I wrote Relentless, my first novel, some 13 years ago. Hard to believe it’s been that long. Here’s a look back at what I remember about what it was like to create this book, with loads of never before revealed details about the process.
The entire Dominion Trilogy came from this crazy flash I had in my head one day: a man steps off of his morning commuter bus in a big city, looks across the street, and sees himself walking to work. It was preposterous, of course. But that’s the job of a writer: to make the reader believe the impossible.
I became obsessed with that image. A million questions came to mind: What was happening? What could cause something like this to occur? How is it possible? Who was this man? Who was the other man?
I had to answer them. And that’s how Relentless began. As my first novel, it was this sort of explosion of pent-up creativity. Pretty much every cool idea I ever had (to that point) got poured into it, which is how it wound up with superheroes, secret societies, conspiracies, and one crazy cool sword-wielding assassin.
In the Beginning
When I first wrote Relentless, it was called Prodigy, and it was published in serialized installments at Infuze Magazine, a website I ran at the time. If I recall correctly, I think there were 18 chapters, all of which were in the 10,000-word neighborhood. I published every other Friday, and you can probably guess the number one question I got asked all the time:
Do you have this all planned out, or are you making it up as you go?
I had it planned out. I left wiggle room for surprises to come along — and they did — but I knew the destination I was headed towards and all of the major beats. At the time, I thought of the story as a one-off. There was room left at the end for further adventures, sure, but I didn’t have any concrete plans for where I would take these characters next. Toward the end, I was already itching to get started on The Void, the novel that would become Offworld.
Then Bethany House Publishers came calling with a sweet deal: turn Prodigy into a trilogy of hardback novels, release them a year apart, and they offered me a very nice advance. Breaking Prodigy into three stories didn’t appeal to me, so I suggested making it just the first book, and then writing two additional books to continue and finish the tale. They agreed.
Anyone who’s read Relentless knows that it’s a very plot-driven book. (The second and third books I think are more of a blend of character-driven and plot-driven.) I make no apologies for that; it’s the nature of the story I wanted to tell. But it means that I didn’t put a ton of effort into crafting three-dimensional characters. That said, I did put thought into who each of my main characters were and what role they would serve in the story, drawing largely on “hero’s journey” archetypes.
Grant Borrows: More than any other character in the series, Grant is me. His reactions are mine, he speaks like I do, his way of thinking is how I think. From a broader perspective, he’s the archetypal Everyman, which was crucial to this story. You should always have a surrogate for the reader, particularly when you have this kind of huge, mind-bending jigsaw of a story that you’re peeling back a layer at a time. Everything in the first book unfolds from his point of view; he learns things at the same time that readers do. But he’s placed in a pressure cooker of a situation, thanks to this mega-powerful artifact on his finger that’s rooted in darkness.
As the book suggests, his name was very intentional on my part. The words “grant” and “borrows” both describe a person who’s living inside a new body. Plus, it rolls nicely off the tongue.
As the trilogy unfolded, it (hopefully) became clear that it wasn’t just Grant’s story. It really revolved around the triptych of Grant, Alex, and Payton. Closely followed by Daniel, who got what I thought was a nice, full story arc across the trilogy.
Alex: I created Alex to be a combination of Herald and Shapeshifter. The Herald appears early in a story and opens the Hero’s eyes to the bigger world that awaits them, and the challenge that lies before them. In short, they call the Hero to action. But I liked playing with the mystery of who Alex is, who she’s loyal to, and why she’s so interested in Grant. That’s where the Shapeshifter part comes in. She’s never a proper Shapeshifter in that her loyalties never change, but I wanted readers to think there was the possibility she might not be looking out for Grant’s best interests. (In the second and third books, Alex shapeshifted again, this time into Grant’s love interest!)
Alex is always barefoot because I wanted her to be an outsider and a nonconformist; it symbolized her comfort with being herself and not caring what others thought of her. She sees the world very differently than most people, because she knows the truth behind the Rings of Dominion and what’s happening to Grant, and so on. She was the “other,” and everything from her dress to her way of speaking was intended to convey that.
