D.B. Jackson: On Character — The Enemy of My Enemy . . .

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D.B. JacksonPlunder Of Souls blog tour buttonHappy release day to me,
Happy release day to me,
Happy release day, dear D.B.!
Happy release day, to meeeeee!!!!!

Tenors, you were a little weak on that last part.  We’ll need to work on that in rehearsal before we take the performance to Carnegie . . .

So, yeah, today is release day for A Plunder of Souls, book 3 in the Thieftaker Chronicles, and I’m very excited.  Also nervous to the point of debilitation.  But that’s another story.  Suffice it to say that if you have any inclination to buy this book, and/or any of the others in the Thieftaker series, now would be a great time to do so.  You won’t miss anything; we’ll wait.

Ah, good, you’re back.  Moving on . . .

Any successful series is going to have a number of crucial ingredients.  The Thieftaker books are set apart by their blend of Revolutionary Era historical background with more traditional elements of urban fantasy — mystery and magic.  That’s the high concept, the narrative hook that I use to get people interested in the books.  But as much as I love the idea behind Thieftaker and its sequels, my characters are what make the series work.  More specifically, it’s the interaction among my characters.  That’s what I love about writing the books; that’s what my readers seem to enjoy the most when they settle in to a new story.

And, of course, the rivalry between Ethan Kaille, my thieftaking, conjuring hero, and Sephira Pryce, his conniving, cruel, ruthless nemesis, lies at the very core of each book.  Ethan fears her, hates her, would give just about anything to be rid of her.  And yet . . .  Sephira sees Ethan as a meddling fool, an intolerable interloper who takes coin out of her purse every time he is hired to solve a case that by all rights ought to be hers.  She is wary of his conjuring ability, which she does not understand and cannot match.  And yet . . .

They share a grudging respect.  They are, on some basic level, drawn to each other.  Ethan cannot deny that she is beautiful and alluring, brilliant and, at times, charming.  He enjoys the sound of her laughter, despite the fact that it is so often directed at him.  Sephira is surrounded by sycophants and lackeys whose loyalty is beyond reproach, and so she admires Ethan’s independence, even as she is irked by it.  She finds his courage and cunning attractive, and she is as compelled by his witchery as she is repelled by it.  These aspects of their relationship — the “And yets” — are what make their interactions so much fun to write, and, I hope, to read.  These elements move their shared scenes beyond rivalry and “good versus bad” to something far more nuanced, something enticing and vaguely sexual, even though they will never, EVER consummate whatever odd, twisted passion lies at the root of their relationship.

A Plunder of Souls, by D.B. JacksonAs I mentioned last week, A Plunder of Souls is a different sort of Thieftaker novel.  It introduces (or re-introduces for those who have read “A Spell of Vengeance” — did everyone do his/her homework?!) a new adversary to Ethan’s life:  Captain Nate Ramsey.  Ramsey is a compelling enemy in his own right — canny, ruthless, slightly mad, and yet also fascinating and driven by a righteous pain to which anyone can relate.  He initiates a complex and ingenious scheme to rob Ethan and other conjurers of their powers and then reap his revenge.

In the course of doing this, though, he also angers Sephira, and that’s when things start to get really interesting.  Ethan and his nemesis are thrown into an unlikely alliance by the age-old axiom, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Under other circumstances, this maxim might have convinced Sephira to cast her lot with Ramsey — perhaps the captain could have helped her rid herself of Ethan once and for all — but in this case Ramsey is the greater threat to her livelihood.  Ethan, who has learned to manage the difficulties inherent in having Sephira as a foe, learns that having her as an ally can be every bit as dangerous.  I won’t reveal too much more than that for now.

But the larger point is this:  The strength of good character work lies not just in creating rich, believable, compelling characters, but also in cultivating the relationships among those characters as our narratives unfold.  That’s not an earth-shattering revelation, I know.  But it has ramifications that go beyond each individual story or novel that we produce.  Much of what I intend to write about this month as I introduce you to this latest installment in the adventures of Ethan Kaille et al, is the crucial task of keeping story lines fresh as we move deeper and deeper into a series.  My character work is central to that goal.  

Now I should say here that I love the first two books of the Thieftaker series, and I probably could have gone on with the formula I used in those books.  Give Ethan a mystery to solve, tie it to a particular historical event, have Sephira threaten and cajole her way into his investigation, and enjoy the chaos that ensues.  A few more of those books would have sold and I would have had fun writing them.  But I would have risked allowing the series to grow a bit stale, and I didn’t want that.  So I brought in a new kind of enemy for Ethan, I made his relationship with Sephira even more complex and more ambivalent than it had been, and I gave this book a different kind of dynamic.

I wanted both Ethan and Sephira to grow, to change, to approach their rivalry in new ways.  And the only way to do that was to throw their relationship out of balance, or at least out of what they think of as balance.  There was risk in this, too.  As I’ve said, their rivalry, with all its quirks and ambiguities, forms the core of the series.  It is the single most important aspect of every plot line.  Some of what I do to them in this book cannot be undone; if it hadn’t worked, I would have ruined something that was essentially irreplaceable.  Fortunately, I don’t believe that happened.

Next week, I intend to focus on the question of how we keep our plotting fresh in a series, and of course I’ll be talking about some of these character issues in ever greater detail.  But for now, let’s pause and talk about character relationships and the ways in which we can alter them to reinvigorate our stories.

Have you changed character dynamics with the express purpose of shaking things up a bit?  Did it work?  Why, or why not?

*****
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, comes out in hardcover today, July 8!! (Can I have a “Woot”?). The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

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17 comments to D.B. Jackson: On Character — The Enemy of My Enemy . . .

