships, except for the hotel and its ghostly inhabitants.

Skill Set/Occupations/Education/Hobbies/Interests:

  • Present:
    • Jack’s college-educated, and boastfully so. Listening to Jack speak, another character comments, “Say, you really are a college fella, aren’t you?”
    • Jack’s a writer.
    • Jack apparently has the handy-man skills to take care of the hotel, including fixing shingles.
  • Past:
    • Jack used to teach at Stovington Prep School in Vermont.
    • Jack coached the debate team.
    • Jack liked to go out to the bars with Al Shockley.
    • Jack liked to have students over, if I remember correctly, symposium style.  He’d drink then too.
    • In Jack’s own words: “My wife and I both like to read. I have a play to work on . . . I plan to teach [Danny] to read, and I also want to teach him to snowshoe.”
  • Future:
    • Jack wants to be a playwrite or author a book about the Hotel.
    • Jack’s going to become the Hotel’s henchman.

Plot/Actions and Choices:

  • Present:
    • Jack’s in a job interview to be the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.
    • The includes fixing shingles and laying rat traps, and especially dumping the boiler, which a character shows Jack how to do.
    • Jack asks about the boxes of documents in the basement. “There sure are a lot of papers down here.”
  • Past:
    • Jack was fired from his prep school job for hitting a student he caught slashing his tires.
    • Jack broke Danny’s arm trying to spank him for ruining the pages of his manuscript.
    • Jack quit drinking after he an Al Shockley got in a car accident.
  • Future:
    • Before they’re snowed in, Jack’s going to try to get fired, by calling Ullman and starting a fight.  Al Shockley smoothes things over for him though, and they remain at the hotel.
    • Jack’s going to become obsessed with researching the hotel’s sordid history so that he can write a book about it. About those boxes of papers in the basement: “Some of the cartons were falling apart, spilling yellow flimsy sheets that might have been twenty years old out onto the floor. Jack stared around, fascinated. The Overlook’s entire history might be here, buried in these rotting cartons.”
    • Jack’s going to get something like the “curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever,” “a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence–murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.”
    • Jack’s going to break the radio and throw a snow-mobile part into the snow, destroying their means of communication and escape.
    • Jack’s going to forget the boiler, and it’s going to blow.  This is hinted at as early as page 19. “He [Jack] tapped the main dial, which had crept from a hundred pounds per square inch to a hundred and two as Watson soliloquized. Jack felt a sudden shiver across his back in a hurry and thought: The goose just walked over my grave.” And, Watson says, “I tell you, this whole place is gonna go sky-high someday.”
    • Eventually, Jack’s going to go after his family with a roque mallet.  This is hinted at as well, with the story that the previous caretaker, Grady, “murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way.”

Psychological/Inner Demons/Internal Conflict/Weaknesses:

  • Present:
    • Jack’s haunted by his desire to drink.
    • Jack’s conscious of his temper and what his temper has cost him. “You lost your temper,” is a thought that frequently goes through Jack’s head.
    • Jack’s haunted by what he did to Danny. Remembering “brought the shame and revulsion back, the sense of having no worth at all, and that feeling always made him want to have a drink, and the wanting of a drink brought still blacker despair–would he ever have an hour, not a week or even a day, mind you, but just one waking hour when the craving for a drink wouldn’t surprise him like this?”
    • Jack sympathizes with the previous caretaker. “Poor Grady, feeling it close in on him more every day, and knowing at last that for him spring would never come. He shouldn’t have been here. And he shouldn’t have lost his temper.”  This passage, of course, also speaks to the future dimension.
  • Past:
    • Jack says, “I no longer drink. I did once, and it got to be serious. But I haven’t had so much as a glass of beer in the last fourteen months.”
    • Wendy says to Danny about why Jack got fired, “Your daddy . . . sometimes he does things he’s sorry for later. Sometimes he doesn’t think the way he should. That doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes it does.”
  • Future:
    • Jack says, “I don’t intend to bring any alcohol up here, and I don’t think there will be an opportunity to get any after the snow flies.”
    • Jack thinks, “Dear God, he could use a drink. Or a thousand of them.”

External Conflict:

  • Present:
    • Jack needs a job and the hotel manager’s an officious little prick who doesn’t want to hire him.
  • Past:
    • Jack cut a kid from the debate team because he wasn’t very good (or because Jack was jealous of the kid), and the kid slashed his tires. Jack caught him and beat him up pretty good, and the school fired him for it.
  • Future Conflict:
    • Jack’s going to encounter strange things at the hotel, including wasps that fly out of a destroyed nest, aggressive topiary animals, and a dead woman in a bathtub.
    • Jack’s going to become increasingly irritated with his wife, Wendy, and they’ll fight about the effect the hotel is having on the family, especially on Jack, but also on Danny.
    • Jack’s going to feel the pressures of the Hotel, and he’s going to succumb.
    • There’s foreshadowing that the hotel wants Danny.  A character tells Jack, “You keep a good eye on your boy, Mr. Torrance. You wouldn’t want nothing to happen to him.”

Goal(s):

  • Present:
    • Hold his temper during the interview. “. . . promised Wendy he would stay cool . . .”
    • Get a job at the hotel. “He needed the job.”
  • Past:
    • Stop drinking.
    • Keep his family together.
    • Finish “His manuscript, the three-act play he had been slowly developing from a novelette he had written seven years ago as an undergraduate . . .”
  • Future:
    • Write a book about the hotel’s history.
    • Make the hotel happy, by being strict with his family and ultimately trying to take their lives so that the hotel can have Danny’s shining. Speaking to Danny with the roque mallet in hand, Jack will say, “I’m going to do my fatherly duty by you, boy.”

Motivation(s):

  • Present:
    • Jack needs money to support his family.
    • Jack wants the time, space, and solitude working at the hotel would provide to finish his play and repair his family.
  • Past:
    • They had “high hopes.”
  • Future:
    • Jack’s actions and choices will stem from the fact that he’s succumbing to the hotel’s influence, to his desire to drink (despite that there’s nothing but cooking sherry on the premises), and to “cabin fever.”

Settings:

  • Present:
    • Jack’s in a shitty apartment in Boulder, Colorado. “The hallway walls were gouged and marked with crayons, grease pencil, spray paint. The stairs were steep and splintery. The whole building smelled of sour age, and what sort of place was this for Danny . . .”
  • Past:
    • “. . .after the small neat brick house in Stovington?” Jack was living a respectable lifestyle in Vermont.
  • Future:
    • Jack will be moving into the cook’s apartments at the Overlook Hotel, near Sidewinder, Colorado, for the winter, where he will be snowed in, cut off from everything, for about six months.

SUMMARY

I’ll say it again:  Stephen King is all about three-dimensional characters, especially in The Shining. Tweet this

This book is so well crafted.  Reading it again, I saw practically every major story event suggested in the first chapter, and definitely by the third.  The first few chapters also hit all the important backstory elements.

King does this–reveal more and more of the backstory and foreshadow what’s to come–all the way through the story, in every scene, with respect to every major character, Jack, Danny, Wendy, and the Hotel. And he does the vast majority of this expanding and foreshadowing using the three-dimensions of character. Wow.

I, for one, am super thankful for having done this exercise.

What do you think?  Tell us below.  And if you found this post helpful, please feel free to share it and also subscribe to Writes with Tools to receive notices of future posts.  Thank you!

UP NEXT

Brainstorming the three dimensions of character in our own work.  See you next week!

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