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An Interview with Jim Butcher
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Benedict Jacka and Jim Butcher: Author One on One
Hi Jim, guess I'll start things off! Thanks again for the email you sent back in June—it meant a lot to me.
The setting of the Dresden Files is really varied with a Fantasy Kitchen Sink feel—there are wizards, werewolves, demons, faeries, angels, fallen angels, dragons, at least three kinds of vampires, and a whole lot more creatures that are only hinted at. Did you decide on that from the beginning or did it evolve that way as the books went on? It's something I've been thinking about as I'm at the stage of my own series where there's still a lot of white space free to be filled in.
Hey Benedict! Just giving credit where it is due. You wrote a good book. Seriously. Where's the next one? Initially, when setting up the story world for the Dresden Files, I did a lot of angsting over what kind of vampire I was going to present in the story world. I had them broken out into three general types: the monstrous blood-drinkers, the megasexy fiends, and the folklore-traditional Nosferatu-type vampire. Every one of them offered me different strengths and foibles for storytelling. All of them were fairly familiar figures, and I was sort of unhappy that I hadn't come up with a style of vampire all my own that would play a stronger role than the public domain vamps. And then I thought to myself, "Wait, this is my world. Why not have ALL of them?" I decided that the old parable of the three blind men and the elephant was going to serve as my paradigm for vampires in the Dresden Files. In the parable, one blind man feels the elephant's trunk and declares that it is like a tree. The next feels the elephant's flank and says that the elephant is like a wall. The third feels the elephant's tail and declares that the elephant is like a snake. All of them were right, all of them were wrong, and none of them had the full picture of what an elephant actually is. So that's how vampires worked in the Dresden Files, I decided. The reason humanity's basic description of vampires is so wildly different from place to place and century to century is that we're the blind men. Most of the time, witnesses don't survive encounters with vampires or never realize they had them. The accounts that do manage to make it into the public consciousness are blurred by terror, trauma, confusion, funky mind powers, darkness and the simple fact that the eyewitnesses are encountering many different kinds of vampire instead of one overarching stereotype. Naturally, our strongest idea of the vampire, the Dracula model, incorporates features from many different species. So I sat down, color coded them by Court, and started designing the beasties I would need for the books. Initially, I had planned on the books being about wizards, vampires, werewolves and maybe a few faeries—but as I developed the vampire courts, I realized that what would be even more fun would be a story world that was entirely inclusive about the supernatural, from nursery tales to mythological figures to horror movies to beings of active, living faiths. The question I needed to be asking myself wasn't "what supernatural creatures should I use?" but "in what way can I use EVERY supernatural creature?" From that point, I set out to design an inclusive story world that would have a place for every kind of legend, nightmare, and storybook beasty. The supernatural ecosystem of the Dresden Files is built to be vast and teeming with every weird and scary thing imaginable. There's plenty of room for everyone. And if it allows me to dish out all KINDS of different beatings to poor Dresden, that's a happy side effect. The scope of that portion of the Dresden Files is pretty broad, from a design standpoint. One of the things I liked most about Fated, the first Alex Verus novel, was the depth of scope and thought that you employed in creating your protagonist. On the surface, Alex's abilities would appear barely to qualify him as a wizard, and not a very threatening one at that. But when you deepen the scope of the story and look at the ramifications of the things he can do, you realize that Alex Verus is a man of truly awesome power. What can you tell me about the process of creating Alex Verus? Why did you build him as you did, and what kinds of things inspired the creation of his world?
The setting of the Alex Verus novels is one I've been working on for a long time Fated is actually the fifth book that's set in more-or-less the same universe—and so a lot of the background was already worked out, although the earlier stories were all written as children’s/young adult.
When I sat down to start work on Fated, though, I had trouble deciding what type of magic the protagonist would use. In the previous books my mage characters had always used elemental magic like ice or air, but the problem I kept running into was how to make conflicts involving their magic interesting. When your protagonist's main power is "hit it until it breaks" it's tricky to run a magic vs. magic fight that doesn't turn into a slugging match.
So I went back and thought about the way conflicts had played out in my favorite stories, and I noticed that the characters in those stories very rarely won fights with brute strength. Sure, they might be strong, but victory usually went to the side which had some kind of special edge, like using a clever idea or taking advantage of a rule that had been set up earlier in the story. It's like in Harry's battle with Victor Sells at the end of Storm Front: the way Harry turns the tables isn't with fire or wind, it's with the demon's name (which was foreshadowed earlier in the book).
