Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Influences: Jim Butcher

A few years ago I was at a dinner with some relatively distant cousins of Long-Suffering Husband. Second or third cousins, maybe, or cousins a couple of times removed? I'm not really sure how the whole numbered cousin thing actually works. Anyway, during the small talk someone asked me what I did for a living and, feeling pressured to make, if not a good then at least an interesting impression on his family, I told them I was an aspiring novelist.

They were suitably intrigued by the idea, or at least willing to indulge me, and so they asked, of course, what it was I wrote. The cousins had never heard of urban fantasy and so I did my best to explain the concept.

Me: Think magic and monsters, but set in the real world.
Cousin-in-Law #1: Oh, sort of like Twilight. I love that book!
Me: (*don't recoil in horror* *don't recoil in horror*): Well, those are more along the lines of what's called paranormal romance. And my stuff is also written with an older audience in mind. Twilight, being centered around a high school student, is actually categorized as Young Adult.
Cousin-in-Law #2: So you write things like the Dresden Files then?
Me: Um...

That's when the conversation went a little off the rails. You would think, as someone who was claiming to be an urban fantasy writer, I would have heard of the Dresden Files before. Unfortunately, it seems I was one of the last members of the general sf/f community to find out there was a fictional wizard living in Chicago. Even though I'd discovered from my critique partners that what I was writing was called urban fantasy, I wasn't exactly well-read in the genre.

Have I mentioned before that I had a lot of stupid in my head when I was getting started with this whole writing thing?

I managed to turn the conversation to books in general and actually ended up spending most of the meal dissecting the film adaptations of Harry Potter. I don't think I came off as too flighty; I think they thought I just nervous and didn't want to talk about my own books. (Good thing they didn't know me; asking me about my writing is usually a lot like opening a flood gate.)

But I knew that I had to do better. I had to get reading. Not only was it important for my career in general, I also had future awkward small talk situations to consider. I needed some published examples I could point to that people might actually have read for when this conversation inevitably happened again. And, since they'd come up, perhaps I should check out these Dresden Files books.

I suppose I could go into a whole long story about how I eventually came to actually read the entire series (so far) several years later and how much I love it, but I suspect by now that would be kind of repetitive for those of you who have read these influences posts before. I'm willing to accept that by calling Jim Butcher one of my writerly influences, you probably already guessed that I've read and love his books.

(Well, there are certain authors I count as having influenced me because I don't like the way they write, but I'm not going to blog about that here. On account of the coward thing I talked about a few posts ago. Sorry, folks, but it took everything I had to leave in the recoiling in horror bit above.)

Anyway, marching ever so slowly back over to the point, one of the things I really like about the way Jim Butcher writes, particularly with the Dresden Files series, is how well he's developed the character of Harry Dresden over a very long arc without losing sight of the short-term needs of each individual book.

When writing a series, the novels have to be able to stand up in two ways. Any given novel in a series is usually meant to attract new readers. There are exceptions to this, of course, but for the most part publishing houses don't just want to sell books to the people they already sell books to. That's not a good long-term strategy for any business. They need to attract new customers and so they must be able to draw new readers into Harry Dresden's world with each new release.

But they can't do that if they're demanding that those new readers immediately commit to plowing through a dozen or so earlier books first. The average reader might be enticed to pick up a new book for whatever reason (a pretty cover, a recommendation from a friend, something they saw on the internet, excessive water cooler talk making them feel left out of the new big thing, etc.) and then, if they like it, go back and read the books that came before it in the series. But most of people aren't going to "test out" a new series by picking up a 15-book boxed set.

I mean, I probably would; I'm obsessive that way. But I assume most "normal" people wouldn't be willing to invest that kind of time or money at the outset.

That means each book needs to be able to stand alone. There needs to a novel-specific plot arc and a certain level of character development and change that occurs within each individual book, making for an independently satisfying conclusion. New readers need to be interested in continuing the series and learning more about the character, not feel lost or cheated for having not been a reader from the beginning.

At the same time, you don't want to alienate your loyal readers either. Just because a publisher needs to attract new customers every time, that doesn't mean they're interested in losing the existing customers. The goal, after all, is to sell more books each time, so they need to get readers hooked on the series and then coming back for more.

If you keep telling the same story over and over again, eventually people will get bored and stop reading the series in favor of something else. We've all seen those book reviews that read something like, "If you've read books 1-19 in this series, you don't need to bother with book 20. It's the same story, just with a giraffe instead of a barbecued chicken." Nobody wants that. So you can't just focus on the short-term arc and how the character grows in one particular novel. Each one has to flow into the next and build on the continuing story so that the long-term reader is also satisfied at the conclusion and wants to come back again for the next one.

This is an extremely tough line for any writer to walk. I suspect it's a necessary evil brought about by the nature of sales and the evolution of contracts and such. Series novels are very popular right now. Publishers want to squeeze every dime they can out of the franchise and I suspect most authors don't mind having semi-steady gigs either. Publishing is a very fickle business and it would take a very strong and confident writer to look at a nice publishing contract and say, "No, sorry, I know people love these characters, but this story is done." So they keep writing them, sometimes long after they know they probably ought to stop.

So far the Dresden Files books don't seem to have run into these problems, at least not in my opinion. I don't think anyone who has read the series could reasonably argue that Cold Days was just a rehashing of Storm Front or Proven Guilty. In fact, I suspect that if I went back and reread Storm Front today, I'd be shocked at the way Harry reacts and the kinds of decisions he makes there, because he's just such a different guy now. Similarly, if I could somehow plunk Grave Peril Harry down in the middle of the events in Changes, I'm pretty sure that book would have ended very differently.

Harry Dresden is not a static character. When faced with similar choices over time, sometimes he makes the same call and sometimes the things he's seen and done in between have changed him so much that he goes in a completely different direction. But he's also not a wholly reinvented character every time either. There are some things he'll probably never understand and some priorities that never seem to shift. The events of all the books combined have caused Harry to grow and mature in such a way that he's both familiar and surprising for the long-term reader.

At the same time, the books haven't become inaccessible for new readers. Knowing how Harry's relationships have developed certainly deepens the reader experience, but it's not essential to enjoy each individual story. What we see of Harry's experiences in Storm Front, for example, provide a nice set up for the events of Proven Guilty and how he deals with the fallout of those events in later books, but none of that is necessary to enjoy the story or understand the urgency of Molly's situation. Similarly, seeing Maeve and her... entourage in Summer Knight isn't required to understand the problems in Cold Days, though revisiting those characters is more interesting for knowing their backstory.

Since I'm writing in a genre that's getting to be almost exclusively focused on series, crafting a character that can sustain a longer growth arc while still being relatable in the short-term seems like a skill I'm going to have to master. The Dresden Files series is still being written and as both a reader and a writer I'm terribly curious to see just how far Jim Butcher can push the character of Harry Dresden without breaking him.

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