changesLast week I tried on wigs in preparation for the hair loss that will accompany my 12 week course of chemotherapy. 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. I’d been warned that I might find the wig experience confronting, but it turned out to be a bright, funny hour in the middle of a testing time.

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 characters – mostly female – discovers 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 behaviour 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 characterisation can fall by the wayside. The best fantasy – indeed the best fiction in any genre – contains 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.

As characterisation month unfolds here at Writer Unboxed, great technical advice will be forthcoming about creating more effective characters. My approach to characterisation is not at all technical. I can’t really analyse 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.

Turning point exercise: 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 afterwards?

– Every day you walk on eggshells to avoid provoking a family member’s abusive behaviour. 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. So what kind of wig does she choose? The one that is most like her own hair. She needs no additional armour – her warrior spirit is inside.

© Iofoto |


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    I’d still like to see you in the curly red wig, all the same:-)

    Thinking of you as you approach your follow-up treatment. May your recovery be speedy and complete.

  2. says

    I really hope you write a memoir about your experiences… I haven’t read your books (although I’m inclined to after reading this post), and it sounds like your experiences could be fascinating and inspiring to read about– especially this idea of seeking strength from your own characters, of feeling compelled to live with their bravery and resilience. Wow!

    And I really like the thoughts about characterization too. :)

  3. says

    What a fabulously written post. I love how you use your own experience with the wigs as endcaps. The good advice in between doesn’t hurt either.

    Thank you, and good luck with the chemo.

  4. says

    I’m sending good vibes into the Universe for you, Juliet. You’re showing incredible grace about this–truly an inspiration.

    And I get what you’re saying about diving deep inside to figure out what makes a character tick. That’s art in its highest form.

  5. says

    Thank you for sharing good, practical advice once again, Juliet! I look forward to hearing more from you, but at the same time, do take the time you need for yourself. No doubt, it will help facilitate a complete and speedy recovery for you! Good luck with the treatment.

  6. Page Traynor says

    Remember that cancer is a condition; it isn’t you. I am sending you all the strength and hope and good wishes in the world. i am a surviver of late stage ovarian cancer. You can do it. I assume you have people to talk and write to about this, but if you need someone feel free to contact me.
    Best always,

  7. says

    Thanks for sharing this part of your journey with us, Juliet. Sending you lots of well wishes–that the chemo treatment doesn’t hit you too hard and that you’re stronger and healthier for everything in the end.

    Thanks, too, for these characterization exercises!

  8. Ivy says

    The topic of writing, emotion, and experience is something I was just discussing with someone. This person suggested that I’m adapt at hiding my emotions in the day to day, but that they manifest in my writing. It led to a debate as to how much of one’s personal emotion emerges in one’s writing. I was trying to argue the converse-that for myself, personal emotional experiences were quite different and seperate from any of my narratives, but the more I talked, the more I ended up realizing this wasn’t true, and conceeding the point in a roundabout way. I called what happens when I write as “transference,” which is vague, but I think it touches on what you’re saying. As humans we have personal emotional touch stones which help us relate and understand one another–those experiences shape the way we view the world and color our writing. But and as writers we have to be able to experience other points of view, to transfer our emotions into a situation or character, else what we were capable of writing would be highly limited.

    Your entry was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing something so personal with the world; I’ve no doubt there are lots of people reading this who are going through cancer, or have loved ones who have it, and are heartened by your words and shared experiences. May the Lord grant you peace and strength in your recovery!

  9. says

    Thanks everyone for your various comments, both on my personal journey and on characterisation. If I ever feel that fighting spirit lagging, I look at the beautiful photo illustrating my post, which to me exemplifies womanly strength, balance and wellness.

    Re character, it is worth thinking hard about getting under the skin of your less admirable characters as well as the heroic ones, of course – understanding the impulse to act in an evil or selfish way, understanding the factors that determine those choices that may not be the ones we ourselves would make in real life. That is one thing I like about fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie, whom I interviewed not so long ago on this blog – his capacity to take a group of deeply flawed central characters and make every one of them real from the inside out. I’m sure you can think of other examples of writers who do this equally well. It’s not easy, it can be quite an uncomfortable journey.

  10. says

    God help you in this difficult time.

    Yes, your characters often go through _very_ trying times, but generally triumph. May you do so, also.

  11. Vic says


    Your writing is inspiring to read and your thoughts on writing are equally as thought provoking. I’m widely read, but I can honestly say that few writers take me on such an emotional journey as you do with your novels.

    I’ve been looking for ideas on how to get better inside the head of my character and I think you may have just given me the key to that very heavy door, so thank you.

    For your personal journey, I wish all the good health in the world. I’ve brushed up against the c word three times now and made it through each time. I am sure you will do the same.

    Very best,

  12. Elizabeth says

    Hello Juliet,

    Just wanted to say that as an aspiring writer and longtime admirer of your work, it’s been really inspiring to be able to read your posts here. You address a lot of the concerns I have with entering the world of genre writing, and with devoting myself to writing full-time (I can’t seem to write much when I have significant other obligations on my plate). You could say I’m young to be thinking about this (21!), but after a lifetime of hasty decisions that haven’t paid off, I’m really starting to think about what I want to do in life. Your posts have really helped me take my first steps in a new direction.

    Anyway, I wish you the best with your treatment. Someone close to me was recently diagnosed with the same illness and it’s actually been quite inspiring for both of us to reflect on what’s most important and what brings us real joy (probably the same things, in most cases). I don’t know anything about what it must be like to have cancer, but I hope there are some good things hidden in it, even if they are hidden a little too well.

    Your books really are some of the few stars in the generally murky void of fantasy, and I think you have broken more molds than you might think. I hope you’ll keep up giving us your wonderful stories (and blog posts!) and that everything goes well for you.