Sorry I didn’t post yesterday. I was at work all day and then when I got home my internet was down for some reason, but it came back on today at like 1ish so that’s good!
With all the stuff that’s currently going on in the world my university decided to go all online. And I thought because of this that it would be nice to show you guys the English dissertation that I wrote in 6th year of high school as a way to get into uni. I wrote it on the first three books in the Dresden Series by Jim Butcher which was a little unorthodox since most of my class was doing it on more series classics but I chose an urban fantasy series cause I’m me! I can’t remember the exact grade I got but I do know it was good. Better than my teacher expected because she said to me, word for word: “Oh May you got a B! I was so sure you would only get a C!” So thanks?
This is going to be a long one cause it’s a 3,000 word dissertation. All my footnotes and Bibliography are at the bottom. I really enjoyed rereading this and seeing how much my writing has developed. I really hope you enjoy it too! But anyway, enough rambling – let’s get into things.
The Dresden Files: Urban Fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. An exploration of Jim Butcher’s blend of characterisation, use of setting and humour/wit in creating believable Urban Fantasy.
After having experimented unsuccessfully with traditional fantasy for many years, American author Jim Butcher tried his hand at the contemporary genre of Urban Fantasy and finally broke ground in 2000 with his debut novel Storm Front, the first book in his Dresden Files Series, originally titled Semiautomagic to signify the difficult balance he achieved between detective fiction and fantasy. Through the subsequent books in the series Fool Moon and Grave Peril, Butcher also sustains the plausibility due to the characterisation of Harry Dresden, the crime-ridden streets of Chicago and the unusual element of humour that mixed the excitement of the supernatural with the mundane of reality to create convincing Urban Fantasy that stands out from the crowd.
Urban Fantasy is the overlap between a real-world setting, offset with characters or elements of high fantasy. It is this balance of keeping the credibility throughout that is the feat that many novelists struggle with. Butcher’s novels manage not only to be believable but unique due to his protagonist’s self-deprecating humour and sardonic internal monologues, which are consistent throughout the story no matter the situation he faces. Urban Fantasy normally conforms to a strict and serious tone to keep the intense scenes dramatic, while Butcher wasn’t afraid to break that mould and create a male lead with a wry humour and still have the high-action scenes that are notable for the genre.
Before Butcher, it was authors such as Terri Windling and Charles de Lint that had characterised the genre with adaptations of the traditional fairy tales and folklore; always in keeping with the darker and more serious morals that the time-honoured stories were founded upon. John Clute and John Grant had only devised the term Urban Fantasy three years earlier in their Encyclopaedia of Fantasy in 1997. Some of the most successful series in this genre alongside Butcher are The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Claire, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead and Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs. They all managed to maintain a believability despite the unrealistic situations by following a similar format to Butcher.
Butcher adopted a contrasting stance to the original folklore approach in which he matched the drama and excitement of a fantasy novel with the humour and congeniality of inner thought and dilemma to create a character with recognisable strengths and weaknesses for the reader to relate to. His regular use of black humour oddly complements the normally serious and dangerous situations he is tasked with and occasionally results in shocking not only the readers but the other characters that are stunned by his outwardly appearing blasé attitude to the life-threatening circumstances he tackles. In turn this created a completely innovative and realistic style that broke the typical mould and transformed Urban Fantasy into the more normalised and relaxed form which is still popular today even nearly twenty years after its publication. Barnes and Noble went as far as to dub Butcher “The king of Urban Fantasy” and “The gold standard for the genre”.
