Why start with the third novel in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series? Well, it’s the best way to evaluate a series: how strong is the overall story, how complete is the world, how engaging are the characters, and how capable is the author (particularly with backstory)? In this case, Butcher excels in all areas.
From the (lackluster) back cover blurb:
When the power-hungry High Lord of Kalare launches a merciless rebellion against the First Lord, young Tavi of Calderon joins a newly formed Legion under an assumed name. And when the ruthless Kalare allies himself with a savage enemy of the Realm, Tavi finds himself leading an inexperienced, poorly equipped Legion—the only force standing between Alera and certain doom…
An Aside on Back Cover Synopses
I called it lackluster, but the back cover synopsis is pretty much the norm for epic fantasy. Is the main character loyal and honorable? Check (after all, he’s joining a Legion.) Facing a ruthless and merciless antagonist? Check. Facing savage enemies of the realm? Check. Standing between the realm and certain doom? Check.
Unfortunately, the mid-series blurb is hard to write and it rarely conveys much about the series. There’s no space to explain the overarching conflict (just a reference to the “power-hungry High Lord of Kalare” rebelling against “the First Lord”), a conflict which must be composed of intrigue, politics, power struggles, and warfare—because this is epic fantasy. And, unless we’re familiar with Tavi and why he’s so integral to this (epic) conflict, the blurb will merely reinforce the book’s sub-genre. That’s also the biggest job of the cover—telegraphing it’s sub-genre and type to the readers who will be interested in it. At the least, the blurb and cover must promise epic deeds and warfare, generally in a world rife with danger and magic, even if we don’t yet understand the specifics of the plot.
Backstory: A Necessity, But Not an Evil
What generally can’t be related in mid-series blurbs or synopses is backstory. Most beginning fiction writers groan when they try to season their beginning chapters with backstory. Likewise, most craft books treat backstory like it’s a necessary evil—something that must be provided to the reader, as well as being onerous and tricky for the writer (well, it’s certainly onerous for the reader if the writer isn’t doing a good job).
Here’s another take: I submit that backstory is what makes a character interesting and drives the story forward. Backstory forms questions about the character that the reader wants answered. Backstory builds mystery about a character and drives character motivation.
When we read stand-alone romances, thrillers, or mysteries—we can’t form attachments to characters without the author providing tidbits of backstory. Why should we care if Amy isn’t interested in the hunky hero? (Hint… her previous relationship ended in tragedy). Why should we care if Sarah is being followed and watched at night? (Hint… she might be under Witness Protection). Why should we care if Hank is missing? (Hint… he’s a great husband and father but he has a dark past…)
See, it’s difficult to interest readers in characters that were born yesterday (i.e., two pages before the beginning of your story). Backstory is more than a way to build more character dimension. It’s the way an author tells us why we should care about characters and why we should continue delving into the story (to unravel mystery or motives).
Backstory: The Beauty and Bane of Epic Fantasy
Backstory becomes even more important in Fantasy and SF. The author has a world, one that’s usually very different than ours, to relate to the reader. This world often becomes a character, itself, within the story and it has its own backstory (historical events that have shaped current characters, their motives, and their view of the world). This can be the result of environment, culture, or direct experiences of the character, really meaning world backstory, cultural backstory, and character backstory. Multiply this by the number of POV characters and the number of subplots. Whew! The epic fantasy author has a lot of backstory to impart upon the reader, preferably without using a hammer or anvil.
When an epic fantasy author delivers such massive amounts of backstory with a deft and invisible hand, the story becomes sheer magic. Groan, if you want, at the pun—but I mean it. I’d already seen how well Butcher introduced backstory of characters for his Dresden Files series, but an Urban Fantasy doesn’t generally have the world backstory issues. In this third book of the Codex Alera, he’s practically a wizard (groan) by how he organically introduces characters and backstory in the beginning chapters.
Enough Puns—Let’s Get Specific
What do I mean when I describe the introduction of character and backstory as organic? I mean that it’s not artificial: introduction of character and backstory is only in service to the story.
