Writing Against One-Dimensional Stereotypes
| In an encounter between the gunslinger and Sylvia Pittston
in the first book of the DARK TOWER series, Stephen King mixes eroticism and grotesquerie to create a memorable
portrait of the faux-holy woman. She's not conventionally sexy, and yet the gunslinger feels a pang of lust. She has
not done anything scary, and yet he feels a twinge of fear. King is writing against type
(that is, the stereotype of what is sexy; the stereotype of what is frightening) to leave the reader with a
vivid impression. That the setting for this riveting scene is a church, replete with hymns, etc., makes
the moment all the more strange. Take a look:
An odd purple dusk had fallen, and the church, lit from the inside, looked almost like a blast furnace from the road.
He stood in the vestibule, hidden in a shadow, looking in. The pews were gone, and the congregation stood (he saw Kennerly and his brood; Castner, owner of the town's scrawny dry-goods emporium and his slat-sided wife: a few barflies; a few "town" women he had never seen before and, surprisingly, Sheb). They were singing a hymn raggedly, a cappella. He looked curiously at the mountainous woman at the pulpit. Allie had said, "She lives alone, hardly ever sees anybody. Only comes out on Sunday to serve up the hellfire. Her name is Sylvia Pittston. She's crazy, but she's got the hoodoo on them. They like it that way. It suits them."
No description could take the measure of the woman. Breasts like earthworks. A huge pillar of a neck overtopped by a pasty white moon of a face, in which blinked eyes so large and so dark that they seemed to be bottomless tarns. Her hair was a beautiful rich brown, and it was piled atop her head in a haphazard, lunatic sprawl, held by a hairpin big enough to be a meat skewer. She wore a dress that seemed to be made of burlap. The arms that held the hymnal were slabs. Her skin was creamy, unmarked, lovely. He thought that she must top three-hundred pounds. He felt a sudden red lust for her that made him feel shaky, and he turned his head and looked away.
"Shall we gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful,
Shall we gather at the river,
That flows by the Kingdom of God."
The last note of the chorus faded off, and there was a moment of shuffling and coughing. She waited. When they were settled, she spread her hands over them, as if in benediction. It was an evocative gesture. "My dear little brothers and sisters in Christ."
It was a haunting line. For a moment the gunslinger felt mixed feelings of nostalgia and fear, stitched in with an eerie feeling of deja vu--he thought: I dreamed this. When? He shook it off. The audience--perhaps twenty-five all told--had become dead silent.
"The subject of our meditation tonight is The Interloper." Her voice was sweet, melodious, the speaking voice of a well-trained soprano. A little rustle ran through the audience. He felt the hot ripple of sexual desire again through his fear.
Consider how King brings about this effect. An "odd purple dusk" has descended. He likens the light of the church to a blast furnace. Later, he describes the gunslinger feeling a "red lust" for Sylvia--and still later "the hot ripple" of desire. In this repetition, King reinforces the reader's sense of heat, sexuality and Sylvia. Sylvia herself is "mountainous", her arms slab-like, her neck a pillar. King plays against total one-dimensional grotesquerie, however. He describes the "white moon of her face" and makes sure we see/feel the creamy, untouched quality of her skin. Moreover, her voice is "sweet, melodious", that of a soprano. An inescapable prima donna quality surfaces, something that is echoed as the scene unfolds. Even the name of this weirdly charismatic woman--Sylvia Pittston--forces a duality: "Sylvia" is syllabically smooth and slinky, "Pittston" abrupt and hard.
The scene I'm detailing here is on pages 47-52 of the Plume/Signet 1982 book. King guides the reader to the view/impression he wants the reader to have. His writing is specific, physical and tangible. He leaves nothing to chance. He so obviously is not saying to the reader, "Oh, you know.... We've all been in churches. We've all seen fat women. Just imagine them yourself." No--it's this church, this fat woman. He's a writer in control of his material. He does it all through the things he chooses to evoke, or put the reader in mind of: the breasts "like earthworks", the eyes like "bottomless tarns"--even what another character, Allie, says about Sylvia Pittston: "She's crazy. She's got the hoodoo on them..."
Take a look again at your piece of fiction. Are you incorporating the sort of elements/objects/things that will create an impression for the reader, as King does for the reader here? If not, go back through and try your hand at this technique. Ask yourself, What effect do I want this to have on the reader? Imagine ways to manifest that effect through your writing.