In the Kingverse, there are monsters aplenty, but what of the heroes? There may be villains of every shape and size dwelling there, but Stephen King’s dark worlds are also inhabited by bright lights who keep the monsters at bay, brave beings of complex integrity who are tasked with questing through landscapes of pure terror while not losing their souls in the process.
These are King’s heroes, his protagonists that act as a line of defense between sanity and the creatures of unknowable corruption that slither between the cracks of King’s stories. They walked through the valley of the shadow of death and oh, they feared evil, but these heroes kept their heads held high.
A perfect example of King’s heroes is the Losers’ Club from It, a group of kids who are forced to face one of the writer’s greatest villain, a monster known as Pennywise who terrorizes the cursed town of Derry. Both the novel and the movies show how the Losers must persevere when faced with insurmountable odds. While It is unspeakably powerful, these heroes are able to defeat the monster through their bond of friendship (and the Ritual of Chud).
These are all of King’s greatest champions:
10. Bill Hodges
Mr. Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015), End of Watch (2016)
Possibly the most human of King’s many heroes, retired cop Bill Hodges, does not have special powers or great strength, but he has a will to confront a very real act of evil that threatened to tear his life apart along with the lives of many others.
When readers first meet Bill, he could be considered a failure. He failed to find the driver of a fateful Mercedes that left eight people dead and fifteen wounded. When Hodges retires, he is lost, depressed, and on the verge of suicide. When the murderer sends Bill a taunting letter, the ex-cop decides that he will put aside his demons and be a champion of justice to find the man who snuffed out the lives of so many innocents.
Along the way, Bill serves as an inspiration for a number of characters that helped the retired cop try and solve the crime. A middle-aged woman who suffers from mental illness is able to overcome years of irrational fears and help Bill find the killer, while a brilliant young student finds purpose in aiding Bill on his case as the three track down the killer before Mr. Mercedes can commit an even more horrible crime.
Bill has a paunch, a heart condition, and is oh, so human, an unglamorous man in his early years as a senior citizen who will not allow age to keep him from stopping an evil before it strikes again. All Bill Hodges has in his mind, his will, and the loyalty of those he inspired to catch a killer that is ready to destroy even more lives. Men like Bill are the unassuming lights in the darkness ready to take a stand and be that thin line between good and evil.
So here’s to you, Bill. You may not have had strange powers like many of King’s heroes, but you had courage and will. Sometimes, that’s enough.
9. Rose Daniels
Rose Madder (1995)
Rose Daniels, the brave heroine of Rose Madder, faces many challenges. At heart, she is not strong or skilled, but she was so much more than that. Rose is a woman who suffers at the hands of her abusive husband, and one day, after spotting an old bloodstain on her sheets, decides she had enough. Her husband is a skilled police detective, and Rose knows he would be able to track her, but she left anyway.
Beaten down but determined, Rose arrives in a small town and found a new life for herself, settling in at a clinic for battered women and finding a job and a purpose. It took courage to escape the domestic trap she was in and find a new and better life for herself, but Rose’s heroism wasn’t done yet.
Rose goes to pawn her wedding ring, which she discovers is worthless. This indignity does not deter Rose. Instead, she buys a painting at that pawn shop. Turns out, the painting is a magical portal to another world, and like so many heroes before her, Rose steps through and into an adventure.
In this world of monsters and madness, she saves an infant from a one-eyed bull named Erinyes. The infant’s mother, Dorcas, whom Rose refers to as “Rose Madder” because of her obvious insanity, promises that she owed Rose Daniels a favor. Rose doesn’t flinch from saving the baby. She sees a task that needs doing and she does it. Just as she bravely escapes her husband and breaks a long cycle of domestic violence, Rose faces down the terror of another world to save an innocent, because that’s what heroes do.
When Rose’s husband tracks her down, Rose retreats back into the painting and faces off against her abuser one final time, this time in a setting of her own choosing. Rose’s real courage is in her desire to change her life for the better.
