Tuesday Therapy: Inhabiting Your Characters’ Skin

Juliet Marillier needs little introduction, really. Since the publication of her first novel, Daughter of the Forest, in 1999 she has published over a dozen fantasy novels, which combine historical fiction, folkloric fantasy, romance and family drama. There are also strong elements of fairy tale and mythology in her stories (Wolfskin and Foxmask draw on Old Norse lore, which obviously really appeals to me!) but ultimately her stories focus on human relationships and the personal journeys of the characters. Juliet’s work has won so many awards it’s almost impossible to keep track — and, calooh callay! she has more books in store for us: the Shadowfell series, as well as a collection of short stories to be published by Ticonderoga in April 2013.

What makes a novel a must-read for me is character. I like characters (point of view characters in particular) to be real. This doesn’t mean they must resemble my next door neighbour or the man who runs the corner shop. But I need to be able to inhabit their skin while I’m reading. My favourite writers do character so well that I am immediately sucked into the point of view – no time to start working out what technical tricks are being employed, no being distracted by niggling uncertainties of style. Two writers who take us right inside their characters’ heads are Margo Lanagan in her remarkable novel Tender Morsels, based on the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red, and Joe Abercrombie in any of his dark, twisted epic fantasies. Margo uses a well-considered combination of first person and tight third person; Joe is a master of tight third.
I strive to create characters as skilfully as these writers do. There are two parts to it. One is technical: putting together various elements to create a particular voice, including the approach to point of view. That’s too big a topic to discuss here.
The other is intuitive and relates less to the process of writing and more to how the writer interacts with other people in real life. Writers who can portray flawed, cruel, selfish characters in a way that leaves us reluctantly liking those indivduals must surely have a deep understanding and acceptance of humankind, warts and all. Whether it’s easier to portray noble, good and wise characters is debatable. Of course, in fleshing out those characters, the writer may discover hidden flaws and frailites that make them entirely real.
You don’t get that kind of understanding from sitting on your bum in front of your laptop, folks. You get it by living life, by getting out there and meeting all kinds of people and by recognising that under the surface every human being is worthy of your respect and compassion. The key to character is learning to understand and accept your fellow human beings from the inside out. It’s being able to walk in their shoes and see the world through their eyes.  

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much for sharing, Juliet!

 Juliet Marillier was born and brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western Australia. Her historical fantasy novels for adults and young adults have been translated into many languages and have won a number of awards including the Aurealis, the American Library Association’s Alex Award, the Sir Julius Vogel Award and the Prix Imaginales. Her lifelong love of folklore, fairy tales and mythology is a major influence on her writing. Juliet is currently working  on the Shadowfell series, a story of tyranny and rebellion set in a magical version of ancient Scotland. The first book in the series, Shadowfell, will be published by Pan Macmillan in July, and by Knopf US in September. Juliet is a full time writer; her other job is Mad Dog Lady. She blogs monthly on http://www.writerunboxed.com and her website is at http://www.julietmarillier.com.


1 comment

  1. Juliet, I am very much looking forward to the ‘Shadowfell’ series. But would you agree that in order to write authentic character the author must not only participate but constantly–and consciously–be observing ‘the way we are?’

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