Alan Baxter: Five Things I Learned Writing The Alex Caine Series
Alex Caine, a fighter by trade, is drawn into a world he never knew existed — a world he wishes he’d never found.
Alex Caine is a martial artist fighting in illegal cage matches. His powerful secret weapon is an unnatural vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they know their intentions themselves.
An enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, approaches Alex after a fight and reveals, “I know your secret.” Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him into a mind-bending adventure beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else.
A cursed grimoire binds Alex to Uthentia, a chaotic Fey godling, who leads him towards destruction and murder, an urge Alex finds harder and harder to resist. Befriended by Silhouette, a monstrous Kin beauty, Alex sets out to recover the only things that will free him – the shards of the Darak. But that powerful stone also has the potential to unleash a catastrophe which could mean the end of the world as we know it.
Genres are bullshit
Thankfully, when Voyager made an offer on this series, they didn’t ask me to be too specific about what genre it is. Genre is for bookstores more than real people anyway, but I subsequently realised that it was a question I was going to get asked a lot. About the best genre description we’ve managed so far is dark urban fantasy thriller.
The books definitely delve into the arena of horror here and there; there’s magic and monsters and a modern setting, so it’s urban fantasy; and it’s fast-paced like a thriller. I’m a big fan of all those genres and more, and I like nothing better than to mash them up. But genres are bullshit and far too restricting, so I’ve learned more than ever after writing these books to take any genre description with about a heaped ladle full of salt. But I’ve also learned that people need their categories, and a good genre description is necessary.
So, dark urban fantasy thrillers.
More than 30 years of my life made a character who’s not a character
These books follow Alex Caine into a world of darkness. At the beginning, he’s a successful underground cage fighter, and he’s happy with that life. But then various events lead him into a realm of magic, monsters and complete mayhem. He navigates this nightmare largely thanks to his martial training.
Having grown up with a wise and experienced mentor, Alex learns to apply the rules and philosophies of the martial arts to these new and unusual challenges. Throughout the books, he hears the voice of his now-dead Sifu (the kung fu equivalent of a Sensei). I’m a Sifu myself, having spent more than thirty years training and teaching in the martial arts. This is why Alex Caine was such a fun character for me to write – he’s a very different person to me, but he’s grown up with a very similar set of guiding philosophies.
It turned out that through the course of these books, one of the characters I enjoyed writing the most isn’t even there – he’s just a voice in Alex’s head. So my lifetime of martial study created a character who’s not a character, but who is nonetheless absolutely essential to the series, and to Alex Caine.
Bad guys think they’re good guys
Antagonists who are two-dimensional cut-outs are boring and insulting to readers. It’s always important to me to make sure the bad guys in my books (hell, all characters in my books) are as well-developed as the heroes. This can be hard, but I’ve learned that the best way to deal with it is to always think from the bad guy’s point of view; and they never think they’re wrong.
Everyone is the hero of their own story. Bad guys may well have enough self-reflection to know they’re selfish and lack empathy, but simply because of that, they also don’t care about it. They think they’re the good guy, the justified one, entitled to what they take, because anyone else is simply not strong enough, or brave enough, or honest enough to do what they do. When I write bad guys with that in mind, they come out as interesting and compelling characters. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to put them up against someone who can kick serious ass and has just discovered magic.
It takes a lot of reading and study to ignore everything
One of the things I wanted to do with the Alex Caine series was subvert common notions of various mythologies – fairy tales, werewolves, vampires, and so on. I wanted to reinterpret and reform those tropes and put the dark back into them. So that meant I needed to read a lot, then ignore everything I’d read. Of course, I’ve grown up reading all that stuff, but I studied more for these books. If you’re going to break rules, you need to know the rules, or you’ll just come off like a hack. It’s the same with tropes – know them to smash them.
Trust your gut, sanitize for no one!
These books, in places, are very dark. There’s a lot of strong language, by which I mean swearing. After all, a badass cage fighter isn’t likely to talk like a British blueblood. And if there are creatures who prey on humankind and eat their flesh, kinda glossing over that in the story would be disingenuous. So no matter how dark it got going down the various rabbitholes into which this story led me, I didn’t turn around. I followed them all the way down. This led to some confronting scenes and situations. All very much in context of the story and never gratuitous, but I wondered if Voyager might want me to sanitize where I had chosen not to. To their credit, they didn’t. And one reviewer said, “I am so thankful that HarperVoyager allowed the swearing and the dark fantasy/horror elements to come though… Baxter and HarperVoyager are treating us as adults with this one and that’s refreshing…”
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He has been a finalist in the Ditmar Awards four times, with BOUND: Alex Caine #1 currently shortlisted for the 2015 Ditmar Award for Best Novel. He also wrote the popular writer’s resource, Write The Fight Right, a short ebook about writing convincing fight scenes. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.