Okay, we know I’ve started this blog primarily to talk about the Dresden Files RPG. But why am I so hot about the game? And the books? And even the TV series?
Being obsessively introspective, as well as fascinated by story in general, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought.
On the surface, the series doesn’t seem to do anything really new. Magic in the modern world. C.S. Lewis did that in The Magician’s Nephew. Heinlein did it in Glory Road. Peter Beagle did it in Folk of the Air. But that’s okay. There are no really new ideas anymore; I’m pretty sure the Greeks used them all up by the time Aristotle got around to writing his Poetics. Stories may spring from ideas, but ideas aren’t the real driving force of stories.
Stories run on three engines: plot, character, and theme. Ideas can affect any of those three, and usually do, but it’s the end result that we look for. Pulp stories like Doc Savage are big on plot. Things like Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories are all about character. Theme-driven stories usually get lumped into more literary categories, but Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm are good examples.
Okay. So now I’ve defined my terms. Let’s talk about Harry.
The plots are decent, if not stellar. They’re no better or worse than the plots in the average mystery novel. If I had to pick a mystery author to compare them to, plot-wise, I’d probably pick Robert B. Parker. Nice twists and turns, a decent number of surprises, no cheats, and it often ends in mayhem. Now, nothing else about the books is really similar to Parker’s writing, but the complexity and solid construction of the plots are about equal.
They are well-served by the rich setting of the books. You’ve got the normal people of the world, including cops, gangsters, coroners, geeks, students, bartenders, store clerks, and anything else you might want. You’ve got the wizards, three types of vampire, four or five types of werewolf, faeries by the bucketful, many ghosts, demons, fallen angels, and even three holy knights wielding magic swords. Add the spirit world (the “Nevernever,” in the books’ parlance) to Chicago’s rich real geography, and season the whole thing with many contracts, grudges, secret deals, and death curses, and there’s a real wealth of material for the plots.
Jim makes good use of it, too. Ten books in, and the plots are still new and engrossing, with interesting elements added every book, and established elements developed further. It’s one of those series whose stories really reward being read in sequence – it’ll draw you on, book by book, to the end.
Now, that said, they’re standard mystery plots. You know there’s going to be a bad guy, and that your first couple of guesses as to what’s going on and who’s doing it are going to be wrong. That’s okay, though. The plots are serviceable and enjoyable, but they aren’t what I read them for.
The themes in the Dresden books are good ones. Deep ones. Universal ones.
What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to be human? Does power always corrupt? Do the means justify the ends? What is the nature of family? And always, where do you draw your line?
Lots of other books, movies, comics, and other media deal with all these questions, as well. Why? Because they fascinate us. They help us understand choices people make, both in fiction and in real life. They help us decide about ourselves.
Jim handles these in a very smart manner. Harry, the hero of the books, is constantly faced with the questions, and we get to see him struggle with the decision, and the consequences of his choices. That’s good. But the really good part is that the books have other characters facing the same questions and making different choices. We get to see the path not taken, and we can decide whether or not Harry made the right choice. Or if there is a right choice.
Still, nothing really new here. Just handled well. Sort of like the plots.
The main focus of the books is the wizard Harry Dresden. They’re written in the first person, and he’s our viewpoint character. And he’s pretty great.
Sure, in the beginning of the series, he’s a pretty standard archetype of the smart-mouthed PI, with the mystical ability to level buildings thrown in. But as the series develops, you get to see behind his facade. You begin to understand why he’s a smart-mouth. You understand why he’s working as a PI. You understand why, even though he can level buildings, he tries really hard not to. And the reasons are things we can understand and even, in a way, relate to. You learn that he has a code that he follows, one that even he doesn’t admit to. You know the pain that drives him, and the struggle he endures between what he could be and what he should be.
He also has what is, in my opinion, the single most telling trait of a literary hero: the ability to get back up one more time than he’s knocked down.
In true noire tradition, he regularly gets the crap kicked out of him physically, mentally, and spiritually. And yet, he still finds the strength and the reason to crawl back from the pit and face the bad guy. And win.
In a way, he reminds me of a more powerful, less cynical version of my favourite modern fantasy hero, John Constantine of the Hellblazer comics. He knows what he thinks is right, and he won’t quit until he wins, no matter what they do to him. Because he’s fighting the good fight.
The supporting characters in the book sort of work the same way. When you first meet them, they are typical, if interesting, stereotypes. As their role in the story progresses, they grow and develop, without ever losing what made them interesting in the first place. Murphy, the tough-as-nails female cop shows why she tries so hard, and how hard she works to survive in the world of the Chicago Police Department. Charity Carpenter, who hates Harry, becomes much more real when you understand her love of her husband (he saved her from a dragon, after all) and children, and her fears that Harry is going to get her husband killed. Even Thomas, the whimsical sex vampire, has reasons for his on-again, off-again alliance with Harry that make sense.
In short, Jim did his homework. He fleshed out the characters the way you need them to be fleshed out if you want them to be real to the reader. He starts you off with a quick sketch, then fills in all the backstory you need to make sense of them.
And no more. That’s important, too. He knows when to leave it alone.
So, good, solid characters. Maybe nothing really groundbreaking, but well-realized, likeable or hateable, and understandable.
So, decent plots, decent themes, better-than-average characters. How does that add up to my addiction to the series?
Lemme ask you this: when was the last time you read a book where the author did everything well, and some things superbly?
I don’t know about you, but I usually find myself overlooking certain flaws because of strengths in other areas. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books have decent plots, decent characters, but rehash the same theme of honour and masculinity in every book, usually with long conversations between Spenser and Susan. Still good books. David Eddings’s Belgariad series had a moderately interesting theme, very rich characters, but only enough plot to get you from one character moment to the next. Pretty much all of Heinlein’s stories had grand, expansive themes, rollicking plots, and characters so flat you could slide them under a door. Same thing with Asimov.
So along comes a series with no real weaknesses, and one telling strength. Of course I like it.
And there’s another reason, that has more to do with writing style than story. They’re quick reads. I blast through one of them in a day or so, without stealing time away from work or other responsibilities. Sure, I like the dense stuff, too, but I like it when a book takes me by the hand and says, “Sit down. Relax. No pressure. Here’s a fun story that’ll take no effort. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
And I do.