“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren

This book is well done for a number of reasons, and while I normally don’t like books that are exceedingly descriptive or verbose in their scenery, this book did a good job developing characters’ personality and history. It doesn’t take more than the first 50 or so pages to figure that out.

Instead of focusing on their introductions today, I want to focus on their history. I want to answer the following question: How does one develop the history of a character in order to create depth? To do this, we’ll look at an example from the book.

Here, after we’re introduced to Willie Stark, Warren wrote, “Seeing the schoolhouse made me remember how I had first met Willie, about fourteen years before, back in 1922, when he wasn’t anything but the Country Treasurer of Mason County and had come down to the city to see about the bond issue to build that schoolhouse” (18).

Warren then spends time introducing the scene, no more than five paragraphs, which seems long but isn’t more than the space of a page or so. This is before he dives into the scene itself.

He talks about Willie, how each of the characters react to him and make fun of him for marrying a school teacher who won’t let him drink any beer. (As a side note, if you read the book, watch where beer appears in this novel. It signifies different turning points in Willie’s life and his changing ethical standards.)

We, as the readers, then get ejected from the scene with the following sentence, “But it was true. Willie was the County Treasurer and he was, that day long ago, in the city on business about the bond issue for the schoolhouse” (29).

This is a great style to introduce some history to your character if you’re really good at scene work. It didn’t take more than a few paragraphs to preview their current location and set up characters we hadn’t yet met, and it didn’t take more than pointing out a specific object that the character connected to a past memory.

To bleed out of the scene, Warren uses the same method. He emphasizes that Willie was a treasurer, but that was long ago when he was concerned only about the school house. Again, notice how schoolhouse is mentioned to connect the past to the present.

This is a good method to flashback to a previous introduction, to post-view an important piece in their history. Keep in mind that the common style is a summary before and after the scene, emphasizing the connection between past and present, which in this case, was the schoolhouse.

Warren, Robert. All the King’s Men. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1996. Print.


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