A new word – maybe a new word, at least I don’t remember reading it before: liminality.

It came up during a class, in the context of the hero’s role in myth.  The idea is that mythic heroes (and tricksters) tend to be “liminal figures” because they cross between our world and another.  So liminality is the space between the worlds, the borderlands.  The hero’s power derives from that liminality – it’s what gives him or her credibility and makes us stop and take notice.

It’s an appealing and powerful idea in fiction.   Like the epigraph to Winter’s Tale: “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.”  So many of the characters I like (from others and from my own imagination) are caught between two worlds.  In fact, it’s the knowledge that there might be some border to cross that usually makes them feel lost, puzzled, by the real world.   It might be a mystery in which the answer comes to seem like a dangerous and world-changing revelation, with mythic import, or it might just be a loose sense of displacement.

There’s another metaphor for that kind of experience, too: the idea of coming home.  You take a character who really does feel displaced by the world, either because of tragedy or personality; and by letting him finally cross some invisible boundary (usually of self-knowledge), he becomes complete, he’s home at last.

That mirrors the response you feel when you read about a character who resonates with you that deeply, too – it’s a feeling, I think, very much like “coming home.”

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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By Tom Howard


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