The Characters Must Come First (in Any Genre)

A year or so back, I had surgery for breast cancer and faced a long course of chemotherapy. I took the opportunity to try on wigs in preparation for the inevitable hair loss. I sat in front of the mirror, watching myself change from a rather mature Princess Di to a shorter, plainer Sophia Loren to a free spirit with exuberant dark red curls. Some people find the wig experience confronting, but mine was a bright, funny hour in the middle of a testing time.

Juliet is excited to give away 2 free copies of her novel to random commenters. Comment within one week; you can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Hong & Gayle won.)


Guest column by Juliet Marillier, who was born in
Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western
Australia. Her historical fantasy novels, including
the best-selling Sevenwaters series, have been
translated into many languages and have won a
number of awards including the American Library
Association’s Alex Award and the Prix Imaginales
(see all books here). Juliet is a member of OBOD
(the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). She lives
in a 100-year-old cottage, which she shares with a
pack of waifs and strays. Learn more at her website.


Strange how life imitates art. Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve felt curiously as if I were living in one of my own books. Each of my novels features a protagonist undertaking a difficult personal journey. On the way, each of these charactersmostly femalediscovers something about herself and at the same time makes an impact on other people’s lives. Each eventually finds her inner courage and proves she is able to learn from all her experiences, even the painful and frightening. Facing a similar journey, full of challenges and unknowns, I feel obliged to delve inside myself and find the same combination of wisdom and warrior spirit. What I write, I must be prepared to live. 


As a novelist, I’m endlessly fascinated by human behavior and interactions. The most satisfying stories are those in which the protagonists change and develop along the way. In many fantasy novels, the emphasis is on world-building and/or keeping the story going at a cracking pace, and depth of characterization can fall by the wayside. The best fantasyindeed the best fiction in any genrecontains characters so real that they draw us into the heart of their journey. We understand why they make bad choices. We share their secrets. We know their weaknesses and flaws. We applaud when they win small battles, become wiser, confront their demons. We weep when they fail.

There are technical tricks that may help you create more effective characters. My approach to characterization is not at all technical. I can’t really analyze how I do it, but I am sure of one thing. To write convincing characters, you must possess the ability to think yourself into someone else’s skin. I’m not talking about an intellectual exercise, but something more visceral. I don’t know if it can be learned. I believe I’ve acquired it through life experience. The ability to understand what makes people tick comes from within. In your mind, you must be the character in order to make his or her journey real.


Test yourself by imagining how you might act, feel, respond in each of the following situations:

  • Someone close to you, your child, partner, or parent, is facing torture or summary execution. You can save him or her if you are prepared to betray an old and trusted friend. What physical sensations are you feeling? What is in your mind? What choice will you make? What will this do to your sense of self and your relationships with these people afterward?


  • Every day you walk on eggshells to avoid provoking a family member’s abusive behavior. This is the habit of many years. One day something changes in you—you pack a suitcase and leave. That night, in the safety of a friend’s house, you sit in front of the fire alone. What are your physical sensations? What do you see, hear, smell, touch? What is going through your mind? In what ways do you feel different?
  • You have always been an independent person, in control of your own life, your beloved house, animals and garden. But you’ve had a stroke, and your children have just moved you to an old people’s home. They’ve unpacked your possessions neatly, had a cup of tea with you and left. What are you doing? How are you feeling? What is the future looking like right now?


Now move on to one of your own characters. First, look at the beginning and end of this character’s journey. Then zoom in on three or four key moments along the way. When is she at her highest? Her lowest? What are the significant turning points? Apply the scenario exercise to each of those, remembering that you are the character. Take a snapshot of your physical, mental and emotional state. The snapshots can provide a blueprint for this character’s development.

Of course, each scenario leads to various possibilities, just as the woman trying on the wigs faces many possible futures. What kind of wig does she choose?  The one that is most like her own hair. She needs no additional armorher warrior spirit is inside.

