Catching lightning in a jar … repeatedly.

I just read Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden Files novel, Skin Game, and while I did have some minor quibbles with the book, what amazed me was how good it was, how well written, with banter that made me grin and characters I still have a stake in pulling at my heartstrings. I much prefer reading series to reading stand-alone books–I love to commit to a character and watch them grow over time–but I don’t know a single other author that has kept a series going for fifteen books (and counting) without either burning out or jumping the shark. Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, Laurie R. King’s Holmes/Russell, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner, Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson, and countless others I’ve read have mostly lost something essential around book nine or ten, if not earlier. I get to the point where I read the new installments in the bookstore to see if the author has gotten over their slump, but I stop needing to own the new books either to reread them or just to support the author, and finally I stop reading the new books at all, even for free.

So as a writer who is still learning my craft, I’m trying to figure out what Butcher’s doing differently than the other people I listed, in hopes of emulating it. This is what I’ve come up with:

1. Harry Dresden keeps growing and changing, and the threats he faces stay proportionally challenging. In the third book, Harry tries to avoid even opening a way to Faerie because he’s terrified of dealing with his godmother. That avoidance is part of why the proportional threats are plausible: Harry often bites off a little more than he can chew, but he’s not suicidally stupid, so he avoids things that are massively out of his weight class until he levels up enough to think he has a chance of doing something about the problems they pose.

2. Harry always both wins and loses, and the stakes keep changing. Sometimes he saves the day but loses Murphy’s or Michael’s trust and friendship. Sometimes he saves a friend at the cost of allowing himself to be suborned or corrupted. Sometimes a friend pays the price in his place. But no matter what, Harry never completely wins or completely loses, so as a reader, I don’t get into a rut where either I know it’s going to turn out fine, so there’s no point in worrying, or I know everything’s going to turn to shit, so there’s no point in hoping. It makes each book satisfying because the tension is real.

3. Jim Butcher introduces supporting characters when needed, but keeps them interesting and uses them judiciously. In any big universe, you’re going to have a few dozen supporting characters, but it can be hard to keep track of everyone, care about them, and keep the side characters from taking over the show. Butcher manages this in a few clever ways. He has a handful of characters who are core to every book (Murphy, Bob, Molly, and Thomas) and a few who are recurring guest stars (Michael, Billy, Georgia, Butters, Marcone), and then a bunch of characters who show up less frequently (Morgan, Ebenezer, Mab, Nicodemus, Ivy, etc.). Each of them is characterized in clear and unique ways, and they’re each tied to specific places/problems: we know a story where Harry argues with the White Council is going to include the Merlin and Morgan and Joe Listens-to-Wind and various other Council personalities, but we don’t have to juggle the other hundred-odd side characters who aren’t relevant to that story. And Butcher cycles through his various problem sets and mixes and matches them, so you’ll always have roughly fifteen people in any given book, all of whom are well characterized and have specific jobs to do, and the others go back in the box for two or three books until they’re needed. The world ends up being rich and textured without ever feeling overcrowded. And while there are side stories from other POVs, Butcher keeps an implicit promise to the reader by always having the novels be from Harry’s perspective.

4. Butcher avoids making Harry a Mary Sue. He does this in two important ways: Harry starts off with a certain amount of raw power, but levels up through learning to use it more wisely, rather than discovering he has some inborn magical destiny or is Merlin’s secret lovechild or anything like that. And second, Harry’s friends and enemies have lives that don’t revolve around him. Marcone has other threats he deals with. Murphy dates Kincaid. Billy runs the Alphas, graduates college, and gets married. Even Father Forthill teases Harry that he doesn’t just sit around waiting to help Harry and Michael. It’s not all about Harry and his problems, which helps keep Harry from feeling narcissistic. And when those other characters get involved in Harry’s problems, they’re saying those problems are important enough to disrupt their lives, and it raises the stakes because they have something real to lose by getting involved.

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