Smart People Talking: Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier
Juliet Marillier at Supanova 2015

Juliet Marillier is a beloved writer of historical fantasy, and the creator of such literary favourites as the Shadowfell, Sevenwaters, Blackthorn and Grim, Wildwood, Saga of the Light Isles, and the Bridei Chronicles.

Juliet was one of the writers at Brisbane’s 2015 Supanova Con, where she was an incredibly popular speaker. During her Impossible Quests panel, alongside Isobelle Carmody and Lynette Noni, she discussed quests, writing, and the subtle art of killing characters.

Impossible Quests Panel

A quest is anything you aspire to. It doesn’t have to be slaying dragons- quests come in all shapes and sizes. They’re all around us in the world we live in. Smaller scale stories are quests, too.

Memoir is a type of quest, because the author is on a journey to learn or achieve something of immense value to them, and potentially to the people around them, too.

It’s been mentioned in the Isobelle Carmody post about this panel, but if someone is deeply invested in something, and/or on a journey to learn, grow, and change, then they’re on a quest, regardless of the genre you’re reading.

Quests are a big decision.

Quests aren’t simple, quick to achieve tasks with no emotional investment. The characters are taking a huge leap of faith by accepting the quest, and risking something in the attempt. Perhaps one of the reasons the Hobbit is so popular is because we can all relate to Bilbo’s reluctance to agree to that risk.

If a character isn’t scared, there should be a reason for that beyond ‘he’s brave’. Bravery isn’t an absence of fear. Absence of fear tends to be a psychological/neurological  issue, a lie, ignorance, or foolishness. If a character isn’t emotionally invested, why are they there?

I can’t think of any characters on a quest without any emotional investment in the journey. Gamora wants to stop Thanos. Drax wants revenge against Ronan. Rocket, as much as he plays the uncaring s.o.b, isn’t prepared to leave his friend behind even if it gets him killed. As much as Rocket tries to hide his affection, and as gruff as he is, the audience gets to see cracks in the armour, and his softer side. Sure, he’s not exactly invested in saving the universe at first, his focus is on his friend’s safety (and isn’t that a common theme?), but he’s also the first one to find a way to protect innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

It can be fun to play with the exterior persona, and the actual personality. And quests give writers a fantastic opportunity to do so.

Particularly for newish writers, a common difficulty is getting bogged down in the middle. That’s why having a basic framework can be helpful.

Though not all writers work the same way, if you’re struggling to get through the middle of the story, then it can be useful to have a basic understanding of the steps you need to take to get from the start of the story to the end.

If Isobelle’s writing style is like driving at night, seeing only what’s in the sights of the headlights, then Juliet is a proponent of at least sketching a rough map on a napkin before you start driving.

I need to know quite a lot about the plot and where the characters are going.

Juliet calls herself an arch-plotter, because she’s quite detailed in her planning work. She uses cards, and different colours to differentiate between the various narrators in her stories. She believes that it’s harder to get writer’s block when you have a list of scenes or chapters you need to write, and know what has to happen within them.

Another upside to detailed plotting is that there’s less revision at the end. Those of us with a meandering, exploratory first draft have a lot of work required to smooth it into shape. Plotters like Juliet don’t have as much work to get their draft into shape, because they’ve already figured out the basics.

Juliet’s writing routine is to write three chapters, edit them, and then move on to the next three chapters.

A lot of quests in real life are misguided (look at the Crusades). A quest is not necessarily a good thing, so you need a note of learning at the end. Life isn’t perfect. Maybe it’s the getting of wisdom: the satisfaction that someone has learned something.

Not all quests are good, and not all quests are being done for the right reasons. That super secret organisation your character is aligned with? How do they know they’re trustworthy? What would happen to your character if it turned out they’d been secretly working for the enemy (think Agents of SHIELD, or Alias)? What if they realised they had innocent blood on their hands?

People do a lot of horrible things for a lot of dodgy reasons. The thing is, even if we think those reasons are stupid, they make total sense to the person who believes in them. Sometimes, though, we start off believing those reasons and ideas. They make total sense to us, even if other people don’t seem to get it. But eventually (hopefully) we start to question, and doubt, and eventually turn away from those ideas. That journey towards understanding is a quest. Characters that never learn from their mistakes, or question anything in their lives, get boring very quickly.

Characters don’t have to just learn the psychologically healthy lessons. If they’ve been betrayed, they may not learn a particularly healthy lesson from it. Maybe they stop trusting anyone. Maybe they stop being so compassionate for a while. Or maybe they learn to be more careful in their choice of people to trust. It depends on the character’s personality, and their emotional investment in what happened.

Isobelle talked about the quest as an impossible ideal, and Juliet agreed with that idea. To her, if you can’t truly bring eternal peace, then it’s vitally important that your character at least takes some measure of wisdom with them as they return home.

Using magic to get characters out of trouble all the time is sloppy writing.

Don’t do it. Magic needs limits and boundaries to be effective in storytelling. If it can do everything, there’s no story to tell because the issue could be solved in a matter of moments with very little effort.

Done well, the death of a character that you love is a heart breaker for readers.

Writing the deaths of characters you love is painful, but necessary. But if you love your character, and are invested in them, there’s a good chance that it’s reflected in your writing, and the reader is invested, too.

The character deaths with the most impact are the particularly tragic ones (oftentimes this gets seen as ‘babies and animals’, but think about Lily Evans- we never really knew her as a character, but the idea of this woman standing over her baby and refusing to allow him to be harmed makes for a visceral, heartbreaking scene), or the deaths of characters you love or relate to.

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