Payton: everyone’s favorite! Payton is a classic Guardian, a character who blocks the Hero from completing his journey with a stern warning to turn back and give up this foolish quest. Of course, Payton’s idea of warning Grant was to kill him, but hey, he’s an extreme, black-and-white kinda guy.
Payton was so much fun to write, because he’s got the bad-to-the-bone vibe, he’s supremely confident and 100% unwavering in his certainty of purpose, he’s got an awesome superpower (short bursts of speed) that he used with a super-cool weapon (a sword that can cut through anything), he’s got a very British “I don’t care about anything except my goal” thing going on in a James Bond sort of way. And he’s incredibly focused. He never deals in shades of gray. He sees no moral quagmire with executing evil men, believing that one’s punishment should fit their crime.
I loved being able to build up his entrance, because once he arrived, Relentless kicked into overdrive. But he was always going to become an Ally, eventually.
Daniel: Daniel was very much inspired by Kiefer Sutherland’s character Dr. Schreber from the movie Dark City, one of my favorites. (I didn’t realize it at the time, but they even share the same first name!) Instead of one Mentor, I gave Grant two of them. One would examine things and reveal things and coach Grant based on science. That’s Daniel. The other — Morgan — would do the same from a more mystical or supernatural perspective. I’ll have more on Daniel later.
Julie: As Grant’s loyal sister, Julie is the classic Ally. And (spoilers for Fearless) yes, she was always destined for the chopping block. I was originally going to have it happen in Relentless because I knew it would catalyze Grant’s inner moral conflict, but I decided to save it for Fearless because it was the biggest blow Grant could receive, which I needed for the end of that book. I made her ill to underscore her frailty; as sister to the most powerful human being on the planet, she’s thrust into many of the same dangers that he is, but she has no powers to protect her. That’s a very perilous situation.
Hannah: the Southern beauty-slash-cat burglar-slash-star crossed love interest. Call it your standard doomed romance. She was exactly the wrong person for him, and he for her, but they fell in love anyway.
It was always going to end badly for her, I’m afraid. It’s never easy killing off one of your characters, especially one you’ve spent hundreds of pages writing. But I knew Hannah’s fate from the start, which eased the pain somewhat.
Morgan: I designed Morgan to be the second half of the Mentor archetype, after Daniel, but where he was very scientific and detached, I wanted Morgan to be a nurturer. She would be a protector of others like Grant, and a warm, motherly figure. Her love of reading and all those countless books that filled her hallways came from her superpower — remembering every moment, every fact, every detail she’s exposed to.
I thought at length about how someone in that situation would function, and it occurred to me that if you saw, heard, touched, tasted, and felt the same sensations again and again and were hypersensitive to them and could remember every minute detail… Pretty quickly, you’d go insane with the ho-hum nature of it all. My daughter has a tendency to repeat herself. Over and over and over, she’ll say the same things. It drives me mad. Morgan would experience this with sensation of her daily life. On top of that, all that hypersensitivity would cause sensory overload.
So I gave her books to lose herself in. Morgan’s books are her escape from the endless noise around her. They’re also her window to excitement, to things that are new and different. They increased her intelligence and already massive frame-of-reference as well.
Lisa: Daniel is so uptight, and he was always going to need someone to interact with before he met up with Grant and the others. Lisa became one of my favorite characters to write because she has no filter between her brain and her mouth. If she thinks it, she says it. She’s a Joss Whedon-ish Trickster in that way. My original plan for Lisa was for her feelings for Daniel to be unrequited, a fierce loyalty that was born out of a love he was too aloof to notice. But things intensified for them both after a certain major development. More on that in a sec.
Matthew Drexel: your standard corrupt, mob-style cop. I make no pretenses about the fact that Drexel is not unlike a cartoon villain. There’s nothing redeemable about him at all, no subtle shades of gray. He’s pure evil, out for number one, and willing to stomp on anyone to get ahead. I’ll be blunt: Drexel exists because I needed a bad guy to propel the action forward.
I didn’t enjoy writing him because he was a monster — and he was monstrous for no good reason. At least Grant’s grandfather, and later Devlin, believed they were doing what had to be done for the greater good. Drexel doesn’t care about any of that stuff. He’s bad because he has a sadistic love of having power over others.
Maximillian Borrows: Relentless was a typical case of needing a worthwhile big baddie to appear from behind the curtain — but just for Part One. A supervillain who would hold all the cards and be extremely hard to defeat… But would still leave room for the über-villain that was yet to come. Max was Darth Vader to Devlin’s Emperor. His backstory was that he went rogue from the Secretum and tried to bring about the end of the world in his own way, triggering Grant’s darkest impulses by pulling the rug out from beneath his grandson piece by piece, again and again, until he snapped. It didn’t work out too well for him, but you have to admire the lengths he went to in pursuit of his goal.
Side note: In Prodigy, I had three characters with remarkably similar names: Daniel, Dana, and Dane. It was not on purpose. In fact, it didn’t even dawn on me until my editor at Bethany House pointed it out and suggested changing two of them. I was mortified when I realized! Total face-palm moment. I just happened to like all three of those names. For Relentless, Dana became Hannah and Dane became Payton.
Twists & Turns
Any book I write has to be one that I want to read. Any author can expound upon the importance of this. If I’m not passionate about it as the writer, you won’t care about it as the reader. Passion bleeds through the page.
So it had to include twists, surprises, big questions and big reveals, elements of fantasy and superheroes, and so on.
As for those surprises that came along, none of them stunned me more than what happened to Daniel. It was never in my original plan that he would get beaten to within an inch of his life and come close to dying. His trajectory was always going to slowly merge with Grant’s, but I realized pretty early on that his storyline needed a big jolt or it was going to get boring fast.
I don’t know where the idea came from, but as soon as the thought popped into my head of the villainous detective, Drexel, having Daniel beaten nearly to death as an excuse to search his lab… Daniel’s entire story crystallized in an instant. His investment in what was going on — not to mention his connection to the Secretum’s master plan — would take on an immediacy, with higher stakes, and a need for answers and justice. Janet’s attraction to him would become more profound as she watched him and helped him fight for his life. And the whole thing would instill in him a deep hatred for Drexel and a desire for revenge that couldn’t be sated with anything less than Drexel’s death.
And of course this gave me plenty to work with going beyond the first novel. There’s nothing like a good redemption story — and his quest for revenge contrasted beautifully with Grant’s ultimate refusal to give in to the same.
But when I thought of it, I almost heard Daniel speak to me inside my head. Talk about surreal! No, Mr. Author. You can’t do it that way. You have to do this instead. It’ll be hard, but it’s what the story needs.
And it was hard. I felt sick after writing that scene.
In each of the three books, there’s a single chapter near the middle that takes a break from the action and rewinds to the childhood or early adulthood of Grant (Relentless), Alex (Fearless), and Payton (Merciless). These were fun to write, because the whole trilogy allowed me to play with notions of nature vs. nurture. How much of who we are is with us from birth? How much is programmed into us by the world and our experiences?
In other words, were Grant, Alex, and Payton the same people at earlier points in their lives, before they were Shifted, that they are now?
Grant’s flashback in this book showed that he was hardened early on to being the kid who never had many friends and was always picked last. (Yes, there are some autobiographical elements there.) He knew his place in society was always going to be the guy who stands in the corner alone at a party. And yet, fate intervened — and by “fate,” I mean the nefarious secret society called the Secretum of Six — giving him a new life. They transformed his appearance, his voice, and his physical capabilities and prowess by transferring his consciousness into a stronger, handsomer, more vital body.
How would you react to that — to being given a second chance at having the kind of life you always secretly dreamed of? Would you let it change you on the inside? Or is the inside always hardwired into who you are, no matter how your circumstances change? I explored this question again and again throughout the Trilogy.
As for Grant’s transformation… It was wish fulfillment. I don’t deny it.
From Screen to Page
Turning Prodigy into Relentless required some rejiggering. Characters that didn’t quite make sense had to be reworked, story beats that were too convenient had to be ditched or replaced. It was relatively painless, though.
