Benedict Jacka's acclaimed Alex Verus series continues with Cursed.
Since his second sight made him infamous for defeating powerful dark mages, Alex has been keeping his head down. But now he's discovered the resurgence of a forbidden ritual. Someone is harvesting the life-force of magical creatures—destroying them in the process. And draining humans is next on the agenda. Hired to investigate, Alex realizes that not everyone on the Council wants him delving any deeper. Struggling to distinguish ally from enemy, he finds himself the target of those who would risk their own sanity for power...
The old factory was the kind of place you only find in the very worst parts of big cities. Its bricks had once been red, but years of grime and pollution had darkened them to a brownishgrey. The outer wall was topped with ragged coils of razor wire. The wire was rusted and full of holes that hadn’t been repaired in years, as if the owners had decided that they couldn’t keep the burglars out but might at least be able to give them tetanus on the way in.
The rest of the deadend street was dark, emptylooking buildings and shops hiding behind steel security gratings. The gratings were covered in graffiti and it was hard to tell whether the businesses locked behind them were still open or whether they’d been abandoned too. The only shop that looked in good shape carried the triplesphere sign of a pawnbroker’s. Behind the shops and factory was the sort of council estate where the muggers use broken bottles because they can’t afford knives.
It was only eleven o’clock and the rest of London was filled with the sounds of the city, but on the street nothing moved. The road was empty except for parked cars. Half of them were missing wheels, windows, or both, and none would have looked out of place in a junkyard—except for the minivan parked at the top of the street. Its polished black paint melted into the shadows, with the orange glow from the streetlights picking out the silver hubcaps and lights along with the Mercedes symbol mounted on the grill. I rolled my eyes when I saw it. My senses told me there was no immediate danger but I stayed in the shadows of the alley and scanned the street for another minute before walking out towards the van.
Most of the streetlights were broken and the ones still working were patchy. I walked the street’s length cloaked in darkness, with only the occasional circle of orange piercing the gloom. Looking over my shoulder I could see the pillars of light of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers, visible over the rooftops. We were close to the river, even if I couldn’t see it, and as I walked I heard the mournful sound of a boat’s horn echoing off the water. Ragged clouds covered most of the sky, their cover blending with the glow of the streetlights to hide the stars.
As I reached the van one of the front windows slid down, and the street was quiet enough that I could hear the purr of the motor. I stopped by the door and looked at the man sitting inside. “Could you possibly have made it any more obvious?”
My name is Alex Verus. I’m a mage, a diviner. In mage terms I’m unaligned, which means I’m not affiliated with the Council (the main Light power block) but don’t count myself as a Dark mage either. Although I’m not part of the Council I do freelance jobs for them, like this one. The man in the passenger seat to whom I was talking was my contact with the Council, a mage named Talisid, and he gave me a patient nod. “Verus.”
“Good to see you.” I looked the van up and down. “Seriously, a Mercedes? Did you get it waxed, too?”
“If you’re concerned about stealth,” Talisid said, “perhaps we shouldn’t be talking in the open?”
Talisid is a man in his forties, shorter than average, with greying hair receding from a balding head. He always seems to be wearing the same understated business suit, but with a sort of steadiness that suggests he might be more than meets the eye. I’d met him in the spring, at a ball in Canary Wharf where he’d offered me a job. Things didn’t exactly go to plan, but Talisid had held up his end of the bargain, and when he’d asked for my help tonight I’d agreed. I stepped back and watched as the passengers piled out of the van. Talisid was first and following him was a tall, thin man with a long face like a greyhound, who gave me a nod. His name was Ilmarin, an air mage. I didn’t recognise the next three but I hadn’t expected to; their guns marked them as Council security.
“Still planning to take the lead?” Talisid asked me quietly as the security team went through their preparations, checking rifles and headsets.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“It’s also what they’re here for,” Talisid pointed out. “It’s their line of work.”
I almost smiled. When Talisid had called me yesterday and given me the briefing, he’d assumed I’d be staying at the tail end of the formation, maybe all the way back in the van. He was offering me another chance to back out. But there was another message in there too, which wasn’t so funny: the security men were expendable and I wasn’t. “I’m not going to be much use from a hundred yards back,” I said. “I’ll give you all the warning you need, but I need a good view.”
Talisid held up a hand in surrender. “All right. You’ll be on point with Garrick. We’ll move on your signal.”
The man Talisid had nodded towards was the one who’d been in the driver’s seat, now standing a little apart from the others. He was tall, with short sandy hair and an athlete’s build, strong and fast. He was wearing black body armour with a hightech look, along with dark combat fatigues, black gloves and boots, and a webbing belt that held a handgun, a machine pistol, a knife, and half a dozen metal cylinders that looked suspiciously like grenades. A second pistol rested in an ankle holster, and he carried a weapon in a sling that looked like a cross between a submachine gun and an assault rifle. He watched me with calm blue eyes as I walked up. “Garrick?” I asked.