  • The tenors may have been weak, but the mezzos were rocking it out! Happy Release Day, sweetie! I can’t tell you how excited I am to get my hands on my own copy this weekend at Congregate. :D

  • Thank you, Misty! Looking forward to seeing you and the Massey clan!

  • […] The Summer 2014 Plunder of Souls Blog Tour makes several stops today to mark the release.  I’m at Magical Words with a post about character development, specifically Ethan’s interactions with Sephira Pryce.  That post can be found here. […]

  • sagablessed

    Excellent as always. Nice way to give insight into complex character relationships using your own work as an example. Waiting for my copy to arrive. Move it, B&N.

  • Thanks so much, Donald. Hope you enjoy the book when it finally arrives.

  • Ken

    Happy Release DAY, David!!!!

    This is my first book (I’m in the editing phase YAY!), so I don’t have much to say about shaking things up character-wise over the course of a series. In the WIP, my MC is thrown in with another character that she had a horrible history with. His actions cost her the life she loved and now, they’ve got to work together for something that they both want. Over the course of the story, the interaction is influenced by both the good and bad parts of their shared history as they start to fall into old patterns, then one or the other realizes whats happening and everything falls apart. But it can’t fall apart completely so there is a pressure building. I think it works.

    I’m waiting for my copy to arrive too. Can’t wait!!!

  • Many thanks, Ken. And that sounds like a nice set-up to your story. Best of luck with it!

  • David, I’ll have to get back to you on that. I’m working on book two of my trilogy right now, and one of the challenges my main character will face is that she’ll be forced to work with a minor enemy. Although there were wrongs on both sides, and strong arguments could be made in favour of what she did, something my main character brought upon the other person still sticks with her as a regret. They’ll have to settle their differences, whether they like it or not, because there are darker forces at work.

    “A Spell of Vengeance” was fantastic! Can’t wait to pick up my copy of A Plunder of Souls.

  • inkfire

    I don’t know if this is in the ballpark of what you’re talking about, but my mc in my wip is a very strong leader–she’s used to being at the front of every charge. Well…..at one point in the story she gets (physically) hurt very badly and almost doesn’t survive. But when she starts to show signs of life again, she’s forced to rely on another person to take care of her for a little bit. Which is hard for her, especially when this person is someone she’s been kinda (okay, not kinda, more like very) hard on throughout the earlier parts of the story. It switches up their relationship and changes how she sees this person and the world in general. Shows her she doesn’t always have to be the strong one.

    And David, I’ve had Ethan and Sephira pop up in a dream once, which in my mind means you’ve passed the test of writing memorable characters…….. I love the relationship you’ve laid out there for them, and I can’t wait to read A Plunder of Souls, but I must wait till Friday because my local bookstore won’t get it till then :(

  • Laura, that sounds like a great set-up — right along the lines of what I’m discussing here. And thanks so much for the kind words about the story. Hope you enjoy the book every bit as much!

    Inkfire, yes, that’s it precisely — a fine example, and a cool thing to do to your character. Thanks so much for saying that about Ethan and Sephira! You actually dreamed about them? That is a so cool! Hope you like the book.

  • Razziecat

    Happy Release Day! :D Fired up the Kindle this morning to get the book so I could start reading at lunchtime. Very intriguing so far…and YAY for more Janna! I love the interaction between Ethan and Sephira, and if they’re going to have to work together, even temporarily, I’m going to really enjoy that, as that’s one of my favorite things in a story: Rivals forced to work together. ;)

    Changing character dynamics, for me, depends on character growth. When I wrote the conclusion of my space opera story arc, the two main characters, who had been enemies, were finally able to put aside their enmity. They couldn’t do that until they each faced their own inner demons, things like grief, violence, loss of innocence, and denial of responsibility. It was only when each man recognized himself in his enemy that he was able to let go of his pain and move on. Took me a good deal of work to get to that point!

  • Thanks so much, Razz. Glad you’re enjoying the book so far. And yeah, rivals-forced-to-cooperate is really, really fun. Your story sounds very, very cool, and not an easy dynamic to get right. Well done.

  • quillet

    My copy downloaded to my phone first thing this morning, woo hoo! (Sometimes technology is SO cool.) I have a library book I ought to finish first, but I am ever so tempted to toss it aside… :D

    The “and yets” are definitely what makes these characters so much fun to read about. In fact, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d be just as upset (okay, almost as upset) if Sephira died as I would be if Ethan did.

    I haven’t had the privilege of worrying about a series, yet, but if I ever do, I think I could do no better than look to the Vorsokigan Saga for a good example. I’ve said it before, will probably say it again, but LM Bujold does a brilliant job of shaking things up for Miles. Just when he thinks he’s got his job or his place figured out, it changes on him, sometimes catastrophically, and he has to figure out a whole new game. Of course, Miles being Miles, this never stops him or even slows him down. (Can anything slow Miles down?) Bujold has said she asks herself, for each book, “What is the worst thing that can happen to this character?” And then she goes and does it. Yikes! Authors are so sadistic. ;) But it seems to work.

    And “the worst thing” isn’t always the obvious thing, either, like physical harm. Sometimes it’s an inward, personal thing…like Ethan having to work with Sephira?? Yikes! ;)

  • Quillet, I feel just the same way about Sephira. But be forewarned — this is not a good book for her. Bad things happen. Thanks for the kind words. And I have heard so many people say the same thing about Lois’s work. I’ve not yet read the Miles books, but they’re on my list.

    Many thanks!

  • Hooray! Happy release day! I just got through looking at copy edits on my novella. One step closer myself to a release day. :D

  • Of course I’ve read it and loved it already. :)
    But I bought it on my kindle too. Support your local author!

  • Thanks, Daniel, and congrats to you!

    Thank you so much, Faith! See you soon.