|Patricia Briggs: Sharing Fantastic Secrets|
Your mother's warning to the contrary, people really don't judge books by their covers. Readers judge them by their characters. Fantasy writer Patricia Briggs' characters walk off the page and introduce themselves as neighborly as you please. Their unaffected manner and wry humor effortlessly draw you into fantastic worlds where dragons run in the family and the payment for a Hob's aid proves to be something much subtler than sacrifice.
Briggs' gift for characterization and delicious twists of fate give her books a reading life that far exceeds their time on the bookstore shelves. Although Briggs only began publishing in 1993, her out-of-print paperback originals already qualify as collectors items, fetching prices that attest to a devoted -- and growing -- fandom. Just before Dragon Blood, the sequel to Dragon Bones, arrived at bookstores, Crescent Blues talked to Briggs about connecting characters and readers, and why things should always be more than they seem.
Crescent Blues: From the Shark in When Demons Walk to Wardwick in Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood, you seem to have a thing for big, blond, slow-seeming heroes who are anything but. What is the source of this fascination?
Patricia Briggs: I love characters who are more than they seem. First of all, characters with secrets are interesting. Secondly, a shared secret - between the reader and the character establishes a connection between them -- an inside joke.
I have to admit, though, that the Shark and Ward were the only characters I ever wrote who were based on a real person... There was a man my husband worked with who was well over six feet tall and big as a linebacker. Although he was quite handsome, there was something about his face that said, "Use little words and short sentences." Of course, he was absolutely brilliant. The first time I talked to him, I knew that I was going to have to use that combination in a book. The Shark, who is not nearly nice as my husband's coworker, worked out so well, that I used a bit of him to flesh out Ward.
Crescent Blues: You describe Wardwick as a "finder." How does this talent work?
Patricia Briggs: "Finders" can find things -- sort of like Mommies. I can find a missing shoe or homework packet in under two minutes.
When I have a character who has a magical talent I have to decide how it works, what it feels like to use, and I have to give it strict limits -- because the more power I give a character, the less interesting they are.
Ward has to look for an individual item. He could find the marbled pen I use for book signings, but not just any old pen. That means that he can't find someone he doesn't know or something that he's never paid much attention too. Just think about it, do you remember enough about your stapler to distinguish it from all other staplers? Even then he can only locate them in reference to himself -- this can be a real pain if he's looking for someone in a maze of tunnels. Sure his sister is fifty feet to the left, but should he take the upper tunnel or the lower tunnel to get there?
Crescent Blues: What was your inspiration for giving him this particular gift?
Patricia Briggs: When I was about ten I read a book about a box that collected lost things: What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew. Although the last time I read it was twenty years ago, the image of that innocent box, which turned up such interesting items as a pair of 100 league boots (each step moved you 100 leagues), is still vivid. I've often thought that such a box -- or the lesser talent of finding would be useful. Since then, I've seen a few characters in other people's books who were "finders." (Emma Bull's book, Finder, comes to mind.) But it's a magic talent that hasn't been over-exploited. Since this book wasn't about how Ward became a great mage to save the world, I didn't want Ward to have a talent that was too powerful. Finding was a talent that just seemed to dovetail with Ward's character.
Crescent Blues: Wardwick's adventures take up two books. What was it about the character or his situation that inspired you to continue his adventures into a second volume?
Patricia Briggs: I had not planned on two books. In fact I had Dragon Bones polished and sent to my editor when I decided it needed a sequel. There were several reasons which mostly boiled down to this: by the end of the first book there were a lot of changes just teetering on the edge -- a lot of potential storytelling to go.
I had originally planned on Ward having a love life in Dragon Bones, but the tension between Oreg and Ward took me by surprise. There simply wasn't enough emotional room to bring in another strong relationship, even if Dragon Bones had been 600 pages long. There was no impetus for Jackoven to move against the Hurog family during the events of Dragon Bones, but I just knew that he wouldn't let his mistake lie. I didn't want to muddy the impact of Dragon Bones just to tidy up the world for the bit characters, but I'd come to really like several of them and I hated to leave their stories untold.
