Guest Post | The Key to a Character – Ilana C. Myer (+ GIVEAWAY)

About the Author

Ilana C. Myer has written for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Previously she was a freelance journalist in Jerusalem for theJerusalem Post, the Jewish Daily Forward, Time Out Israel and other publications. She lives in New York City.

Ilana was born in New York but grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, where she spent her teen years haunting secondhand bookstores in search of books written in English—especially fantasy. It was in one of these shops that she discovered David Eddings and realized that epic fantasy continued after Tolkien, and from there went on to make such marvelous discoveries as Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, and Guy Gavriel Kay.

Since learning to read, Ilana had decided she would write books, but during college in New York City was confronted with the reality of making rent, and worked as a receptionist, administrative assistant, and executive assistant where she on occasion picked up dry cleaning. She afterwards found more fulfillment as a journalist in Jerusalem where she covered social issues, the arts, and innovations in technology, and co-founded the Middle East environment blog, Green Prophet. It was during these years in Jerusalem, on stolen time, that Last Song Before Night took shape.

She writes as Ilana Teitelbaum for various outlets, but decided early on—since the days of haunting bookstores, in fact—that “Teitelbaum” was too long for a book cover. “Myer” is a variation on the maiden name of her grandmother, whose family was exterminated in Germany. It is a family with a long history of writers, so it seems appropriate to give credit—or blame—where it’s due.


Read more about her on her website
Buy Last Song Before Night

The Key to a Character

By: Ilana C. Myer

I was reading Mark Lawrence’s very interesting recent post about fantasy worldbuilding, where he compares it to an iceberg: What we see on the surface—in the text—is not the totality of what there is. And I thought about how aptly this can apply to a more microcosmic but just as important creative process—that of building a character from the ground up. (Mark does talk about this, but goes into greater depth about worldbuilding in general.)

The iceberg metaphor applies: We’re not necessarily going to burden the reader with all the details about a character—what her grandparents were like, whether she was forced to wear fussy dresses as a child (unless that is relevant), and what her favorite foods are. Now if we were Victor Hugo writing Les Miserables we would do this, and much more; we would talk about the crops grown on the family estate through the centuries, which ones thrived and which failed, the various wars that killed off the characters’ great-great-uncles and whom the great-great-aunts consequently remarried; but most of us are not writing nineteenth century literature. Flashbacks are allowed, but should be applied judiciously, like salt. (Contemporary literary fiction slows the action with too many precious, self-indulgent flashbacks, but that’s a topic for another post.)

On the other hand, since we are sharing relatively few details about the character, each detail counts for more. It’s the difference between Realist paintings, in which the gradations of each shadow are lovingly noted, and a Matisse which uses just a few powerfully placed lines. An example that comes to mind is George R. R. Martin’s introduction of Danaerys Targaryen in A Game of Thrones. Martin doesn’t go into extensive detail about Dany’s past life before we meet her being sold to the Dothraki by her brother Viserys, but there is one detail that sticks with the reader: The house with the red door, the place Dany goes back to in her mind because it’s the one place where she was happy. As the story progresses and Dany suffers loss after loss, horror after horror, that image of the house with the red door gains in poignancy. We feel nostalgia and sadness for that brief period of innocence that can never be returned to her.

It’s all we have of her past, but it works.

Part of the reason this works, however, is because Martin has so many viewpoint characters. A story with a single protagonist might operate differently. Take Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, where we as readers are taken back through the details of Aerin’s evolution into dragon-killer. We see the humiliation she experiences at court, her status as an outsider, that drives her to prove herself. A different book might have started with the day Aerin rides out to confront the great dragon Maur, but instead McKinley chose to take us through her development and past. And it works beautifully: By the time she reaches that critical encounter, we have worked with Aerin, suffered with her, are rooting for her to succeed against Maur—and will feel every lick of flame.

In The Hero and the Crown, we see more of the iceberg. In consequence, readers are likely to feel more deeply involved with Aerin than with Dany. But even as McKinley goes into detail about Aerin’s past, the details are chosen with care. It is a more thorough rendering of the character’s background than Martin’s, but it is still a Matisse. The colors shine, the lines are exquisite, and ultimately it captures the reader to the last page.


First things first, I’m running on about no sleep due to having an infant in the house. If this giveaway runs very long, I will forget it is happening. Therefore, you have until Thursday, October 1 at midnight to enter. The giveaway is open to residents of the United States and Canada. One entry per person. To enter just leave a comment below this post. I will notify the winner on Friday.

Good luck to all who enter!

7 Responses

  • Paul (@princejvstin)

    Did you mean the musical pun with “Key” in the blog post title? 🙂

  • Nope, actually hadn’t thought of that, Paul, though I guess I’d sound clever if I said I had!

  • Andrew

    Great post–this commentary makes me more excited to read your book! Thanks.

  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book and am excited to read it. I have an infant at home too, so hopefully I can find time. Balancing my reading and sleeping time is difficult. 🙂

  • I like the pairing of Aerin and Dany – different approaches with a similar emotional effect of connecting us to the character.

    Also, you’re correct that Mr. Lawrence’s blog post is a very, very interesting read and worth the time.


  • I know some people are okay with details that aren’t relevant to the plot, but I can’t handle it. I can read pages and pages of flashbacks and details of character’s life – character development is usually my favorite part – but if it has nothing to do with anything or if I find out later there was no point to it, that can really bring down my enjoyment of the novel.

  • Ashley

    Very interesting post! I like the iceberg analogy- I’ve always really enjoyed books where you get the feeling that there is a very full rich world around the main character- but you’re just getting a taste of it. And this can be very hard to do! Extensive flashbacks always feel a bit forced to me- and they can take you away from the story. I much prefer to find out about characters through little glimpses than a drawn-out over-explanatory scene.

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