“Then I shan’t be exactly a human?” Peter asked.
“Nor exactly a bird?”
“What shall I be?”
“You will be a Betwixt-and-Between,” Solomon said.
— J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
It’s December, the season of midwinter. Christmas is just round the corner, and soon we will stand on the threshold of change between the old and a new year. This seasonal holiday is a temporal waiting room. We can’t go back, and yet we don’t know what lies ahead. It’s a time of uncertainty, leaving us hovering between what was and what could be next. Social anthropologist Victor Turner gave this ambiguous limbo a name—liminality—a temporary state he described as being neither this nor that, and yet is both. In other words, liminality is a state of being…one that is on the cusp of change.
I’ve written before how liminality gives us three different motifs in fiction: “Liminal Times, Liminal Characters, and Liminal Places.” Think of twilight, adolescence, or portals between one place and another. It’s no surprise they make such interesting fodder for storytellers, because every story must have a protagonist who changes, and change happens during liminal phases. Liminal phases are tipping points that make change inevitable.
The Liminal Character’s Journey
Liminality is a theme that often features in coming-of-age novels, which follow an adolescent’s quest for adult identity. Be it the Earthsea novels, Harry Potter books, or Twilight saga, the plot will propel their hero on a journey where they experience dislocation from the world they knew, followed by ordeals, setbacks, and revelations. And the crux of coming-of-age stories is that their heroes will grow from their experiences as they progress through the liminal phase. They will transition from immaturity to maturity, innocence to knowledge, or idealism to realism. Whatever the outcome, these liminal characters emerge changed people with changed values. And how they react to change makes a novel worth reading.
Liminal phases often occur in the middle stages of a story between the engrossing inciting incident and the excitement of the hero’s resolution at the climax of the story— like the moment during the Council of Elrond, when Frodo offers to become the bearer of the ring to Mordor. It’s during his long journey to Mount Doom that his transformation takes place, from a pure-hearted hobbit to hero to a dark-hearted soul having fallen under the spell of the ring. That’s why the middle of many a story is about developing character. It’s where the protagonist decides what kind of person they are going to be—a transformation that requires the demise of old attitudes and behaviours so they can become something new. This transformation makes for compelling reading and helps writers avoid the curse of the sagging middle of a story. Change infuses a sense of the unexpected. It draws our attention to the decisions and actions such liminal characters make, and our interest in their fate is strengthened.
Liminality and hybridity often go hand in hand in fiction. Hybrids are inherently liminal characters, and that is an unpleasant psychological state to be in. Being betwixt-and-between is an unstable, chaotic, and potentially destructive condition, and hybrid beings are frequently at war with their competing natures—like Star Trek’s Spock (half human/half Vulcan), Beorn in Lord of the Rings (a shape-shifting bear/man) and the werewolf Professor Lupin in Harry Potter.
Liminality has been much on my mind of late as I put the finishing touches to the sequel to my novel Graëlfire. Some of the leading characters are liminal beings by virtue of being hybrids. They are in the process of change, or agents of change. And they, too, are at war with opposing natures. But character arcs of liminal beings not only affect the characters themselves; they have the power to impact readers by helping us cope with the uncertainty of change and the insecurity of not knowing what comes next in our lives. Take Harry Potter, who transforms over seven books from an ordinary, quiet, insecure, and bullied young boy into a skilled wizard hero who loses his fear of dying. Stories like this provide powerful lessons in personal growth, in the empowerment of self-confidence, and how vital it is to be sure of yourself if you wish to conquer your fears and realize your ambitions. It was George Bernard Shaw who said that progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change themselves cannot change anything.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.