Garrick nodded and spoke in a deep voice. “What’s the layout?”
“I’ll tell you once we get inside.”
“Going with Talisid?”
Garrick raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down. I was wearing combat trousers, black sneakers, a belt with a few things hooked into it, and a light fleece. If Garrick looked like something out of a military thriller, I looked like an amateur camper. “I’m flattered,” Garrick said, “but you’re not my type.”
“I’m your recon,” I said.
“That’s nice,” Garrick said. “You can do it from the van.”
“I’m not going to be in the van.”
“This is a combat mission,” Garrick said patiently. “We don’t have time to babysit.”
A lot of people think diviners are useless in a fight. All in all it helps me more than it hurts me, but it’s still a bit of a nuisance when you want to be taken seriously. “I’ll be the one doing the babysitting,” I said. “Those guns won’t do much good if this thing takes your head off from behind.”
I expected Garrick to get annoyed but he only gave me a look of mild inquiry. “What are you going to do? Punch it?”
“I’m going to tell you exactly where it is and what it’s doing,” I said. “If you can’t figure out a way to beat this thing with that going for you, then you can back off and let us handle it.”
Garrick studied me a moment longer, then shrugged. “Your funeral.” He turned to the other men. “Let’s move.”
The inside of the factory was pitchblack. The power had been turned off a long time ago and the lights that hadn’t been smashed or lost their bulbs were dark. Corridors were cluttered with old machinery and pieces of junk that had been piled up and left to decay, forcing us to pick a winding path through the obstacles and making it difficult to get a clear line of sight. The air smelt of dust and rusted metal.
The creature we were hunting was called a barghest: a shapeshifter that can take the form of either a human or a great wolflike dog. They’ve got preternatural speed and strength, and they’re difficult to detect with normal or magical senses. Or so the stories say; I’ve never met one. But all the sources agreed that the creatures killed with claws and teeth, making these sort of dark, cramped quarters the absolute worst place to fight one. There were too many possible hiding places, too many ways the creature could lie in wait to attack from behind.
Of course, that was the reason Talisid had brought me along.
To my eyes, the factory existed on two levels. There was the present, a world of darkness and shadow, broken only by the torches in my hand and on Garrick’s rifle, looming obstacles blocking our path and the threat of danger around every corner. But overlaid upon that was a second world, a branching web of lines of glowing white light, the web branching over and over again through four dimensions, multiplying into thousands and millions of thinning wisps, every one a possible future. The futures of the corridor and the objects within it were fixed and solid, while my and Garrick’s futures were a constantly shifting web, flickering and twisting with every moment.
Looking through the futures I saw my possible actions, and their consequences. I saw myself stepping on the loose piece of scrap metal in front of me, saw myself tripping and falling, and corrected my movements to avoid it. As I did, the future in which I fell thinned to nothingness, never to exist, and the futures of me stepping around it brightened in its place. By seeing the future, I decided; as I decided, the future changed, and new futures replaced those never to happen. To anyone watching, it looks like pure fluke; every step in the right place, every hazard avoided without seeming to notice. But the obstacles were just a detail. Most of my attention was on the near and middle future, watching for the flurry of movement and weapons fire that would signal an attack. As long as I was paying attention, nothing in this factory could surprise us; long before anything got into position for an ambush, I could see it and give warning.
This was why Talisid had wanted me along. Just by being here, I could bring the chances of things going seriously wrong down to almost zero. Knowledge can’t win a battle, but it’s one hell of a force multiplier.
Something caught my attention as we passed through a doorway, and I signalled for Garrick to stop. He gave me a look but held up his hand and I heard the main body of the group halt behind us. I crouched and brushed a hand across the dusty floor, feeling the chill of the concrete.
“What is it?” Garrick said at last.
“Someone forced this door,” I said, keeping my voice quiet. “Not long ago either.”
“Could have been the barghest.”
I held up a broken link of chain. The outside was rusted but the edge where it had been broken glinted in Garrick’s torch. “Not unless our barghest uses bolt cutters.”
Garrick raised an eyebrow and we moved on. I didn’t mention the second thing that had been out of place: The rest of the chain had been taken away.
We moved deeper into the factory. Garrick and I were on point with two of the security men ten paces behind. Talisid and Ilmarin walked in the centre of the formation, the last of the Council security bringing up the rear. When I sensed that the barghest was near, I was to withdraw and let the mages and soldiers move up into a combat formation, ready to take it by surprise. At least, that was the plan.
Things weren’t going to plan. By now I should have sensed where and how the fight was going to start. Looking forward into the future, I could see us searching every room of the factory, yet there wasn’t any sign of combat. In fact, I couldn’t see any future in which any of us got into combat. I could feel the men behind us growing tense; they knew something was wrong. The only one who seemed unconcerned was Garrick, radiating relaxed confidence. Had Talisid’s information been wrong? He’d been certain this was the place . . .
