Tuesday 19 October 2021

What makes a fictional world feel real? A look at character in The Sword of Light by Caroline Logan - by Joan Haig

There's woodsmoke in the air, wild geese flocking, and the eerie crunch of beechnuts underfoot. As the nights draw in up here in Scotland, what better to do than curl up with a book?

I'm doing just that with Caroline Logan's third title in her gripping Four Treasures series. The Sword of Light is set against a backdrop of rising tension in the fictitious isles of Ossiana. It’s a superbly crafted and utterly believable world. I’ve tried hard to unpack what it is about Caroline’s storytelling that makes the world she has built feel so real. Apart from anything else, I want to learn from it.



Could it be because the landscape is so well mapped out? It’s a Scottish landscape, but not Scotland. Perhaps it's that the mapmaker of the islands is a character in the book, making the world feel built from the inside out.

Or could it be that the characters are so authentic? Caroline has created groups representing the social boundaries that are constructed and reified in Scottish society. Yet, they are not Scottish groups or boundaries. Instead, these are new identities linked to imagined place, language and heritage and rooted in Scottish myth. The cast is one of folk and fae. Importantly, they are characters that readers seem to care about.

I decided to put some questions on character to Caroline and she’s answered them thoroughly and brilliantly.

Readers of this series will encounter all sorts of Scottish mythical characters. Myths are, of course, constantly under construction and fluid. So, how true to the folk myths in your research are your character's traits? Did you play around with the characteristics of kelpies, selkies, changelings, etc? And there's a unicorn on the cover and no glittery rainbow tail in sight…?

In terms of the way they act, I’ve tried to stick close to the stories. I think the fae in Scottish mythology are pretty morally grey and hopefully that comes across with my characters. There are some which are “Seelie” which are seen as more benevolent and the “Unseelie” which are more malevolent. But it is very clear that both are dangerous and should be respected by humans. All of my mythical creatures are tricksters and none are wholly good or bad.

In terms of their looks, I definitely took some liberties. I like taking the myths and giving them a bit of a twist. For example, ceasg are supposed to have the upper bodies of women and the lower bodies of salmon. But there are a lot of mermaids in popular culture already, so I wanted to write something different. I searched around for inspiration and found these beautiful photos of women coated in white powder and half submerged in water, as if they were statues. They reminded me of the weeping angels from Dr Who, which are some of the scariest monsters in the show. I had fun combining the two concepts and I think they turned out pretty scary.


The unicorn is a little closer to real mythological unicorns, except she doesn’t have a lion’s tail and she isn't white. I thought choosing a Clydesdale, with their chestnut bodies and white blazes would make her look stronger and more rugged. She’s not a pretty pet, she’s fae.


Your characters are compelling. Fans really want them to succeed. It's difficult not to read these books and develop a crush on someone - and from fan chat, I think it's usually Harris. The characters each have their own arc/development. I know you're a teacher, so perhaps you're used to mapping the progress of multiple people, but you seem to treat each character with utter respect and know exactly when to bring them on and send them off stage just at the right time. Can you please tell us a little about your approach to writing character?

For me, I think it has helped knowing what will happen to them throughout the series, and what role they play. The advice I was told when I first started was that every character should have a purpose and be important throughout the story. If a character is only there to do one thing, could their “part” be given to someone else? I originally had a lot more characters but some have been mashed together.

I’ve also taken inspiration from people I know in real life and characters in movies. Harris in particular reminds me of some people I knew in university! He’s charming, a flirt, but he has a heart of gold. 


Your characters represent a diversity of backgrounds within Ossiana. There are tensions among different groups - and, in fact, war is brewing in the background here. You confront themes of division, difference, ostracism, some of which relates to physical appearance. Can you talk about these themes and the message behind them?

I started writing these books as a bit of a love letter to Scotland, but I didn’t want to shy away from the problems we have here too. In the past, Scottish people have been incredibly superstitious, and I don’t blame them in a way, because fae and changelings were very real to them. But that led to a lot of prejudice. Just look at the witch trials, where some estimate that more than 3000 people were put to death.

At the same time, I think it is incredibly important to have representation in the media. When I was first creating Ailsa’s character, I came across a picture of a girl with a birthmark on her face. She’d been bullied for it but she was posting pictures for other people with marks, to show there are others like them. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a main character with a birthmark? I imagined a teen with a birthmark coming across the book or some fanart and seeing themselves in the character.

At the end of the day, it would be incredibly boring to write a book where everyone looks the same and has the same abilities. That’s not what real life is. While the characters have differences, these differences make them stronger. They learn that first impressions and prejudices can’t be trusted. Just because someone is from this country, or looks like this, or is a demon or a changeling, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad.


I’m struck by Caroline’s approach, by her commitment to staying loyal to received myths while feeling free to manipulate them to suit her own story, reflect her own experiences, and give purpose to her characters. I’m closer to understanding – at least where character is concerned – how she’s managed to construct such a robust and convincing world. Scottish mythscape gives strong grounding, but this has been layered with contemporary superstitions, prejudices and impressions. In this series, Caroline Logan has created a Volksgeist or ‘national spirit’ for the islands in Ossiana. And, as in the real world, this spirit is complex and contestable. Indeed, as I curl back into my armchair, the contest in The Sword of Light is growing fierce.

The last question gives us an insight into the author’s own lived (and lovely sounding) world.


And, finally - if you could transform into one of the mythical beings in your book for a day and a night, which would you choose?

I think being a brownie would be very cool. I’d bumble around a cabin in the woods, waiting for someone to feed me blood, then I’d go for a nap on top of a bookcase. I mean, apart from the blood, it sounds pretty similar to what I do anyway!



Many thanks to Caroline Logan.

Follow Caroline on Twitter @CaroLoganBooks and sign up to her newsletter here.

The Sword of Light can be ordered through any bookshop (please support your local indie if you can) or direct from Cranachan Publishing.

No comments: