Something Different, Something Challenging: Patricia Briggs on Writing

Patricia Briggs writes dark urban fantasy novels full of werewolves, shape-shifters, and vampires.  Her fiction has remained popular, in part, because her novels are character-driven and her series stay character-focused.

Briggs is, perhaps, best known for the Mercy Thompson novels.  Volume six in the series, River Marked, is due out this coming spring.  The fall of 2011 will see the release of the third book in the Alpha and Omega series, which started with Cry Wolf and Hunting Ground.  Briggs’ first novel, Masques, and its sequel, Wolfsbane, (both in the Sianim series) were updated and re-released this past fall.

Below is a brief interview with Briggs from a while back that was scheduled to run at another website but never did.  (Seemed a shame to let it gather digital dust in a Killed folder!)  Briggs talks about two of the things she does so well—world-building and character creation.

What do you enjoy about writing fiction?

Patricia Briggs: As with any job, the answer changes from day to day.  But mostly I think it is awesome to do something I enjoy.  Telling stories, reading stories has always been one of my favorite things to do.

Has there been a landmark book for you?

Briggs: The Hob’s Bargain, which tends to be my reader’s least favorite, is the most favorite book of mine, was the first story that came out exactly as I wished it to.  I consider it my first “professional” book (which doesn’t mean I don’t like the earlier ones).  Dragon Bones… there is something about that book that makes me want to put it in this category, too, but I’m not sure why.  It was the first book that sold well enough in the first year to make me certain I could sell the next book.   But there is something special about it to me, and I can’t put it into words except to say that when people ask me which of my backlist/straight fantasy to start with, I almost always send them to Dragon Bones.  Then, of course, there are the Mercy books, which have moved writing from an interesting and inexpensive hobby to a real career–as well as allowed me to play in the modern (if slightly altered) world at last.

Can you tell me about the process of building Mercy Thompson’s world?

Patricia Briggs: I don’t build worlds in a straight line.  I start from the characters, their problem, or even from a question and work out with the implications of the decisions I have to make in the story.  As an example:  I needed a protagonist who was part of the underworld, but not one of the main players.  I knew I’d have vampires and werewolves (because I like them, and because my editor asked me to).  Because I like my main characters to be underpowered rather than overpowered, I thought, “What’s less powerful than a wolf?”  Coyote, of course.  So if my protagonist was a shapeshifting coyote–an animal native to North America–then it followed that Mercy had to be at least part Native American (who have a rich tradition of shapeshifters).  That meant that there were more supernatural creatures than just the ones from European mythos.  So where are they?  What are they?  How did the European monsters come over?  Why?  What happened when they met?  You can see how my world building works.  Once something is published, it is set in stone, but until then I play with it.  I’m learning about the world as I write the books.

How is the Alpha and Omega series different than the Mercy Thompson books?

Patricia Briggs: They are still urban fantasy, of course.  But it’s told in third person, mostly through Charles or Anna’s eyes–which gives it a very different feel.  The Mercy books concern themselves with all the supernatural critters in the Tri Cities of Washington.  The Alpha and Omega series concentrates mostly on the werewolves and, since Charles is his father’s problem solver, sends him and Anna all over the place.

Speaking of Mercy and Charles, what makes for a strong protagonist?

Patricia Briggs: You know, oddly enough, a lot of people think how strong a character is has something to do with physical strength or power.  Which it doesn’t, not even in the real world.  A strong character is one who takes a licking and dusts herself off, gets to her feet and limps off.  The boy in The Sixth Sense, for instance, is a very strong character. He has (especially in the beginning of the story) very little power or strength.  Strong characters are the people who make the difficult choices and live with the consequences.  They don’t have to be abrasive or rude–or kind and sweet and good, either.  Though I use the good guys for my protagonists because I like stories about heroes.

And a truly villainous villain?

Patricia Briggs: I don’t always use a “villainous” villain.  All a villain has to do is oppose the protagonist.  Some of the most interesting villains think they are the good guys.  Truly villainous villains come in many colors–most of them see the world only as it reflects on themselves and their agenda–and they don’t care who gets hurt.  They kick puppies and pull wings off flies.

What’s next?

Patricia Briggs: It is my goal to become a better writer with each book.  And, [having updated] my first published novel, Masques, I can tell you that at the very least, I have improved over the years.  I also try to do something different, something challenging with each book–usually the challenge is technical, but sometimes it has to do with the story itself.  Right now I’m working on how to keep a series fresh and let it build up and still allow readers to start with the current book.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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