So I came up with the idea of someone whose magic could only give information. Since Alex's divination can't affect the physical world he can't brute-force his way through problems, which pushes me to think of some more interesting way to solve them. I also liked the dynamic it gave—other mages can wipe the floor with Alex in direct combat, so he always has to scramble to come up with something.
How do you deal with this sort of thing when you're planning out your stories? You've described Harry as a "magical thug" with more power than finesse, but he acts a lot craftier than that (especially in the later books). How do you keep the conflicts fresh and interesting?
Well. Mainly I just stick to the plan I always had for Dresden: I never wanted him to be the big fish in the pond. I always wanted him to be the crafty medium-sized fish, somebody who could rely on brute power for some problems, but not nearly all of them. Then, as I kept on creating the world I needed, I realized that Dresden wasn't even really a medium-sized fish. He was smaller than that. Granted, he has a lot of muscle for most of the world he runs around in, but when times get hard he starts finding himself going up against all kinds of guys who are really just out of his weight class. That's really the rule of thumb for any given kind of combat. Where skill levels are equal, size and strength generally rule the day. If you want to take on someone bigger than you, you've got to be either really good or really smart to beat them. Or you have to cheat. Cheat, cheat, cheat, which I find to be a general theme of wizards in conflict, all over fiction. I mean, Gandalf only got into about three fair fights in all of Tolkien’s work, and he lost two of them. Old Sherlock didn't do so well in fair fights either, you'll recall. A long amateur study of military history, tactics, martial arts, and ancient warfare suggests a common attitude held by the most dangerous of opponents: Fair fights are for suckers. I always wanted Dresden to go into conflict with a very earthy, practical attitude about coming out on top. For Harry, the fun comes from throwing him up against somebody who he just shouldn't be able to take on directly, and seeing how he uses finesse (hah, though more so as he's gotten older), skill, or good old fashioned underhanded play to overcome his opponents. Sure, Harry is a thug of a wizard. But... that's sort of like saying "he's a thug of a glee club director." Granted, there might be a thuggish glee club director out there, but against the greater background of thugdom, I'm thinking he wouldn't stand out as a stellar representative. Among the wizardly crowd, Harry's a beast—which means that he can solve his problems really directly when need be. That's unusual among wizards in the Dresden Files, and it makes them nervous. They're much more at home with the "how do I guess this guy's name and get him to go away" sort of problem than the "great Scott, he just huffed and puffed and blew my house down" sort of problem.
Harry has to play the traditional trickster's role against many opponents—but boy, if he ever throws down against someone like the Merlin, it's going to be a Huff and Puff approach for sure. No good can come of giving that guy time to plot his plots and plan his plans. Or possibly a Fee Fie Foe Fum maneuver might be in order... For those who haven't gotten to read Fated yet, Alex Verus is a diviner. Some people would call him a probability mage. He knows things. No, wait, that completely understates it. Alex Knows Things. He has a tremendous capacity to find people and objects, to predict the course of the future, and to act at key points to alter the outcome of events. The more time he has to work, the more of the potential future he can explore, and the more options he can potentially create for himself. He can learn things by watching his future self do them, so that he can learn the consequences of many of his actions without actually taking them. That is a very, VERY cool power to have. Harry would be really jealous of that guy! And nervous. Really nervous. It seems, to me, that someone in Alex's position would have both the inclination and the very high capability for avoiding conflict entirely. As writers, we both know that can really be death on writing interesting plots. So how do you balance that sort of tendency in your protagonist with the absolute need, as a storyteller, to make sure your wizard gets his meddle on? What kinds of plot tend to become problematic when you're writing a character like that?
It's a good question! The main type of plot that doesn't work is the "A wild X appears!" encounter, where the protagonist is just wandering around minding his own business when a random person or creature appears out of nowhere and tries to attack/kill/capture/eat/marry/sell insurance to him. Good authors usually don't do this anyway without a reason, but Alex can usually see these sorts of encounters coming no matter the reason, so they aren't generally going to happen unless he wants them to.
If you think about it though, this isn't all that different from most reasonably powerful protagonists. Harry Dresden can't see the future but he can take Ways through the Nevernever. If he really put his mind to it, it wouldn't be difficult for him to put himself on the other side of the planet from whatever's trying to do something horrible to him this week. But he doesn't.
In Alex's case it isn't something that's spelled out, but one of the themes of Fated is that Alex is moving away from the "avoid conflicts" mindset that he might have followed in the past. Because the trouble with that attitude is that once you start avoiding conflicts, where do you stop? Avoiding someone in the street is one thing, but what if they track down where you live? How about once they start going after your friends? If you keep following that path you end up with the paranoid-hermit type of wizard, who lives alone and never gets involved with anyone. And Alex does meet another diviner in Fated who lives like that—he just decides in the end that it's too high a price to pay.
