If you are not very familiar with the work of Stephen King, you may miss the name Annie Wilkes. If you like horror – even if you don’t like the master of terror – surely you know the most sadistic and twisted nurse in literature.
Annie Wilkes is — to me — the great antagonist. He’s a co-star character in Misery, which to me is one of Mr. King’s best books.
In Misery, Wilkes is a retired nurse who is fond of the Misery Chastain adventure novels, written by Paul Sheldon. Annie Wilkes is the total fan girl, today she would be the queen of Wattpad, but around the time King wrote her novel, she was content to kidnap her favorite writer and force him to write.
The good thing about Wilkes is that she spared no expense — like Mr. Hammond in Jurassic Park — and it must be said that when it came to torture, the aunt was most resourceful.
If you haven’t read Misery, I think you should. It is one of the best horror novels I have read to date. Wilkes’ character is round, every horror writer should study her in detail and the tension that is breathed throughout the story is suffocating. King created, with just two characters, one of the great horror stories of the 20th century.
Also, in case all this doesn’t call you, it has one of the best endings I’ve read… A true roller coaster of emotions.
What Annie Wilkes Taught Me about Writing
Annie Wilkes is much more than a crazy nurse obsessed with good old Paul Sheldon. For me, it represents the dark side of publishers and publishers.
Annie Wilkes kidnaps a writer and forces him to write, forces him to change everything he does not like in his work – whether or not he is right or meaningful. The nurse is not happy with the death of her heroine and so she kidnaps and forces Sheldon to resurrect her and write a new adventure.
If this is not what an editor would do with his “goose that lays the golden eggs,” God come down and see.
Also, the resurrection of Misery Chastain cannot be either way. It has to be believable, because we all know by now that there is nothing worse for a ghost writer than suddenly resurrecting a character. Sheldon, physically broken by the accident, is a prisoner of the whims of the fickle Wilkes, for me there is no more faithful representation of what some editors do with their authors: changes in history on a whim, changes in style…
As writers, sometimes our creativity is hijacked and we are “forced” to take as good changes in text and style. We know that if we refuse, we will be left without publishing that text on which we have worked so hard. So, like Paul Sheldon laying on the bed, we shut up and accept it. It is the survival instinct.
For Stephen King, Annie Wilkes was no editor. At that time the King of Terror was immersed in a spiral of drugs and alcohol from which he was unable to escape. For him, the nurse was his addiction and he listened to her pacing the hallways of his house, opening and closing doors, while he saw himself prostrate in bed. If you think about it, the metaphor is not bad at all, eh? King had a very strong addiction – especially to cocaine – so much so that he claims not to remember what was written between the late 80s and mid-90s.
One of the strengths of Misery is the terrible intimacy that is created between the reader and the characters. At some point in the reading, we all feel kidnapped by Wilkes. It is that part of personal history – unconscious – that drags you and makes you get into reading.
Never fool your readers
When, after a good tug of war between Sheldon – who hates Misery Chastain – and Annie Wilkes on whether or not to write that new novel, the author hands her the first pages of his new project. The nurse simply says, “It’s not okay.”
Annie Wilkes likes what Paul Sheldon has written, its “beautiful,” she says, “But it’s a bluff.” In the words of Paul Sheldon, Annie Wilkes had gone from being his Constant Reader to his Merciless Editor.
Annie then recounts an experience from her childhood, when she went to see a movie with her brother and felt cheated by one of those adventure serials that they used to put on. The nurse’s favorite was Rocket Man, each episode of those serials ended with a cliffhanger and began with the protagonist saving himself from that danger.
There is a chapter in which Rocket Man, tied to the inside of a car, was hurtling off a cliff. Annie could barely finish watching the movie, she couldn’t stop thinking about Rocket Man, in fact, and she spent the whole week thinking about how the poor thing could escape from that one. Each chapter began with the end of the previous one and in this case, it began with Rocket Man tied to the car and this one hurtling down the road towards a cliff, only at the last moment the door was opened and the hero jumped out of the car.
Annie Wilkes didn’t like this solution at all – in fact, she liked it so little that she started yelling, “That’s not what happened last week!” He screamed so much they were kicked out of the theater.
I doubt your readers will get to that level of insanity, but I’m sure none of them are going to like one bit when you cheat on them.
Do not use “fools”, do not resurrect characters, and do not look for easy solutions to their problems. If your character is escaping from a guy with a chainsaw and reaches an exit alley, it cannot be that the murderer has a heart attack or that an anvil falls on his head … It would not be cool for a gun to materialize in the pocket of your protagonist or that the murderer stumbles and the chainsaw falls on him.
Forget about the annoying Deus Ex Machina, do not abuse the luck of your protagonists. Each problem must have a plausible solution, each character must find their own way out. In fact, that’s what the story arcs of the characters are for, they have to grow and develop to be able to get out of their problems without your help.
If the reader finds the writer’s hand stopping the bullets and flying the character, he will close the book and never read to you again. Because he’ll think you’re a cheater and nobody likes dirty birds.
Rocket Man on the brink
As I told you above, Annie Wilkes was addicted to those serials that were shown in theaters before the movie. She loved Rocket Man – no, it’s not Elton John’s.
The good thing about those serials was that each chapter ended with the protagonist in a dangerous situation. The next chapter began right there solving the situation, however, it was necessary to wait a week to find out how the protagonist escaped from the trap.
This, as you already know, is called the Cliffhanger and it is what, in my town, they call the booby trap. A way to have it glued to the screen or the page. It is about closing each chapter with a scene of tension, which will be suspended until the next chapter. This was widely used by television serials and also by pulp novels of the 1920s, which always ended with the protagonist facing a danger of death. It’s about creating the commotion necessary to get the reader interested and keep reading.