Lessons from the Codex Alera

At the recommendation of a friend, I decided to give Jim Butcher’s books a try this week. The library didn’t have the first Dresden Files book, but they did have the first three in the Codex Alera series, so I got those out.

I read the first book in eight hours straight.

I read the next one the next day, and the third one the day after that.

Then I went to the library, returned those three, got the fourth one out, and read that on day four.

Yeah, they’re good. The dialogue is flawless and the action is seamless. But it’s more than that: these books are teaching me things not just as a reader, but as a writer.

They’re teaching me that every character has motivation for their actions.

They’re teaching me that every character has a backstory, and some of those backstories will be more hopelessly complicated than you could ever imagine.

They’re teaching me that characters can change motivations. Characters can change plots. Characters can change characters. And vice versa. The board is never fully set; the pieces are always moving, and a pawn can stand up, grow some ambition, and in a few moves they can become a queen.

They’re teaching me that when you plan something properly, the payoff is huge. It’s not enough to just throw in a few half-hearted plot twists at the end of the book. It’s not enough to suddenly reveal at the end of book three that your main character isn’t who we thought he was. You need to plan it; you need to throw hints in for your readers. You need other characters to know what’s happening so that they can react according. Does the mother know her son’s identity? She’ll react one way. Does the best friend know? He’ll react in quite a different way. And you, the writer, need to know everything they know, otherwise you’ll write your characters thinking things they couldn’t possibly think, or acting in ways they wouldn’t act.

One step at a time. Applying these lessons is going to be huge. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take more time and effort than I can probably spare. But I will do it, because if I don’t… well. My books won’t be worth reading. They might not even be worth writing.

And that would be tragic.

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