For example, let’s look at the opening of an epic fantasy. There are a couple common ineffectual and heavy-handed approaches to presenting early backstory, and then there’s the organic approach:
- A common ineffectual approach: starting with a mythic event that’s generally known by “everyone” in the world. This is dramatized, usually with one or more historical characters, so it may save the author from providing backstory later (often waaaaay later). It can take several chapters (or, in some cases, many books in the series) before the reader understands the meaning of the opening. Worse, authors will sometimes obscure the identity of the characters involved—just to make it a special puzzle? The first example that comes to mind: the prologue in The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan, where one of the mythic characters is named and the other is not. Even though I liked the book (and at least five of the ones that followed in The Wheel of Time series), I always thought that prologue was ineffectual backstory for several reasons: 1) It turns out hardly any characters know the important details, necessitating multiple re-tellings of this event anyway; 2) The major antagonist is the unnamed character and his evil motives (bwaa-ha-ha) aren’t illuminated for the reader; 3) It so vaguely presents the premise of magical conflict in this world that the reader is given multiple lectures on what this event really meant (men aren’t allowed to wield this sort of magic because bad things will happen, as shown in the prologue). It doesn’t open the story, it doesn’t present or introduce anyone who’s in the first couple hundred pages, and it doesn’t illuminate the motivation of any characters, so from a storytelling perspective, what does that prologue do? Basically, it doesn’t serve the story. (Unfortunately, the use of the opening mythic event/tale has led many readers to believe that “prologue” means “useless backstory” when actually, a prologue contains events happen significantly before, after, or outside the timeline of the main story.)
- A common, but heavy-handed approach: a major character is doing a lot of thinking in the opening, presenting backstory within those thoughts. This approach is often combined with the mythic event, above, which sort of proves that the first really is ineffective, requiring the author to go into this inelegant “thoughtful” scene. My problem here isn’t about lack of action. It’s about lack of story. An author could start with useless action and achieve an even worse result: instead of just backstory without story, one gets action without either backstory or story. (Ever read an action-packed opening, where that opening has nothing to do with the real story—it doesn’t illuminate anything, except that the main character can dodge bullets or magic missiles or whatever. Where’s the story?) Both backstory and action have to be triggered by story. Sure, you can start your opening with a quiet or thoughtful moment—provided that moment is part of the on-going story and doesn’t exist just to provide backstory.
- An organic approach: start with story, but carefully constrain that story to introduce characters as the story needs it, while having story trigger backstory, which then triggers story. Let’s consider Cursor’s Fury. Butcher has tons of characters he’s established in previous books. Does he throw all of them at the reader? No, of course not. The opening scene of his prologue has his main character Tavi playing a game of strategy, similar to chess, with a prisoner, an enemy non-human Cane who was previously an ambassador. While they play, they make comments about the strategies Tavi is using, as well as their disparate cultures. Within three pages, the reader learns that the Canim are ruthless enemies, that Tavi is trained in military strategy and he’s smart, but not smart enough or experienced enough to win the game with the Cane, even though he’s visited and played with the prisoner Cane before. As you read, you might think this is backstory–which, technically, it is–but it’s actually part of the forward progress of the story. The reader eventually realizes that it’s also foreshadowing, and the information will be important in saving Tavi’s life and country. Imagine that: backstory as foreshadowing, which is really triggering more story. This happens when a brilliant storyteller culls down the backstory to only that which serves the constrained story. This scene then seamlessly moves into another one, where again the backstory helps drive the current story.
Other Techniques to Learn from Jim Butcher
Obviously, his techniques for relaying backstory would help all writers, particularly those who want to write Fantasy or Science Fiction. Study them. Learn them. You won’t regret it.
Another impressive technique is how he smoothly transitions between subplots and points of view. Every transition moves the story forward and there’s no false notes (such as “Howie cleaned his sword with the oil, the smell reminding him of his last practice with Pepper. He wondered what his old classmate was doing now.” [Cut to scene with Pepper]). This example feels artificial and even though sensory memories are quite valid ways to bring up backstory and introduce new points of view—it’s better when the story plays a part, making the transition not only smoother, but inexorable. Thus, the reader can imagine no other transition, but to this character, place, subplot. The story makes it necessary.
There’s just so much to learn from great examples of genre fiction. Better get reading, as well as writing!