A prominent aspect of the series’ credibility comes from his protagonist Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, a professional wizard for hire in the yellow pages and supernatural consultant for the Chicago PD: “You can find me in the yellow pages, under ‘wizards’. Believe it or not, I’m the only one there.” The wizard community shunned him after he broke the first Law of Magic. His adoptive parent had attempted to force him into dark magic and Dresden had to kill him in self-defence. Unlike most fantasy wizards Harry is not the omnipotent saviour such as Gandalf, Dumbledore or Magnus Bane. Most wizards’ magic benefits and enhances their lives. While for Dresden, it always seems to backfire giving the illusion that being a wizard is not all it is made out to be. Although he is powerful, his strategies more often than not don’t go to plan. Occasionally he is left without powers of any kind and must resolve the situation in a mundane way, relying on only his intellect to rescue him.
His human qualities combine with his supernatural traits to create the perfect balance between fantasy and reality that keep the readers loving him as a character and the series as a whole. Despite that, Harry is not a humble person. He knows that usually he is powerful, smart and cunning making him a formidable opponent to the supernatural rivals he faces. In an odd juxtaposition to that however, he is extremely aware of his own mortality and that provides him with many opportunities for self-mockery and the self-deprecating humour that makes him such a unique character who is both phenomenally paranormal and truly human in morals, beliefs and actions.
Throughout Harry shocks both other characters and the readers with his dark sense of humour that complements the harshness of the situations he faces but contradicts the self-righteous stance he often takes when it comes to cases: “Kids. You gotta love them. I adore children. A little salt, a squeeze of lemon – perfect.” His internal monologues are riddled with black humour, more than he actually says to others. This suggests that he refrains from voicing some of the more emotionally deplorable things he thinks and gives him another feature that many readers will relate to. Harry is a unique character not only by Urban Fantasy standards but as a male protagonist in general as the often disturbing but humorous jokes he makes are stereotypical of sidekicks and enemies and not the protagonists themselves. Men are usually painted to be the knights in shining armour who swoop in to save the day and the use of black humour could take away from this image. Butcher’s willingness to break this unwritten rule leads for a very effective and relatable character that readers love and keeps them reading despite the unbelievability of some of the circumstances Dresden is tasked with facing.
Another aspect that creates credibility in the series is the convincing backstory that Butcher developed that mixed fantasy with genuine history and current events to ensure that the reader believes that wizards, vampires, demons and all other paranormal entities that live in Chicago:
The end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the new millennium had seen something of a renaissance in the public awareness of the paranormal. Psychics, haunts, vampires – you name it. People still didn’t take them seriously,
Butcher provides enough information to be believable but not copious quantities to the extent that it comes across as forced or congested. This also brings believability because of the likelihood that people would genuinely accept that someone from the phonebook is a wizard and not a lunatic is minute, resulting in Harry’s problems with money; which also sustain the plausibility.
Harry struggles on multiple occasions throughout the series with being financially unstable and desperate for work. Money is a factor that also provides reality in situations that would traditionally lack it because for most fantasy novels a currency may be mentioned but the daily human tasks of shopping, rent and financial stability are not because they aim to provide an escape from those mundane difficulties. The way in which Butcher made Dresden relatable for people going through similar struggles while still being able to provide the escape they search for in the fantasy elements is a strong influencer on the success of his series.
In SF, he takes a case despite it being something he would normally not consider because he is going through a rough patch. “Anyway, it had been a slow month. A slow pair of months, actually”. He winds up the prime suspect in a murder. With Dresden’s overcuriousity, stubbornness and general bad luck he stumbles his way through solving the case and clearing his name:
I had a lot of worry to use to fuel the magic, and a lot of annoyance and one hell of a lot of stubbornness.
The following books in the series are in keeping with this format.
Externally Harry exudes the hard-boiled private detective stereotype coined by Raymond Chandler that – despite being unable look anyone in the eye – has ladies swooning at his feet and never lets him back down from a fight. Wizards are also characteristically grumpy, quick to anger and stubborn. Harry conforms to these traits although he does try to remain civil with many:
‘Oh. Is this, um, Harry Dresden? The, uh, wizard?’ Her tone was apologetic, as though she were terribly afraid she would be insulting me.
No I thought. It’s Harry the, ah, lizard. Harry the wizard is one door down.