Crescent Blues: The ending of Dragon Blood neatly caps the plot of the book (and answers many of the questions remaining from the first book in the series). But it implies that Wardwick will continue to face challenges on many fronts. Do you plan additional books in the series?
Patricia Briggs: I don't believe in absolute endings. Life doesn't just stop when Cinderella marries the Prince. How terrible for her if it did! I usually end my books with a few hints about what might lie ahead. Ward has a lot of adventures ahead of him, but that's what happy ever after is all about. I'm pleased with where Ward ended up. He has more adventures ahead, but I don't know what they are exactly or if he'll need another book.
Crescent Blues: Have you ever been tempted to model any other characters on real people?
Patricia Briggs: I've only ever used one person to model characters on and even then I just stole bits and pieces. I think using real people is a dangerous practice for a writer's personal and professional life -- especially for me who can't keep a secret to save my soul.
I know that some of my friends read through my books to see if they are in them. When I was teaching, the first thing students asked me was, "Are you going to use us in your books?" But if they find themselves and don't like what they see they'll be understandably upset -- so I just don't put them in.
Professionally speaking, I've heard about a writer who had just been through a nasty divorce and used the ex-wife/ex-husband as a caricature villain in a book -- complete with name. The book got published, the author and publisher were sued. The maligned ex-spouse won, and that author never sold another book.
Crescent Blues: Many of your central characters are not what they seem at first glance, and many are shapeshifters. What makes these themes so attractive to you?
Patricia Briggs: Okay. I confess. When other children were dreaming that they were adopted and someday the king of some foreign land would recognize them as their only child…I dreamed of being a horse. I can still whinny pretty well when I want to.But more seriously, my first book was, in part, a spy novel. At the time I wrote it, there weren't many fantasy genre writers (that I was reading anyway) who were dealing with espionage -- an interesting side effect of politics. At the same time (early nineties) the subgenre of vampire fiction was gaining popularity outside of horror. I had always been rather more fascinated by the vampire's spiritual brother, the werewolf. That gave me my shapeshifting spy to work with -- Aralorn. I thoroughly enjoyed writing her, so I decided to try another spy for my second book, Steal the Dragon. By the third book, I'd discovered that I like characters who have secrets and odd abilities whether they were spies, wizards, or computer nerds.
Crescent Blues: Which usually comes first for you: the hero, the villain or the plot?
Patricia Briggs: Usually the hero (though the first scene I wrote for Steal the Dragon actually was about the secondary lead). When I start out writing a book, I don't usually take notes and build worlds -- that comes later. I sit down and write scenes until I come up with a character I like. Then I flesh out the world a bit in the scene. Once I have a character in a world, then I try to figure out what that person wants most -- and then I take it away or make it impossible to get. I usually don't have a fleshed-out plot until I'm through with the first draft. At that stage I can fine tune the plot. The villains usually show up where and how they prefer. In The Hob's Bargain, the real conflict was how to survive in a world which has just undergone a significant transformation. The confrontation with the villain of the piece was more a final goodbye to their old world than it was a major plot point.
Patricia Briggs: If I'm writing well, it feels as if the characters are in charge -- though that's not really true. I think of it like an actor being "in character" in a play. Once I have a good handle on who my character is, what she wants and how she views the world, then I have narrowed the range of reactions that she can have to a given situation -- sometimes to the point that I cannot write a planned scene the way I wanted.
Take this as an example: in Dragon Blood, I gave my villain an artifact powered by dragon blood because that makes it a danger to my hero. Once I'd made that decision, I asked myself what that meant for the story. Primarily it meant that anyone who has a dragon ancestor is at risk, just like Ward. So who was in that group?
1) My dragon -- except that his being a dragon is still a secret. Good that's even more reason to keep his identity secret (because in this world, if everyone knew there are still dragons, the impact would be enormous -- and nothing I wanted to deal with in this book).
2) All of Ward's family is at risk. So I gather them all up and get them safely away.
Then I consider my villain's next action.
Now, I know Jackoven. We've been acquainted for about a novel and a half at this point. So when I ask, "Would you go after Ward again?" I know that his reply is: "Certainly not without looking for better and easier prey."
"What could be better than Ward?" I ask.