So many people trapped in Rose’s situation cannot break the chains of abuse, but Rose does and masters another world in order to punish the man that hurt her. Rose may not be a vampire hunter or a demon slayer, but her light shows readers that there is hope in any situation, that nothing is inescapable, and that there is a special form of heroism in just saying “Enough.”
8. Nick Andros
The Stand (1978)
Nick and Tom, two of the heroes of King’s The Stand, prove that courage and heroism come in many forms. Nick is a deaf mute who is attacked outside of Arkansas during the early days of Captain Trips, the super flu that wiped out most of the world’s population. Nick is befriended by a kindly sheriff and his wife and deputized to help keep law and order as the superflu spread.
Nick never loses faith in humanity, even though he was attacked and left for dead. He even frees one of the thugs from prison so the man doesn’t die in jail. Nick ends up joining up with Stuart Redman and Mother Abigail’s crew of survivors, serving on their leadership committee and using his wisdom to help Abigail build her new civilization. He becomes like family to the other survivors but is killed by an agent of Randall Flagg.
Andros’ loss is one of the most profoundly painful moments of the long novel. After his death, it is revealed that Nick was supposed to lead Abigail’s people in their war with Flagg. When Stuart Redman is injured, the spirit of Nick appears, finally able to speak, and informs his friends how to find and save Redman.
Andros may have died too early, but the lessons the man without a voice taught his fellow survivors went a long way in defeating Flagg.
7. Andy Dufrense
“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (1982)
In “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufrense has to combat a corrupt justice system and hopeless despair in order to escape Shawshank prison. He is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, a crime, despite all appearances to the contrary, he did not commit. In life, Andy was a simple man, a quiet accountant who was as unassuming as he was profoundly intelligent. Therefore, he is not the type of man that would thrive in prison.
It looks like Andy will be eaten alive when he arrives at Shawshank prison, but Andy has the one quality that many do not. He has an indomitable will and a spirit that does not allow him to give into despair. When the Ladies, a violent group of prison rapists, repeatedly attack Andy, he does not give up. When he was put in the Hole for weeks, he does not give up.
Andy builds the prison a library and ekes out every ounce of human dignity he can for his fellow prisoners. He even becomes a vital member of the prison staff, as he works on all of their taxes. He makes the best of his situation, but he never forgets that he is innocent and that one day, he will leave the place behind.
That day arrives when Andy finds out who actually killed his wife, a fellow prisoner who confesses the act. Instead of freeing Andy, the warden, who needs Andy to keep doing his finances, refuses to let Andy go. This would break most men, but not Andy, who, through sheer brilliance and will, puts his escape plan into action. A shocking escape that has left book and film fans breathless for decades.
6. Jack Sawyer
The Talisman (1984), The Tommyknockers (1987), Black House (2001)
Is there anything more heroic than a boy risking everything to save his dying mother? How about a boy risking everything to save his dying mother in two worlds?
In The Talisman, Jack Sawyer, the son of a B-list Hollywood actress, leaves the sanctity of his hometown to go on a quest that will save his dying mother from cancer. To do so, Jack must travel to the Territories, a land of magic that mirrors the real world. Throughout the book, Jack bounces between worlds using a mystical Talisman and must face all the worst both worlds have to offer.
In the Territories, Jack’s mother is a benevolent queen who has fallen into a death sleep thanks to a dark spell. Jack must face unthinkable danger on two worlds, including werewolves, Sunlight Gardener’s School for wayward boys (a terrible place where Jack is horribly abused), and the evil of Morgan Sloat, also known as Morgan of Orris in the Territories, who plans to steal Jack’s mother’s business in the real world and take the Territories from Jack’s mother in the other world.
Jack has many companions, including a 16-year-old werewolf named Wolf, his childhood friend Richard, and many more, but it is his hero’s heart and the loyalty he holds for his imperfect mother that allows Jack to be the champion both his dying mom and the Territories needs.
Jack’s bravery is universal, and like all the great heroes of old, he endures. For his mother, he endures. Of all King’s heroes, he is armed with the least amount of weapons with which to combat evil, but he manages to quell the darkness. And for that, Jack is rewarded.
