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Author Delilah S. Dawson on creating Captain Phasma’s backstory

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And why Phasma took down the shields to Starkiller Base

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

When The Force Awakens hit theaters in 2015, many moviegoers came away from the film disappointed by one character: Captain Phasma. The imposing stormtrooper captain was hyped as a formidable force on the battlefield, but ultimately ended up aiding the Resistance when threatened by one of her former soldiers, Finn.

In Delilah S. Dawson’s new novel Phasma, readers are given new insight into where the character came from, and just what motivates her. As it turns out, Phasma isn’t a die-hard First Order loyalist: she escaped from a hellish life on a post-apocalyptic planet when the First Order presented an opportunity for a better life.

At New York Comic Con, I sat down with Dawson to chat about the book, and what she hoped to reveal about the character.

Image: Lucasfilm / Del Rey

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you come to write in the Star Wars universe?

Well, I feel like every Star Wars author came to it in a way you can’t replicate. I sold a book called Wicked As They Come to an editor at Simon & Schuster named Jennifer Huddle, but before she could edit it, she moved to Lucasfilm. I never got to work with her editorially, but I always thought of her like my fairy godmother who got to go work for Star Wars. I built up my career over the years with science fiction and fantasy and in different properties, like Shadow Man, Hellboy, and Adventure Time.

As my friends started writing Star Wars novels, I started thinking maybe this is something I can do. I started saying on Twitter that I had an interest, and somehow that got to the people at Del Rey, and one of their editors reached out to my agent and sent them some of my books. Then I got an email from my agent that said “I'm going to blow your mind right now,” and that was about The Perfect Weapon, about the the spy from The Force Awakens who alerts the first order to the fact that BB-8 and Rey had appeared at Maz Kanata's castle.

What was that like to pull a completely new character off the screen and create their backstory?

I was really fortunate, because it was one of the very first new canon stories. I asked Lucasfilm: “Okay, so what do I need to know [about this character]?” And they said she is a kickass female spy in space. Outlining in the Star Wars process almost takes longer than the writing, because so many people have to agree on it. I sent out eight proposals for what this girl's backstory could be, and they basically rejected them all. They’re like, “No, you're pulling off the old canon. Just make it up.” It was really exciting to be like, “Oh my god I'm making canon.”

Star Wars October trailer images

When did you first see Captain Phasma?

I keep up with the Star Wars scuttlebutt. I think the first time everybody did was the Annie Leibowitz photographs for The Force Awakens when we saw the First Order trio at Maz Kanata’s castle: Poe, Finn, and Rey. She was captivating; when you see the silver armor and find out it was a woman, it was amazing. Then you found out who was under there. I found out with everyone else, and saw the movie with everyone else.

How did you go about developing this story? How do you balance keeping someone mysterious with an origin story that tells you how they got to be mysterious?

The stories for Star Wars develop very organically. There’s back-and-forth with editors and the [Lucasfilm] story group. It was decided upon that the best framing device would be an interrogation tale that reveals her backstory bit by bit. There’s actually only one scene that’s from her point of view at the very end, and it’s one of the most important scenes in the whole book.

Part of what makes her compelling for me is that she is mysterious and unknowable. To me, she’s like Hannibal Lecter, and that even when you’re watching the scenes when personal things might be revealed, they still hold it back. They keep a lot of themselves locked up in a room, and you probably don't want to see it anyway.

What appeals to you the most about Phasma as a character?

I feel like she is unique in the Star Wars universe because she’s not Force-sensitive, and not part of these big families. She came from nowhere; she was no one. She is exactly what she has chosen to be and doesn't care what anybody thinks.

I love the grit and determination and the unapologetic, survivalist tenacity that she has. She's unrepentant, and she doesn't waffle. Cardinal is our waffler in this book. We've had so many women who feel like they’re beholden to someone or have a legacy to live up to. She’s free.

You’ve spoken on Twitter about your experiences with being aggressively threatened by men. Did that influence you at all, or shape the violence in this book?

Oh, always. I've had people ask me why there's so much violence in all of my books. It's because my life has been one of violence, [including] some of the aspects of my home life growing up. I’m a rape victim. I’ve been pretty public about that, being stalked by ex-boyfriends, being catcalled, and other threatening experiences. There has never been a world where I’ve walked out the door without being worried about some kind of assault or threats to me and my body.

It’s definitely very fun to write a character that instead of having any kind of fear or anxiety about that, is fully prepared to disembowel you if you touch her. Which is another nice thing about Phasma. When we first saw her, her armor doesn’t enhance curves, it doesn't have described breasts or hips, and we didn't know that was a woman until we heard the voice. I love that. There’s no boob armor. It’s all the same kit. Phasma is allowed to just be a stormtrooper.

Phasma is really a sociopath. She turns on her own family and clan, and I get the impression that she might turn on the First Order when the right circumstances come up. How do you get a reader to relate to this character?

The theme of the book is that Phasma will do anything to survive. I wanted an environment that uniquely challenges the characters, and which shapes them. We purposefully built a planet that was woefully, painfully inhospitable, and that would forge her and this kind of crucible of discomfort and struggle. It was all built so that in the end you would understand that she would do anything to survive, but also what she did at Starkiller Base, when she put down those shields.

