It was early 2012, and I was thinking over ideas for a fourth Alex Verus novel. At the time I didn’t know for sure that my publishers would want a fourth Alex Verus novel – due to the weirdness of publishing schedules I was planning the fourth book before the first one, Fated, had even been released, and publishers generally like to see sales figures before they commit to sequels – but if you can’t take a little uncertainty, you shouldn’t be in the writing business in the first place. Which was how I found myself turning over plans for Alex Verus #4.
One thing I’d decided early on was that this time I wanted to present Alex as a bit more morally ambiguous. In book #3, Taken, the main adversary had been a life-draining monster that fed off children, and when your villain’s that far down the morality scale it tends to make your protagonist’s ethical issues look pretty minor by comparison. I thought I should change things up a bit, and it struck me that a good contrast to Taken would be to use something closer to a hero antagonist.
Now, hero antagonists aren’t anything new, but in most stories which use them, the “antagonist” part has a short shelf life. When both guys in a fight are sympathetic, then once the initial conflict’s over the writer usually has them work out their differences somehow. Either the antagonist finds out that the hero is in the right, and switches to the hero’s side (The Fugitive) the hero finds out that the antagonist is in the right, and switches to the antagonist’s side (Oblivion) or the whole thing is just a big misunderstanding and a prelude to the heroes teaming up against the real villain (pretty much every comic book crossover ever).
In all these stories the protagonist and the antagonist eventually realise that they should be on the same side. But what if there wasn’t any misunderstanding? What if the two characters’ goals were just fundamentally incompatible with each other?
Right from the start, a key element of Alex Verus’ backstory had been that his first teacher had been a particularly notorious mage named Richard Drakh. I’d already established in the previous books that while working for Richard, Alex had done some things he wasn’t proud of, and it made sense that some of the survivors of those things might one day come looking for payback. And since Richard had disappeared long before the events of Fated, the most visible target for them would be . . . Alex.
That opened up a whole bunch of interesting questions. In Fated, Cursed, and Taken, Alex had gotten into quite a few fights, but not because he wanted to – it had usually been a case of self-defence. But what would he do if someone was coming after him for a justified reason? He’d try to compromise . . . but what if they weren’t interested in compromise? What if they wanted him dead (not penalised, dead) for something that really was his fault?
Well, that struck me as a pretty interesting story hook. Alex wouldn’t want to use lethal force against someone like that, but he wouldn’t just step in front of a bullet either. His instinct would be to find out more, looking for a third option, which would mean going back over the parts of his own history that he really didn’t want to face.
Would it work? The answer to that would depend on what kind of world I was writing. In a idealistic setting, Alex would eventually (after a lot of soul-searching) be able to find some sort of peaceful solution. In a more cynical setting, there’d be no peaceful solution, no happy ending: one side or the other would end up dead. I already had a feeling which of those it was going to turn out to be, but I didn’t know the details. So I started writing the book to find out.
As for what my publishers thought . . . well, Chosen’s coming out today, so it seems they liked it. Hope you do too!