(A version of this post appeared on Writer Unboxed in 2009. Juliet is currently in good health. Seer of Sevenwaters (Roc, December 2010) was written during her year of cancer treatment.)

Juliet is excited to give away 2 free copies of her novel to random commenters. Comment within one week; you can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Hong & Gayle won.)

Writing sci-fi or fantasy? Check
out The Writer’s Digest Guide to
Science Fiction & Fantasy. The book
was helmed by none other than Orson
Scott Card, who wrote
Ender’s Game.

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37 thoughts on “The Characters Must Come First (in Any Genre)

  1. Rowie

    Dear Juliet,
    I hope that your fight with cancer really was like one of the hardships your characters experience in your books in that you’ll come out stronger and a wiser person. Having read all of your books, I think I may say that the effect the illness has had on your life, shows in what your wrote. And this in turn proves that not only do you become your character, your character becomes you as well. In order to really bring a character to life, I think you must add a spark from your own life.
    But no matter the "how", in my opinion you manage to achieve this every time. Though it is fantasy, the feelings and thoughts your characters experience seems as close to the "real" world as I am and I experience them as such when I read your books.
    So thank you for the wonderful moments and keep up the good work!
    Love, Rowie

  2. aon

    This was a great reminder with great timing. I’m neck deep into edits, and sometimes feel as if I’m losing the shape of the forest for the trees!

    I’ve been a reader of yours since "Daughter of the Forest." Thank you for all the stories you’ve shared with us. One of your characters has become a personal (fictional) hero for me, and I thank you so much for sharing her with the world.

    Best wishes to you, and continued good health!

  3. Juliet Marillier

    Some great comments here!

    As with every aspect of writing, there’s no single correct way to approach characterisation. I posted about what works for me, hoping that might provide good insights for some fellow writers. Brad, that is a very interesting argument. For me, characterisation is the same whatever the genre. I don’t believe setting (eg elaborate secondary world / cutting edge future scenario / everyday world) drives the writer’s approach to character. But then, the fantasy I write is strongly character-based and set in real world history, not in an invented world, and that colours my approach, no doubt.

    Hong Lam, I didn’t intend to imply that characterisation can’t be taught, only that being able to put yourself in your character’s shoes helps you to make that character real on the page when you write. All aspects of the writing craft can be taught to some extent, and we go on learning all our lives. 🙂

  4. Joseph Veseli

    I love this article. I am glad that you are healthy now and I am intrigued by you living in an old cottage. That sort of thing is always fascinating.
    As for the article, I am in the midst of writing my first full length novel and character development is always the messiest part for me. The lesson you showed, as well as the personal touch, is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you so much.

    To many happy stories,

  5. Joan A. Di Masi

    Thursday, May 26, 2011 5:20 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
    This article is great! I intend to refer back to it often. The Turning Point Exercise is something I will often use. This information is helpful not just for a novel, but with short stories or even nonfiction, any type of writing. By thinking about the character’s journey, I can get a better sense of who that character is and how he/she contributes to my piece.
    Joan A. Di Masi /

  6. Brad R. Leach

    I won’t dispute the fact that characters are prime and those authors who add depth to the character arc are most often successful. But it seems to me a more explicit key to character depth in Sci Fi or Fantasy is not just personal change, but change from interacting in a setting that is different or unique.
    For example, It’s not enough for Luke Skywalker to discover he has a father. That father needs to be half robot; that’s what makes the story unique & fun. Also, many boys might find an outlet in sports; it’s Quiditch with Broomsticks that makes Harry Potter so enjoyable.
    It’s the blending of both a relatable character who has weaknesses and needs with a fantastic setting that allows answers unavailable to most of us that make the escapism of Fantasy & Sci Fi work so well.
    Now Ms. Mariller may actually do this very well. I confess, I haven’t yet tried any of her stories. And I know there are many authors who haul us place to place to experience future or magic gimmicks, using weak characters you could change out like a spare tire. But to my mind, she’s only told the first half of the lesson.