My favorite thing about the rewrite was that it gave me the opportunity to go back and start incorporating characters from later in the book — like Morgan and Payton — into the story sooner, planting seeds of suspicion and doubt about who and what they were. Those new Payton scenes that were added for Relentless are still among my favorites.
“It’s not for buttering toast, love.” Man, I love that line.
Some details changed along the way, but the root of the story remained the same. Grant was still Grant, Alex was still Alex, he was still trying to piece together this new life that fate had given him, Alex was still being maddeningly cryptic, and it was all leading to a big showdown deep below Grant’s apartment building. (This story beat kicked off a long-running fascination of mine with massive, underground spaces. I’ll dive into that some other time.)
To the Point
Relentless was always going to culminate with Grant having to make the most difficult choice of his life: Would he give in to the darkness growing inside him and seek revenge, as Daniel did? The deck was stacked significantly higher against him than it was Daniel, thanks to the incredible power he now possessed and where that power came from; it would be impossibly easy for him to just give up the fight and let the darkness take control. Or would he, against all odds, fight back against rage and hate and vengeance and be the hero we wanted him to be?
The choice was meant to be agonizing, a slow burn built by chipping away every little piece of his identity, of what he thought to be true, over the course of the story. After everything you think you know is stripped away, what do you have left is left of you to hold onto? How do you keep going? Grant still had his soul, and his soul was willing to look abject evil in the face, and say “No.”
The moment in the book that catalyzes that choice is when Hannah is murdered, shot by a sniper’s bullet on the orders of Maximilian Borrows. The rage builds up in him and a swarm of wind and violence whips around him. Alex desperately warns him not to give in to revenge, that he’ll lose everything about himself that’s good. His stone-cold reply is my favorite moment in the book, and the story beat that the whole journey pivots on: “I wasn’t made to be good.”
None of us were made to be good on our own. We all have a sinful nature. We’ve all fallen short. Grant magnifies this quality to an extreme after being given the ultimate weapon, the Seal of Dominion, and being pushed to his breaking point. It’s a macro scale look at what we’re all capable of if we give in to the worst parts of ourselves.
J.K. Rowling once famously said that the virtue she prizes above all others is bravery. You can see it in every page of her Harry Potter books. Everything Harry is put through tests his will to face his fears and emerge victorious. In my case, the virtue I prize most highly is perseverance. Nothing speaks to me more deeply than pushing through pain, refusing to give in, knowing what’s right and sticking to it no matter the cost. (Can’t imagine where that comes from.)
There’s a moment in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring that has become a touchstone for me regarding perseverance. It’s near the end of the film. Frodo Baggins stands alone on the shore of a river, faced with an impossible task ahead of him: infiltrating the heart of the enemy’s territory and destroying the One Ring. And he’s just realized he has to do it alone, as all of his friends and allies have been stripped away, and he must keep far from them so they aren’t tempted by the ring.
Voices of those friends fill his thoughts, reminding him of the importance of his job — and that it’s likely a one-way trip. Frodo comes from a genteel, innocent, country life, where he’s never had to take part in the affairs of the wider world. Suddenly he’s the most important person in Middle-Earth, charged with a quest that should have been given to someone bigger, stronger, and more capable.
Elijah Wood plays this moment so perfectly, a huge range of emotions washing over his face again and again. Fear. Determination. Weakness. Bravery. Helplessness. Resolution. Mortality. Hope. Dread. It’s all there, without a single line spoken by Mr. Wood, as he faces down this gargantuan task that’s been unfairly placed on his shoulders.
It speaks to me on a very deep and personal level.
You can see the moment of the turn, the moment Frodo squares his shoulders and makes his decision to press on. He’ll do it alone, he’ll face this impossible challenge, and he’ll do it because no one else can. He’s still terrified, but he’s going to persevere.
Relentless, in its heart of hearts, was that moment of agonizing decision examined in the form of an entire novel.
Once everything fell into place with Relentless, I had a harder task ahead: figuring out what in the world those next two books were going to be.