It is the prerogative of wizards to be grumpy. It is not, however, the prerogative of freelance consultants who are late on their rent.
Internally, alongside his darker humour and often self-deprecating internal monologues, Dresden has a witty, sarcastic and childishness about him that may be emphasised by his stubbornness. This tames his harsh but oddly lovable exterior and gives Butcher’s series a different take on an Urban Fantasy protagonist as it takes the serious edge off normally very harsh situations:
‘I still can’t believe,’ Michael said, sotto voce, ‘that you came to the Vampires’ Masquerade Ball dressed as a vampire.’
He uses his irritable nature to keep those he cares for safe as he knows his profession leads him down a dangerous path: “Magic. It can get a guy killed.” It’s this extreme sense of good and evil that adds to the depth of Dresden because despite the harsh exterior and his sordid history with dark magic he is truly good. However, Harry is not flawless, and he is no saint. He is secretive to the stage it destroys friendships and puts people in danger. He is chauvinistic at times and most of all extremely self-righteous. The juxtaposition between his external and internal personas causes the reader to appreciate his character despite his flaws because they understand that in the end he will do what it takes to keep people safe, even when he is condescending about his victories:
Then I let my head fall back and howled out a defiant laugh, a great, gawping whoop of primal joy.
‘Take that, Victor Shadowman!’ I shouted. ‘Hah! Hah! Give me your best shot, you murderous bastard! I’m going to take my staff and shove it down your throat!’
Karin Murphy is a prime example of Dresden picking safety over feelings and friendship. The Dresden Files differ from others of its kin because much of Urban Fantasy is told from the female perspective with a dashing male swooping in to assist; while Dresden has Karin Murphy, the Police lieutenant of the Special Investigations Unit aiding him with his dilemmas. The lies Dresden tells to keep Karin safe always seem to backfire on her career, the case and their friendship because although he wants to tell her the truth he can’t because the Laws of Magic prevent him from doing so, resulting in a strained relationship throughout the series.
I had l lost Murphy’s trust. It didn’t matter that I had done what I had to protect both her and myself. Noble intentions meant nothing. It was the result that counted. And the result of my actions had been telling a bald-faced lie to one of the only people I could come close to calling a friend.
Another key member in Dresden’s life is the Leanansidhe or Lea – his fairy Godmother. They have a tempestuous relationship throughout the series that is fuelled by a familial love. She has a cold and calculating approach to situations and yet truly cares for Harry, even if she shows it in unique and misguided ways. Throughout GP, wanting only safety for Harry, Lea attempts to turn him into a Hellhound, so he would be under her protection. It turned the tables for Dresden as he is used to trying to protect others at any cost and now he was being forced into a situation he didn’t want in order to keep him unharmed.
Of all the characters Harry is the politest to Lea. He is still his quick-witted self, but it takes on a lighter form when around his Godmother. Around her he gets: “a sudden feeling of child-like panic”. He changes his usual attitude because being around her reminds him of childhood and being told off, he is still willing to push the normal limits but in comparison to how he treats Murphy or Bob it is severely restrained. This again adds to the believability of Dresden as the reader is likely to relate to this situation of feeling belittled by family even as an adult, despite the absurdity of the situation and relationship.
Relationships for Dresden have always been tough:
Relationships hadn’t ever really worked for me. I think it’s had something to do with all the demons, ghosts and human sacrifice.
He struggles not only with Murphy and the Leanansidhe but also with his sexual relationship with femme fatale Susan Rodriguez, a journalist for the supernatural magazine The Arcane. The use of sex is a rare occurrence in original fantasy, with authors such as Tolkien never touching the subject. Butcher was willing to separate himself from his traditional fantasy roots even more by adding the element of sex. It only boosted the series’ credibility as not only is it a part of normal life that allows the reader to connect with the relationship more, but it was done tastefully and still in fitting with Dresden’s character and humour. Other than his relationship with Susan, Dresden has very few romantic entanglements. This becomes a recurring joke between himself and Bob who constantly mocks him for it:
’Harry,’ Bob drawled, his eye lights flickering smugly, ‘what you know about women, I could juggle.’