Jack’s adventures continue in Black House. As an adult, Jack retains very few memories of his time in the Territories, but his repressed adventures have led him to a career as a cop. World-weary Jack reluctantly goes up against a vicious serial killer, the cannibalistic Fisherman, a puppet of the godlike Crimson King — a being that pops up in many of King’s books. Jack may be almost burnt out in Black House, his childhood innocence long gone, but he still shows the same courage against cannibal serial killers as he did trying to save his mother in the Territories. As a child and an adult, Jack Sawyer is a hero of two worlds using his unbending will and morality to defeat any evil.
5. Bill Denbrough and the Losers’ Club
Bill, Ben, Bev, Richie, Eddie, Mike, and Stan, were ordinary kids, social misfits who faced the challenges life threw at them with grace. Bill had a severe stutter and lost his brother, Georgie, under very mysterious circumstances. Bev was abused by her father. And the rest of the Losers had to endure many abuses from their parents and peers as well, but their true challenge came when they discovered their town’s darkest secret.
For generations, Derry, Maine played host to an ancient evil, a devourer of children that had preyed upon Derry since the town’s inception. Bill and his friends did not cower from the darkness. They confronted It, kicking off a journey through the darkest corners of reality.
The kids of the Losers’ Club not only had to combat It, who took the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown to terrorize It’s enemies, they had to escape the cruel attentions of town bully Henry Bowers, a young man who had almost committed as many cruelties as Pennywise. The kids faced down the monster and defeated it, Beverly making a very brave and adult sacrifice to allow the Losers to escape It’s clutches, but their story did not end there.
Years later, as adults, the Losers’ Club is called back to Derry to once again face It. All the lessons of bravery they learned as children have to be rediscovered as adults in order to defeat It once and for all.
4. John Smith
The Dead Zone (1979)
After John Smith suffers a car accident, he falls into a coma for four years. When he wakes up, Smith finds that he can tell people’s future just by touching them. Instead of cashing in on his gifts, Johnny, reluctantly at first, uses his powers to help police find a vicious killer. The publicity garnered by this act of mercy causes Smith to lose his job as a teacher.
He picks up and moves his life to New Hampshire, where he becomes a private tutor and takes an interest in politics, or more accurately, his vision of politicians’ futures. Upon shaking rising political star Greg Stillson’s hand, Smith sees a future where Stillson will become President and plunge the United States into a nuclear war. To prevent this, Smith knows he must assassinate Stillson, but is loathe to murder anyone. This shows that, despite his visions, Smith still sees good in the world and wants everything to remain pure. He is a gentleman, a man who understands the old adage of power and responsibility.
Smith does not act at first, but as Stillson gains power, he must become a political assassin to avoid the darkest of futures. Smith tries to shoot Stillson at a political rally but misses. But Stillson grabs a young bystander and hides behind the kid during the attempted assassination.
When pictures of the cowering Stillson using a child as a human shield hit the papers, Stillson’s career is over. Smith is killed, but mission accomplished. A hero has stepped from the darkness and exposed a corrupt soul. Smith is a tragic hero.
The Dead Zone’s epilogue reveals that Smith was dying of a brain tumor, a fact that did not drive him into the pits of despair but drove him to live up to his responsibilities while he still had time. John Smith lived an unfair life, one cut short, but that did not stop him from fighting for a better world.
3. Stuart Redman
The Stand (1978)
When he was fourteen, Stu Redman’s father passed away, leaving it up to Stu to help his family survive. Redman lied about his age and secured a job at a meat packing plant, accepting the grueling and morbid work in order to help his family. Family was always important to Stu, which is why he becomes a de facto leader of Mother Abigail’s tribe of good-hearted survivors.
Right as readers meet Stu, he is already performing heroic deeds. When military security guard Charles Campion crashes into the gas station where Stu works, Redman smartly shuts off the leaking pumps, saving everyone’s life. That quick-thinking serves him well as he and his companions journey across a ruined America to find salvation after Captain Trips, a weaponized super flu, brings about the end of civilization.