  7. Kristin Barrett

    Thank you four your timely post, I am working on my characters as I start my first revision. I like your suggestion to look at where characters will be in three of four scenes, not just before and after. I look forward to reading your book.

  8. Cara

    I’ve struggled with character techniques for a while; I didn’t think of putting myself in the situations I was trying to write. Very inspirational!

  9. Hong Lam

    Wow! I actually had a similar idea to the second scenario though the beginning different. I never developed it further though so the questions are really eye opening. Personally, I find the first scenario the most interesting. When I read it, ideas started racing through my mind. Characterization is key – I’ll keep that in mind. But are you sure that characterization can’t be taught? I’m sure we’ve all experienced that sixth sense and we have a relative exposure to human interactions. I sense (no pun intended) that the more sensitive or attune a person is, the easier it is for him or her to create a realistic character. The trick is to develop a skill for closely observing human behavior and the reasoning behind such actions. Why should people be so different? We’re all humans after all.

  10. Janet Bettag

    Having had a wig experience of my own, I really enjoyed and fully appreciated your description of "who" you became with each option.

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. I think that sometimes as a writers, we tend to shy away from picking at our personal wounds and those of our friends and family for fear of exposing our weaknesses. In doing so, we overlook the strengths that counterbalance them. I think good writers put a part of themselves into every character they develop. Those rich threads of human experience weave the beautiful tapestry of life into our work.

    I am glad to hear you are well and hope that your health continues to improve. I want to be reading new books from you for a long, long time.

  11. Brad Parks

    At a recent meeting of my writing group, the writers questioned one of the actions my main character made, a character who happens to have left an abusive relationship. Your story will help me better understand her journey, and for that, I thank you.

  12. Cam Pietralunga

    Thank you for the insightful tips. I agree! The REAL magic of writing fiction is in "becoming" your characters and really feeling the world you’ve created. What a gift! 😀
    I’m so glad you were able to be productive and write while you went through your health issues. I wish you the best!

  13. Judith Blazer

    At the moment I have a bronchial infection and last night on a coaching class I was trying to express something and suddenly couldn’t think of the word I wanted, which sometimes happens but this time, there was just a blank space for an unusually long moment where I couldn’t think of any words. Having just turned 70 a week ago and feeling already vulnerable will illness as well as having my left knee go out, I was particularly taken by learning that you wrote a novel during the time you had your cancer treatments. I realized that feeling ill, feeling exposed to the edges of aging that come as I move into the the seventh decade doesn’t mean surrendering in any way;that in fact, there is even more reason to move into life’s challenges and master what comes. That it is all grist for the writer and that strong characters are created by strong novelist. Thank you, for reminding me.

  14. Hellion

    Thank you for your post. I love the writing prompts–they are very thought provoking; and I do write as if I am my character. (I call it "method writing" as a joke.) But I like the various prompts so we can figure out which best fits our character for the story we’re telling right now.

  15. Dawn Kurtagich

    Juliet is truly an extraordinary woman with an incredible talent. I love the depth of feeling in all of her novels and cannot wait for more. So glad she’s in good health again, and following her path with steady, steadfast feet.

  16. Jessica Drollette

    Thank you so much for your post. I have been struggling with this exact issue. I think my main fear is baring my own soul through my characters, but as you have pointed out, we must "try on wigs" to discover what fits our characters best. Now, it’s just finding the courage to do it.

  17. Ariel Nadia

    Thank you so much for this wonderful advice! As an aspiring author I take everything I can get.
    I’ve read nearly all of your books, and I’ve always felt like your characters seemed so real. As others have said before me, I often cried when it seemed like things weren’t going to look up for the protagonist or smiled when they eventually did. In reading Heart’s Blood I always cringed when Caitrin looked back into the past.
    You are by far one of my favorite authors. Don’t stop writing! 🙂

  18. Katherine Nyborg

    This was a great reminder with great timing. I’m neck deep into edits, and sometimes feel as if I’m losing the shape of the forest for the trees!