The stereotypical cluelessness about women adds another endearing factor to Dresden’s accumulating list and allows readers to enjoy the novels more because they can relate to or disparage Harry for the typecast he fits into.
In the early books of the series Harry is supported by Bob, an intelligent spirit, which is predominantly confined to a skull in the basement. Bob has helped him countless times with potion-making and fact-finding which enviably results in saving the day. Bob constantly mocks Harry for a variety of things mainly his self-righteousness because he himself lacks a moral compass:
‘Oh. Damn. This is one of those right and wrong issues again, isn’t it.’
‘Yeah, one of those.’
‘I’m still confused about this whole morality thing, Harry.’
Bob is very stubborn, and it creates a banter and repartee between the two of them that often fuels Dresden’s darker humour. Dresden often refers to Bob “obsessed with sex” throughout the series and it normally is used to make Harry the butt of jokes or as leverage to let Bob out of his skull. Bob’s sex-obsession is likely to have been drawn from Harry as Bob is always heavily influenced by his owner, taking on many of their personality traits. This creates a friendship that is entertaining for the reader and also gives the books a realistic credibility because of Dresden’s belief that he isn’t good enough to have relationships. The self-doubt and lack of faith in himself is a very human trait for a character who is outwardly occult.
In Dresden’s version of Chicago, he has his very own Al Capone, Gentleman Johnny Marcone: the crime boss running most of Chicago’s human lawbreaking. He and Harry cross paths on multiple occasions and seem to have a mutual understanding where Marcone acknowledges Dresden’s power and Dresden acknowledges Marcone’s authority: “Marcone was a civilising influence on crime.” The fact that Harry deals with not only fantasy creatures but the normal everyday criminals provides a way of grounding the unrealistic portions of the story. Just because vampires and ghosts run amuck doesn’t mean generic crime stops and that is a key element that Butcher realised and adapted into his works to keep it believable.
Setting in Urban Fantasy is something that causes many authors to lose their plausibility. Not only does Chicago have its long and disreputable reputation of organised crime but it is host to all forms of supernatural entities which are drawn to Ley Lines that are situated beneath Dresden’s Chicago because of The Great Lakes. It is a combination of these things that makes Chicago, Illinois, the perfect choice of location for the paranormal to mix with the mundane:
Chicago. It’s insane and violent and corrupt and vital and artistic and noble and cruel and wonderful. It’s full of greed and hope and hate and desire and excitement and pain and happiness. The air sings with screams and laughter, with sirens, with angry shouts, with gunshots, with music. It’s an impossible city, at war with itself, every horrible and wonderful thing blending together to create something terrifying and lovely and utterly unique.
Dresden’s view of Chicago is very indicative of the series as a whole – the blend of the mystical and the ordinary that make Butcher’s books so unique to the genre.
In conclusion, a credible setting and intricate characters combined with a unique humour in a genre that typically lacks it has produced a series that is one of a kind. Butcher’s willingness to bend the rules and fashion a character that is utterly inimitable because of his charm and relatability resulted in creating believable Urban Fantasy that is at the forefront of the genre. Butcher’s inclusion of wry wit and satirical humour that breaks the harshness of high action scenes while still keeping them intriguing and utterly nail-biting alters the typical dynamics and overall makes the books unique because of this element. Dresden brings an element of authenticity to a story that would originally be far from believable because we relate to him. He’s just another person struggling in society to make ends meet – he goes to work (despite how unorthodox it may be) and comes home to his family just like the reader does and that’s why no matter what is thrown at Dresden be it wizards, vampires, demons or werewolves not only do we believe what we’re reading but we support Dresden throughout his tribulations.
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