Of course, just because Alex is willing to get involved in conflicts doesn't mean that he's not going to pick the battlefield and generally cheat like crazy whenever he can—and writing that is the fun part.
In Harry's case it's always seemed to me that the main thing that keeps him fighting rather than hiding is his morals. I remember you saying in one of your interviews that one of the characters you had in mind when you started writing Harry Dresden was Peter Parker—the idea of the superhero who, despite all his powers, gets a completely unfair amount of crap dumped on him but keeps going anyway. In Harry's case if he's given a choice between abandoning a friend or an innocent and going up against something that's way more powerful than him he'll take the fight, even though absolutely anyone in that position would be thinking "oh god there's no way I can win this". Has that changed as the Dresden Files has gone on? The brutal war with the Red Court especially has made Harry do some things that he would once never have considered—how has that affected him?
Oh, man, that is a HUGE question. Part of writing the Dresden Files has been exploring the nature of power, and the choices you have to make when you have it: how is Harry going to use and how is he going to abuse it, or choose not to abuse it. Harry's been handed some really horrible choices lately, and he's been making choices that are really kind of nightmarish. It wasn't like he had any good ones, but even the choices he made during Changes were not necessarily the best. I never wanted Harry to be a particularly heroic figure. I wanted him to be a human one. He does his best, but he makes mistakes, and when he does he has to face the consequences of those decisions. I mean, we all do, but Harry's choices have now left him in a really precarious position, and one that is extremely dangerous for him. His... relationship... with Mab is going to put him in even more positions where even more really bad choices are going to come his way. That's going to force him to fight, not just to succeed in whatever the challenge of the day happens to be, but to hold on to who and what he is—to keep his soul. That's really kind of the heart of the character of Dresden. He is a person with the ability to make a difference, and he refuses to back away from it when people who can't protect themselves are getting hurt. That's what gets him into so much trouble all the time. But the really hard lesson for him to learn has been when not to use his power. Acting on a situation and making it better for those involved aren't always the same thing, and he's been slowly learning that—sometimes the hard way. One thing that I do think is true: Harry isn't ever going to change, not at the core. He's always going to be the guy who doesn't look away, who doesn't take the easier road, who doesn't back down when people are in trouble. He might change the way he approaches helping them: certainly, he's been slowly building a track record of being the guy who empowers other people to protect themselves, rather than being the guy who constantly does all the rescuing. That's one reason the kinds of threats he's been facing have become steadily more powerful, in one way or another, over the course of the series. But hey, let's be honest here. I'm not sure exactly where all of this is going to go, on a personal level. Part of how I figure this stuff out is to sit down and actually write it. I mean, I'll plot out the general events of the story ahead of time, and have a good idea of what direction the overall world is going to go—but the really key internal stuff, the things that happen to the hearts of the various characters in the story, always seem to work best when I allow them to react naturally to their situations and to learn and grow based upon their experiences. Sometimes people hit bad places. They forget their core. They question their faith. They aren't always wise, aren't always selfless, and they aren't always smart. And that's who Harry is. He isn't perfect. But he's trying. That's what stories are all about. Though I must confess, personally: I frequently find myself wondering how to get to the next point of my story, and quite often I work it out by following the advice of old pulp writers, and have someone kick down the door and start shooting. Sometimes they're literally shooting, and sometimes they're shooting magic, and sometimes they're laying out ethical or spiritual automatic fire rather than delivering physical danger. But I have no problem with using the random drive-by in my writing. Then I get the fun of working out exactly how that event blends with the greater scheme of the overall story. It isn't the only way to get past an unfinished patch in the story, but it works. Sometimes it winds up going away, but it almost always helps me diagnose why that part of the story isn't working and lets me get back on track. Another happy tactic for that kind of situation is to introduce an interesting or unusual character to help the story over a rough patch, which I call the "Edna Mode," after the wacky little costume designer from The Incredibles. What about you? How do you handle it when you reach a point in the book and just aren't sure what comes next? Do you work from an outline or spend more time relying on your instincts to guide you while writing? There's no one true path for writing, because everyone has to find the way that works for them, but it's always fascinating to me to hear how other writers approach the craft.
Hmm, work from an outline or rely on instincts…I think I do a mixture of both. Usually I'll have one sketchy idea for a storyline, and out of that I'll get the idea of one or two scenes, and then I start building on those, adding more scenes and the links between them, sort of like connect-the-dots. Sometimes the one or two scenes that I have in mind end up being towards the beginning of the book, but just as often they get used very, very late. (For the second Alex Verus book, Cursed, one of the plotlines involves a character called Martin, and I knew exactly how that story would end, as well as the outline of the last scene, long before I worked out the beginning or the middle.)