    I’ve been a reader of yours since "Daughter of the Forest." Thank you for all the stories you’ve shared with us. One of your characters has become a personal (fictional) hero for me, and I thank you so much for sharing her with the world.

    Best wishes to you, and continued good health!

  19. Elizabeth C.

    This was so inspiring! It gives more sense to the proverb : what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. To keep faith when everything is dark can be so hard and I’ve had my share of dark moments in the last few years. But Mrs Marillier’s books were always there to light my way, her characters and herself have been a source of inspiration for a long time. By those books I learned English and how to write better, and discovered a passion for Ireland in the Sevenwaters Series that never leaves me now. I wouldn’t be what I am today without Mrs Marillier, so thank you, from the bottom of my heart!

  20. Tania Dakka

    Glad to hear that you are in good health now. Thank you for your wonderful advice. I am so excited to use these exercises. Your "Seer of Sevenwaters" caught my eye when I visited a website (the site escapes me now). The title and cover art are really great! Will be checking out your reads soon! Thank you again!

  21. Gayle C. Krause

    You are my favorite author. I love, love, love your stories and I own every one of your books that are available in the U.S. I was tickled to see you featured in Chuck’s blog.

    As soon as I saw the first writing scenario I knew I could use it in my new novel. I aspire to write as well as you and hope someday to be as successful as you are. It would be truly serendipitous if my WIP is the one that sells and brings me closer to my goal.

    Thank you for being so inspirational. I am glad you have recovered and are now in good health.

    I need more Sevenwaters, Foxmask and Bridei. 🙂

  22. Anne A

    You know all those online personality tests? What I do sometimes is go take them as one of my characters. (Much more interesting than doing it for me!)

  23. Mandy H

    I thought this was a great article. As someone who is just starting to explore the world of fantasy and science fiction, I can definitely agree that creating the world or universe the story is set in is a daunting task in itself. I really appreciated this article in reminding me that the characters are what the story is all about- without them it would just be a really cool place with nothing going on.

    I’m a huge fan of your books, especially the Sevenwaters saga, and to find out that you were suffering with cancer while you wrote Seer of Sevenwaters just gives me so much more respect for you. I’m very glad to hear that you are currently doing well 🙂

  24. Leah Petersen

    I couldn’t agree more. I can’t enjoy–heck, I can’t finis–a book if I can’t suffer and bleed and cry and rejoice along with the characters. If my stomach isn’t in knots at some point, or my throat tight, it’s not a good book, I don’t care how well plotted, paced, or written.

    The best compliment I’ve ever gotten on my own writing is that I made the reader cry. If they felt that strongly, then I succeeded.

  25. Jennifer L. Oliver

    This is a great post! Your experience with trying on wigs and making the most of your moments, show me just how strong of a spirit you possess. I admire your inner strength, and I’m glad to read that you are doing much better.
    I had always heard that authors must draw on experiences in their own life, both good and bad, to help their characters become "real" people for their audience. Now that I am writing my own novel, I completely understand that process. There are times when you can loose touch with your character, and to reconnect can be challenging. But the advice you offer in this post will most certainly help!
    I wish you the best of luck in all you do!
    Thank you so much for sharing!

  26. Kristan

    So glad to hear you’re in good health now! And I completely agree that characters make or break a book in any genre. For what it’s worth, an online friend and tough critic absolutely RAVES about your books, how romantic they are (and she does NOT like "feeeeelings" books), how exciting and well-written. So obviously you’re doing something right. 😉

  27. Carla Marvin

    This post has great timing! It was exactly what I needed to read today. I am having trouble with the character development for my new novel and the exercise you gave here will really help me put a new perspective on things. Thank you so much!

  28. Terri Brander

    This sounds very interesting. I would love to write a novel someday. Sometimes I find that authors tend to recreate the same character over and over again. I love to read about characters that are not perfect, who are more like real people. I wish you good health, and more books to write!


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