Around the next corner was a bigger room with a high ceiling and again I signalled for the others to stop. I closed my eyes and concentrated. Searching for combat wasn’t working. Instead I started following the paths of our group through the timeline, looking to see what we would find. Something in the next chamber would occupy everyone’s attention, and I looked more closely to see what it was . . .
And suddenly I knew why there wasn’t going to be any fighting tonight. I straightened with a noise of disgust and called back to Talisid, no longer making any effort to keep my voice down. “It’s a bust.”
There was a pause, then I heard Talisid answer. “What’s wrong?”
“We came here for nothing,” I said. “Somebody beat us to it.” I walked around the corner and out onto the factory floor.
Most of the machinery on the floor looked to have been removed or cannibalised for parts long ago, but a few pieces were still rusting in the gloom, piles of rubbish in between. My torch cast only a weak glow in the darkness, the beam of light disappearing up into the wide open ceiling, and my footsteps echoed in the silence as I picked my way through broken boards and halffull plastic bags. The smell of dust and old metal was stronger here, this time with something underneath it that made my nose twitch.
The barghest was lying in the centre of the room, and it was dead. With its life gone, it looked like a greybrown dog, big but not unnaturally so. It was lying on its side, eyes closed, with no blood or visible wounds. There was no smell of decay; it obviously hadn’t been there long.
The others moved up into the room, following me. Garrick came up to my side. Although his weapon was lowered, his eyes kept moving, checking the corners and upper levels of the room. Only once he’d swept the area did he look down at the body. “Doesn’t look like much.”
“Not any more it’s not.”
The next two security men reached us, followed by Talisid and Ilmarin, and we formed a circle around the creature. They made a lot more noise than Garrick, as if they didn’t know where to place their feet. “Well,” Talisid said at last.
“It’s dead?” Ilmarin asked me.
“It’s not getting up any time in the next few years,” I said. “Yeah, it’s dead.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Garrick said, “but I thought the mission was to kill this thing.”
“Looks like someone else had the same idea.”
“Can’t find any wounds,” Ilmarin said. Air mages are great at sensing movement but not so good with objects. “Verus, any idea what killed it?”
I’d been looking through the futures of me searching the body of this thing, watching myself rolling it over and running my hands through its fur. All I’d found was that it was heavy and smelt bad. Actually, I didn’t need my magic to notice that it smelt bad. “No wounds, no blood. Looks like it just dropped dead.”
“Maybe. Anything from the living family could do it.”
Talisid had been studying the body; now he looked at me. “Is there any danger in splitting up?”
I looked through the futures for a few seconds, then shook my head. “This place is a graveyard. The only way anyone’s going to get hurt is if they fall off the catwalks.”
Talisid nodded and turned to the others. “Spread out and search in pairs. Look for anything unusual.” Although he didn’t raise his voice, there was a note of command that assumed he would be obeyed. “Check in every ten minutes and we’ll meet back here in an hour.”
Somehow or other I ended up with Garrick. We worked our way through the factory’s ground floor, searching methodically.
The bodies of the barghest’s victims were in a side room off from the factory floor. There were seven, in varying states of decay. I didn’t look too closely.
“Had an appetite,” Garrick remarked once we’d left the room and called it in.
“That’s why we came,” I said. I was trying not to think about the corpses.
“Really?” Garrick looked mildly interested. “My contract was to make sure it was dead.”
“Looks like someone did your job for you.”
Garrick shrugged. “I get paid the same either way.” He gave me a glance. “So how far into the future can you see?”
I returned Garrick’s gaze. “On who’s asking.”
Garrick looked back at me, then gave a very slight smile. It made me think of an amused wolf.
I went back to the factory floor and found Talisid. “The bodies are in the second room off the back corridor. Nothing else worth checking.”
Talisid nodded. “I’ve called in the cleanup crew. You may as well take off.”
I looked at the barghest’s body, still undisturbed amidst the rubble. “Sorry I couldn’t help more.”
Talisid shrugged. “The problem’s been dealt with.”
“Even though we didn’t do anything?”
“Does it matter?” Talisid said. “There’ll be no more killings and we took no losses.” He smiled slightly. “I’d call this good enough.”
I sighed. “I guess you’re right. Did you find anything else?”
Talisid’s smile faded into a frown. “Yes. Scorch marks on the walls and signs of weapons fire. Several places.”
I looked at Talisid. “A battle?”
“It seems that way.”
I nodded at the barghest. “But that thing wasn’t burnt or shot.”
“Not as far as we can tell.”
“So what happened here?”
Talisid surveyed the dark room, sweeping his gaze over the rusting factory floor. With everyone else gone the place looked like it had been abandoned for a hundred years, and once we left there would be no trace of our visit but for footprints. This was no place for living people, not anymore. “We’ll probably never know,” Talisid said at last, and gave me a nod. “Good night, Verus.”
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. :D 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. :D 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!
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