She really reminds me of Hannibal. He's terrible. We know he’s terrible, and yet we're fascinated watching him move through the world in ways that we’re able to. I think that's fun to watch, and it's fun to watch the fights that Phasma gets into, and the things that she does, as a spectator.

A lot of people were like, “Oh, no, she’s a coward!” Oh, no my friends. It was not cowardice that made that happen. The core thrust of the book is for people to understand why she did what she did.

There have been numerous comparisons between this and Mad Max: Fury Road. What about the post-apocalypse of Mad Max appealed to you?

It felt very fresh to me. When you look at the way we’re currently talking about our fears of where the Earth is headed, it’s almost a cautionary tale about how what we’re doing now can destroy a place.

In some of the original outlines, things that got massaged or rejected, I had different kinds of planets planned, and we all ended up gravitating toward the “no, make it worse, make it worse.” I had an idea for a planet where they said, “We're sick of what we've built, let's go somewhere else” kind of restart almost, like in The Village, where the idea there was that people decided that they didn't like society, so they went and lived a more simple life out in the forest. But all of that got scrapped to a place where people are trapped and they can't get off, and they’ve lost all the technology and especially on the part of it Phasma lives, there might be things you can’t get. Mad Max: Fury Road came up in discussions, and everyone was instantly like, “Oh, yes. Let’s go there. Let’s do that!”

Image: Del Rey Books

You use Cardinal to look at the First Order. What’s his worldview? What does he believe the First Order has to offer the galaxy?

I read Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, and in Empire’s End, they leave with a cadre of orphans. So, I think of Cardinal as one of those orphans that came over with Brendol Hux. To him, the First Order is a savior. They feed and clothe him, they give him everything he needs, and they give him a purpose, so he is a true believer.

I figure that the First Order uses Hux’s methods to take orphans and steal kids and then indoctrinate and brainwash these children. I'm sure they're pumping these kids full of subconscious messages at night.

Cardinal trains the young kids for combat. When they graduate from his program, they go to Phasma. He’s like the middle school teacher, and she’s the high school. He doesn't wake up and think, “Oh, the First Order is evil. I'm evil!” He’s a guy who wakes up and thinks, “The First Order is changing the galaxy, and this is how it has to happen.”

He comes from a war-torn place, and he sees the First Order as the savior of the orphans. They’re instilling order in these rebellious, horrible planets, where the underprivileged or the unfortunate are are forgotten.

What does he see in Phasma that scares him?

Well, when this mysterious work rival shows up one day takes half of your job, you’re suddenly not your boss’s darling anymore. As the years go by, he sees this outsider raised to the same rank as him. That itches. She’s like that person who doesn't have a Facebook or LinkedIn account, and you're like, “Wait. Who are you? But no really, who are you? Are you hiding something?”

He starts to suspect that there's something more dangerous there that no one talks about. She has cleverly concealed her origins, so he starts to — maybe in a paranoid way — look into why. Phasma has taken so much of his authority, and what she could be doing to the First Order that might not up to his ideals.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotional shot (LUCASFILM/DISNEY)

What do you think drives Phasma at her most basic level?

It’s survival. I think if you have been at a point in your life where you were so desperate that you never thought you would get that low and you would do anything to survive, you learn who you are and also that you never want to feel that way again. I feel like she is an animal that's always hungry and always on the move, and that even in the safest place, she still feels that there are forces that could send her right back to a barren rock where she's eating snails to survive.

This year has been interesting for Star Wars novels: we had Christie Golden’s Inferno Squad, and Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn. Because Star Wars is generally a good verses evil tale, how did you go about introducing some of those darker elements to the world?

Star Wars is interesting right now in that there's only so much that we're allowed to write about or talk about. We don't know where all the movies are going yet, or what the fates of the characters will be. I feel it's like a video game where only certain characters and levels have been unlocked to where you can expand on them, and it just happens a lot of those are from the dark side, because right now so many of the heroes are our force users that we can't deal with yet.

But Phasma needed it. She's like when we saw Boba Fett, and we thought he was awesome, and when he fell into the Sarlaac Pit, everyone was like, “Oh man, you blew it.” She needed to get people to understand her better. There’s also the Marvel comic book written by Kelly Thompson, that shows what happened when she got dumped down into a trash compactor.

Did you guys talk while you were working on your respective projects?

We talked a little bit. They sent her an early outline and then an early draft to give her kind of an idea of where Phasma’s coming from. That was really cool getting to kind of conspire with her on this new character and showing like that before and after of where Phasma was.

What future do you hope to see for her?

If there's one thing I know about Star Wars, it's that I would rather not know what's coming, or speculate. I want the delight of watching it fresh. I was kind of down when I wrote The Perfect Weapon and had to look up spoilers for The Force Awakens, because I didn’t really want to know what's going to happen. I tend to avoid fan theories. I don't troll the internet asking “Who are Rey’s parents?!” I’ll find out in December.