Character inter-relationships

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I’ve just finished reading Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series – the first three, anyway; number four isn’t due out until August 2013.

The premise of the Alex Verus books is that the protagonist (Alex Verus) is a mage. He runs a little magic shop and after running away from his dark-mage master when he was an apprentice, isn’t in good odour with either dark mages or the Light Mages of the Council. He gets mixed up in magical stuff that is way beyond his league, and comes out on top. Hence the books.

Now, for fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, this might sound very familiar. Evil master, tick. Escape from said evil master, tick. Authority issues, tick. Low-level job not in line with expectations of magical community, tick… It’s obvious that Jacka is a Butcher fan (and who could blame him?) – apart from anything else, in the first book Alex (it’s written in the first person) refers to ‘one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under ‘Wizard’, though that’s probably an urban legend’.

OK, so is Alex Verus a good British version of Harry Dresden?

Unfortunately, not quite, at least from the storytelling perspective. That’s not to say the books aren’t good – I enjoyed them enough to read three of them in two days (hooray for instantly-downloadable ebooks). But I think the Dresden Files are better than good, and for me, the Alex Verus books aren’t quite in the same league.

I did spend some time after I finished the last one thinking about why. What does Harry have that Alex doesn’t?

The answer, for me, was relationships.

Now, don’t run away with the idea that I’m all about touchy-feely stuff. This is not the case; I like action and plenty of it. And there’s action in spades in the Alex Verus books. But relationships are not just about characters sitting around discussing how they feel, and displaying more angst than a sixth-form college (Laurel Hamilton…). Relationships between characters in a book give the narrative width and depth.

If you think about it, a plot pretty much goes from A to B. There may be subplots, but these are more like side-roads, which may or may not loop back to the main road. They don’t interfere with the forward motion of the narrative. And although the plot may not be straightforward, by the nature of plots, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But a good book, like a good journey, is not just about the road. It’s also about the scenery.

Relationships between the characters provide scenery; Harry Dresden’s relationship with the cop Karrin Murphy provides added texture to the Dresden books – even in book one, it’s clear that they have a history together that informs the way they interact. Harry is very much part of a world of other characters, all with their own stories beyond the ways in which their lives touch Harry’s. From the first scene in which we meet Murphy, we know that she’s a martial artist, a feminist (kind of), and willing to do anything she has to in order to get her job done. Later on in the series, we learn more about her background – her family, her ex-husband, and so on. And it’s the same with other secondary characters; they are fully rounded people and we readers get to know a little about them.

With Jacka’s Alex Verus books, it’s very different. The most important secondary character is Luna, who is introduced in the first book – and we learn almost nothing about her over three books, except that she’s under a hereditary curse. What we do learn about her is almost entirely plot-related – we know that she can’t be close to people and can’t have pets because of her curse; we don’t know what she does for a living or what her hobbies are, or even whether her parents are alive or dead. When it comes to other characters, we know even less: they walk on stage, they contribute to the plot, and they walk off: strictly business.

To be fair, Alex Verus has some pretty serious issues with trust – due to his treatment at the hands of his evil ex-apprentice-master – so we can excuse him for not having many (any?) friends, or even cordial business relationships (like Harry Dresden’s with Murphy). But when Luna is introduced, shouldn’t we know a little more about her?

Now, the problem with first-person narrative (to which I’ve alluded before) is that the reader only knows what the protagonist tells him/her. And if the protagonist doesn’t know things… neither does the reader. This can work in a story’s favour, but it can be a serious disadvantage. If Alex Verus keeps his distance from other characters, and so can’t describe them to the reader, then those other characters are going to seem rather flat.

Even in books two and three, when Alex is interacting with Luna on a regular basis, and presumably they do talk (off-stage) about non-business topics, we still don’t get any information about Luna as a fully-rounded person. It’s almost as if she doesn’t even exist off-stage. And Luna is the character second in importance to Alex. We get even less information about other characters; Alex’s relationships with most people seem to be at the level of business-strangers – like one’s relationship with the counter assistant at the dry-cleaning shop.

What’s missing, therefore, is personality. Butcher is good at writing minor characters with personality; Harry is at the centre of a web of relationships, some of them long-term and some only for the duration of the current book. But he interacts with other characters in ways that are not wholly plot-oriented. His world is gloriously technicolour. In contrast, Alex Verus’ world seems to be black and white, his connections to other characters mostly brief and businesslike, with no interest or insight into them as people in their own right, with their own stories, rather than as bit-part players in his.

That’s my opinion, anyway. I invite you to read the books and see if you agree with me; I’d be interested to know.

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