Redman leads Glen Bateman, Fran Goldsmith, and Harold Lauder to the waiting arms of the saintly Mother Abigail, sparking a deep and enduring romance with Frannie during the journey (much to the secretly murderous Harold’s dismay). Stu bravely volunteers to face off against Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, an overwhelming threat to Abigail’s group of survivors. He could have settled down with Frannie, but Stu, along with a small band of would-be saviors, journey to Las Vegas to confront Flagg. Stu falls along the way and is not there for the final confrontation because of a broken leg, an injury that almost kills him. But Flagg is defeated and Redman survives and is rewarded with a family and a purpose.
Redman is the everyman of The Stand. Before the world fell, Stu was not extraordinary or gifted. He was an average guy trying to do the right thing and stay free from the taint of greed and corruption, aspects that would later attract the likes of Randall Flagg. This simple, but powerful morality in the face of mankind’s darkest hour makes Redman one of King’s best and brightest.
2. Danny Torrance
The Shining (1977) and Doctor Sleep (2014)
At the end of The Shining, all King fans know for sure is that Danny Torrance is safe, that his father, Jack Torrance, is dead, and the Overlook Hotel has been destroyed. Danny seems to have been given a happy ending, safely in the loving arms of his protector, his brave mother. But there is an undercurrent of tragedy. How could a boy maintain his innocence after experiencing the horrors of the Overlook and, more importantly, such abuse at the hands of his own father?
Fast forward many years, to the pages of Doctor Sleep, in which Daniel Torrance is now a recovering alcoholic. To mask the horrors of his childhood, Torrance tries to drown the memories and the Shining in a liquor-fueled haze. It would be easy to let the darkness overwhelm him as his father did, but the younger Torrance fights back.
Not only does he bravely ignore the ghosts and the ever beckoning bottle, but he also uses his Shining gifts to help ease the passage of others to the afterlife. Daniel takes a job as a hospital orderly and holds the hands of others who are about to die. He sees what they see, feel what they feel, as they die. He is their angel, their personal guide to the next world, a true Earth angel of mercy.
Daniel also stands between mankind and a traveling band of terrifying vampires that feed on those gifted with the Shining. No one had a darker childhood that Danny Torrance, but no one shines brighter when it counts.
1. Roland and the Ka-tet
The Dark Tower (1982-2012)
Roland Deschain and his Ka-tet of Susannah Dean, Jake Chamber, Eddie Dean, and the billy-bumbler Oy, cannot be put on this list of heroic King characters individually, for they are one. Roland leads his group of Gunslingers, patterned after King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, through seven books worth of adventures. All the evil of this reality (and every other) stands between the Ka-tet and their goal of finding the Dark Tower.
Along the way, this group of stalwart heroes relies on each other for life and love. They fight Randall Flagg, the Crimson King, and survive a ride on Blaine the Mono (and he’s a pain). They save an innocent village from the robotic Wolves of the Calla, and they prevent all of reality from being consumed by the forces of darkness.
And they all have their own personal challenges to contend with. Eddie was once a drug addict who had to free himself from his addictions to become Roland’s greatest gunslinger. The wheelchair-bound warrior Susannah had to defeat her villainous alternate personality, Odetta Holmes, a vicious and evil woman who stood as the brave and loving Susannah’s polar opposite. Oh, and she is missing both of her legs. Finally, there is Jake, a boy who’s like a son to Roland. The boy has to endure the fact that Roland once sacrificed Jake’s life to complete his quest. Despite his fear and young age, Jake is a knight equal to Roland and the others, a boy who proves that true heroism transcends age.
And then there’s Roland himself, the stoic, immovable hero who has journeyed through every age to stand between mankind and the void. Roland is Arthur and Robin Hood, Achilles and Odysseus, Luke Skywalker and Batman, the archetype hero with a bombardier’s eye. Roland sacrifices everything for his quest, his true love, his comfort, and his future because that’s what heroes do. They quest and they protect. Roland is the ultimate hero.
A version of this article ran on June 5, 2016.