Under the Dome by Stephen King

This review will probably make more sense to those who have already read Under the Dome. There are no spoilers below, but the main focus of the article is general enough that anyone who has read any fiction can relate to it. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed Under the Dome very much. What follows is a thought I had while reading it.

One of the better parts of Under the Dome is how well Stephen King juggles its many characters. The main antagonist, Big Jim Rennie, has been described as “The power-obsessed second selectman of Chester’s Mill, owner of a used car dealership and […] the de facto leader of the Mill.” He’s basically a big bad fish in a small gullible pond. He’s also (arguably) a stereotype, since people like him exist somewhere between our collective conscious and the real world. There are people like him in every small town and his character is imbibed with all the bad stereotypical traits that people assume people like him have.

But while reading Under the Dome, I started to wonder if people like Big Jim really exist in the world*. But I mean just like him. I wondered what they would think of Big Jim Rennie (even though they are the type of person that would never read a Stephen King novel). Would they recognize themselves in his character? We all like to think of ourselves as the hero, but someone has to be the bad guy.
But is this knocking too hard on the door of fiction? In the quest to create believable characters, what happens when many actual humans could be a terrible, terrible antagonist like Jim Rennie? I guess the answer to this would be that I’m placing too much faith and hope in morally bankrupt people. Everyone identifies with the hero of stories because no one believes they are the antagonist in real life. They may admit to acting wrong from time to time, but like every blameless character in fiction, their heart is in the right place.

Before this post devolves (elevates?) into a psychological realm that I’m not smart enough to properly address, I’ll cut these random musings off here. Under the Dome is certainly not the only book to include believable characters like Big Jim Rennie, but it was the first book to make me think about how characters are perceived by other readers, especially those who are the real life versions of the book’s antagonist. I have a feeling this is a mental game I’ll be playing with every piece of fiction I read in the future.

In all my years of literary analysis (ha!), I can’t remember a term or criticism that described the practice of critiquing the ways characters are viewed by the people who embody their traits. Should there be? Readers?

Up next: The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

*Big jim Rennie was based off of Dick Cheney. Follow this to see an explanation from King. While there are no spoilers in the explanation, the Wikipedia page does have many, many spoilers. That’s why I put it down here with an asterisk.

1 thought on “Under the Dome by Stephen King”

  1. I talked to my English teacher sister (its nice to have one of those in the family) and she said that there may not be a term for readers who sympathize greatly with the antagonist of a fictional story. For the antagonist to have one character trait that readers sympathize with is normal. This is a classic move of comic books, i.e. the bad guy is bad because _____ (this can be played very well too, as it is with Batman and the Joker, who are basically the same character. But she also said that I am placing too much stock in real life antagonists. For one thing, although fictional characters are obviously and necessarily modeled off of real life people, if they are modeled too closely, the writer is liable to be sued. For another thing, the more stereotypical antagonistic characteristics that an antagonist embodies, the less believable they are. There is always the danger of making the main antagonist a flat character. But Big Jim Rennie is not a flat character. Maybe that's why Under the Dome is the book that made me think of this conundrum. I am actively searching for a term to describe readers that see themselves in the antagonist. It's a strange thing and possibly very uncommon, but it makes for great reading. If I have to invent a term I will. Readers?

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