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.
As 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.