Just like connect-the-dots, though, there's way more empty space than there are dots. So while I'll have the outline of one particular scene in mind, I won't know what the details are going to be and I usually won't have any idea what I'm going to do with the scenes on either side of it. For those I just make it up as I go along. This can be quite scary when you stop and realize that your book is depending on a crucial connection between two series of events and you have absolutely no clue what that connection is. My way of dealing with this is to keep on going and trust that I'll come up with something in time. (Not the kind of thing you'd want to hear from, say, an airline pilot, but one of the nice things about being a writer is that you get a bit more leeway with that kind of stuff.)
Every now and again though I get stuck, and the frustrating thing is that I usually don't know why I'm stuck. Something just feels wrong for whatever reason, and the scene I'm writing isn't working out. I've learnt from painful experience that when this happens there's no point in keeping going because I'll just end up deleting it all. Instead I have to stop and go do something else, while in the back of my mind I think about the book and figure out what problem is, and that can take a long time—days if I'm lucky and weeks if I'm not.
Though the feeling once it clicks and everything does start to work again makes it all worthwhile.
That bit of pulp advice of kick-in-the-door-and-shoot actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. In the short term it gives you some action, and in the long term dealing with the consequences and figuring out how it links in with the rest of the plot can give you ideas for how to fit everything together, kind of like shaking up a kaleidoscope. Maybe I'll try that next time I get stuck again!
We're getting to the end of this email exchange, so before I get to the last question I'd like to say thanks for taking the time to do all this (and for all the detail you've been putting into the answers!) I've been reading your books for over five years now and I've hugely enjoyed getting this chance to chat with you. Good luck with the rest of the Dresden Files, and I'll be reading them as they come out!
So far we've mostly talked about the protagonists of our series (it's natural when you write in the first person), but in the long run the secondary characters do just as much to shape the story. In the Dresden Files as the series has gone on Harry's accumulated a kind of extended family—not just his blood relatives like Thomas but also Molly and Michael and Murphy and everyone else that he's worked and fought with. When you're sitting down to write a new book, how do you decide which of those characters to include? If readers seem to respond particularly strongly to a character, do you use them more, or do you stick to your own judgment? And do you have any favorites? (Although I can see why you might want to keep that last one a secret!)
Arranging the secondary characters is almost always a challenge. Generally speaking, before the story gets started, I'll pick one character who gets to be Robin to Harry's Batman whenever he's doing stuff that isn't critical Lone Hero action. Sometimes picking Harry's wingman is a really easy and obvious choice, and I just cackle and gleefully plop them down into the soup next to Dresden. Other times, though, there are multiple characters who could do the job and all of them would be viable storytelling choices. When that happens, I guess I could just write the names down and throw a dart at the page—but the past few years I've been too lazy for dart-throwing, so instead I've gone to the readers on my web site's forums, on Twitter, and at signings and conventions, and I ask them who they'd like to see more of. Weird, right? Asking the readers? Clearly a little success has driven me mad with power. But when I'm not dead certain about when someone absolutely must fill a certain role (I mostly am, but sometimes not), it seems reasonable to me to check in with the readers and see who is resonating strongly already. It makes my job easier and seems to be working out so far. As far as favorite characters go, that changes all the time based upon my mood. My absolute favorite to write is Bob the Skull. Bob gets to say all the appalling things that go through my mind but which I know better than to give voice, and that's always fun. Characters like that make it easy to be entertaining and I'm always in favor of anything that makes the job easier. More importantly, characters like Bob make my job a lot more fun. And while it isn't truly necessary for me to have fun while I'm working—I'm a professional writer, and if I don't work I don't get paid, so I can' t wait around for it to be fun—when I'm having a really good time with my work, it tends to create the best results. That's good for everyone. Benedict, it's been a real pleasure talking with you, and I hope we can bump into each other at a convention sometime! I was very impressed with Fated, I'm glad that there are other writers who are making things up as they go like I am. I'm very much looking forward to reading more of your work. Hey, readers! You guys can look for the first Alex Verus novel, Fated, this February 28, 2012! You should definitely fit this book into your reading schedule before what may or may not be the Mayan apocalypse coming up at the end of this year. Excellent noir action, villains of every shade of black and grey, a really savvy and enjoyable protagonist and tight, swift plotting make this series well worth your time and entertainment budget.
Likewise. Looking forward to getting the chance to meet you in person one of these days!