When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs: How to Read Like a Writer
When Demons Walk is one of my favorite novels. I find myself rereading it every couple of years because I love the characters and story. Patricia Briggs has crafted a novel that will linger within me forever. She accomplished this by knowing when to follow the rules and tropes of writing and when to break them.
You Don’t Have to Be the Best
The main character of When Demons Walk is a mage – a common trope in fantasy novels. However, unlike other stories, Sham is not the best mage. She’s not even considered a master level. This is shown in chapter two when:
She watched with a keen appreciation the deft touch of the King’s Sorcerer as he wove a warding spell similar to her own but infinitely more complex without resorting to any obvious motion to aid his work (25).
Before this moment, the reader has seen Sham successfully execute a variety of smaller spells and talk about her former instructor’s abilities. Here the reader witnesses the different levels of power and skill. Sham is good at what she does, but not being the best means she has to use cleverness, grit, and charm to survive, not just rely on her abilities.
The choice to make Sham a journeyman mage instead of a master meant Briggs had to flesh out her character. Because Sham can’t rely on her magic, she becomes a thief to survive, giving her a whole other dimension to her character and set of skills to use throughout the book. This is something all writers can consider. How would your story and character change if they weren’t the best? What skills would they pick up to compensate for this? Only one person in the whole world is the best at something. Most people are good or proficient. Allowing your character to be good but not the best makes them more relatable and interesting.
Another character trope Briggs alters is the beautiful heroine. Sham is slender and pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous. She has somewhat androgynous features she accents to fit certain roles. While thieving, she passes for a teenage boy. When at the castle, she acts out the role of mistress. She would be unable to play both of these roles if she was a voluptuous, stunning woman. Briggs reminds the reader Sham is average-looking with lines like:
Everyone knew the Reeve had never taken a mistress, so she [Sham] had to be extraordinary. With her angular features and slender body, that left her wardrobe (54).
While Sham is not self-deprecating or afflicted with low self-esteem, she knows she isn’t the most beautiful woman in court, so she uses fashion to gain attention. She also uses fashion to pass for a messenger boy, kitchen aid, and more. By choosing not to make her physically beautiful, Briggs gave Sham the chance to be a chameleon.
Today’s writers have to be more aware of stereotypes when it comes to race, attractiveness, and able-ness because today’s readers are looking to see themselves in the characters they’re reading about more than past readers. When you imagine your character’s features, ask yourself if you’re relying on a convention or if they really are beautiful. Then look at what would best serve your story. Do you really need a beautiful expert or would the character and story be more interesting and engaging with a pretty journeyman?
Breaking Point of View
For the majority of the book, Briggs uses third person close to follow Sham throughout her story. However, there are a handful of short passages from the main antagonist’s point of view. This break in perspective allows Briggs to reveal information Sham and her associates can’t know. For example, the demon thinks:
The mild irritation it felt toward the Reeve’s mistress flamed to momentary rage. It calmed itself by deciding the woman would be its next meal, seven days hence. Until then, she could do little harm (98).
These lines reveal the demon is going to target and kill Sham. The reader knows Sham is in danger, but she doesn’t. The tension and suspense of the story are heightened by giving the reader this information and deadline. At the same time, the demon is shown to be intelligent and aware of what it and the people of the castle are doing, making the demon a more formidable foe.
When an author switches point of view, they should do so for reasons like these. The switch in perspective should be necessary to reveal information the other point of view character can’t know, to offer insight into another character, or for some other reason vital to the story and the reader’s understanding.
The demon’s point of view is formatted in italics to differentiate it from Sham’s perspective. Normally, I’m not a fan of large blocks of text in italics; however, it works in When Demons Walk because the demon’s point of view sections are short and infrequent. If you choose to switch points of view in your story, make sure it is always clear which point of view you are in. Italics are one way to do this; chapter headings, voice, and formatting are other options.
Beginning a Fantasy Novel
Writers are often told not to start with backstory because it is often slow and can easily become boring, and beginning with backstory may mean you’re starting in the wrong place. Writers are also told not to begin with the weather because that starting point is over used. Briggs, however, does both while also using in media res. The first passages of When Demons Walk are:
Sham sat on a low stone fence in the shadows of an alley pulling on her boots. In the darkness that even the moonlight failed to reach, a sea breeze caressed her hair. She drew in a deep breath of fresh air.
Even the sea smelled different here in the hilly area of Landsend. The Cybellion conquerors, like the Southwood nobles before them, had choosen to make their homes far from the wharves (1).
Sham is actively pulling on her boots in preparation to go thieving while Briggs sets the scene through the weather and builds the world by revealing its history. She continues to do this so that by page four, the reader knows the setting, world, city’s history and current political climate, and Sham’s socio-economic status while showing the reader in scene, through action, what Sham does for a living.
Going against the advice to avoid backstory and weather in the beginning of a novel allows Briggs to reveal aspects of her world and the main character immediately, so the reader can immerse themselves in the story. If Briggs had only started with Sham’s thieving, the story wouldn’t have the same impact because the stakes and dangers wouldn’t be as clear. Writers who must world build – usually speculative fiction and historical fiction writers – should look at the first few pages of When Demons Walk to learn how to weave backstory, setting, character development, and action together immediately.
An Editor’s Love for When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs
As I mentioned earlier, When Demons Walk is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read it many times and will probably need a new copy soon. I strive to write stories that linger with readers the way Brigg’s story sticks with me. When you come across a novel that speaks to you in this way, read it a couple times for pleasure, then read it again for technique. How did the author write such an impactful story? What techniques are they using and rules are they breaking that add to the story’s impact? Try incorporating some of those techniques into your own writing where appropriate. Take those techniques and make them your own.
Patricia Brigg’s novel When Demons Walk lingers because it breaks a handful of rules, conventions, and tropes. Now it’s your turn to try building characters who aren’t the best or beautiful, changing points of view, and weaving weather, backstory, and action in your beginning to Ignite Your Ink.
What other tropes do you believe Patricia Briggs breaks in When Demons Walk? Share them in the comments below. If you haven’t picked up a copy, click the image. For more rule breakers and writing techniques, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.