Using Liminality to Add Depth to Your Writing

By Sarah Brodhead

Liminality is the state between what was and what has not yet come to pass. It gets its name from the Latin word “limen,” meaning “threshold.” Although it was a prominent trope in medieval literature, world literature describes a similar power in this state of transition.

Below are some examples of different liminal states and ideas on how to use them in your own writing.

Liminal Spaces

Gateways, such as doors and windows, are examples of a classic liminal space—a threshold between two defined places. This threshold belongs neither to one space nor the other. For example, these gateways play a significant role in vampire legends. Many legends accept that vampires cannot cross the liminal space into a dwelling without the ritual of first being invited in.

Other barriers prevent vampires from crossing them at all. Churches are considered a liminal space because they are not worldly, nor entirely divine, but a place where people meet the divine in a medium state. Vampires in literature and movies are typically restricted from entering a churchyard. One reason might be that they already occupy a liminal state between living and dead.

Burial mounds, graveyards, and Purgatory also have liminal qualities. As the cite of Elvish activity in medieval literature, burial mounds symbolized the crossing between life and death and between the mortal and fairy realms. Graveyards have a similar status in modern culture – where the living go to talk to the dead and bring them back through memory. In Purgatory, although the person is indeed dead, they are in the space between heaven and hell.

Not all liminal spaces are those of superstition or religion. There are natural boundaries. For instance, the physical border created by the sea and land culminates with a shore. Though not fully land, since it is covered by the sea at times, and not fully sea because the tide is out at other times. Animals like seals and turtles that transgress between the sea and the land are sometimes considered liminal because they cross between these physical spaces.

Some liminal spaces are human-made, like airports or road intersections. An airport is a liminal space where someone remains between flights. They pass through, but they do not live there. An intersection, or a crossroads, is such a well-known liminal space that the metaphor is cliché. The crossroads is a place that does not belong entirely to either road. It is a perfect metaphor to describe the situation in which a person is forced into a decision. It’s a place between the past and the possible future choices.

Places like these are charged with significance from past literature and legend (after all, Oedipus killed his father at a crossroads) and carry symbolic significance as a place of transition. They symbolize movement rather than a static state, making the liminal space a prime spot for transition in your character’s life. Whether it’s a “place of no return” or the point of your character’s realization that their previous way of life doesn’t work and a new way is needed, liminal spaces can take that meaning and symbolically amplify it.

Liminal Times

Periods of transition between one state and another are often categorized as liminal times. These times range in length by a few moments, as in the case of an eclipse, to incredibly long amounts of time, like the time between a supernova and when it is observable on Earth.

Liminal events like dawn and dusk, noon and midnight, equinoxes and solstices, and New Year’s Eve are on the lower end. Initiation rites and coming-of-age ceremonies are also liminal times. They involve the individual’s transition from a state of outsider or child into a state of insider or adult.

Other liminal times involve a prolonged state of uncertainty for society; culture moves between one way of functioning and another. One example of this is a civil war or revolution. The positives and negatives of the past way of coexisting as a society are left behind as two sides struggle for power and attempt to gain a state of being that has not yet come to fruition. This is a particularly uncertain time for bystanders
or civilians living in a country at war. Their usual way of life has been taken away, and they live in a state of liminality until the conclusion of the war.

Similarly, a pandemic is a liminal state in which the whole world is suspended. For many people, the old way of life has been left behind, and a future is not yet in sight. The world is being transformed in a socio-economic context as relationships and buying habits change. It will likely never return to the way they were.

Fiction, across almost all genres, captures a liminal time in a character’s life. The time between the inciting incident, which involves the character in the central conflict, and the pivotal moment, which ends the central conflict, is a time of transformation and uncertainty for the main character. Once they pass the point of no return, they have left behind their everyday world. If they ever see that world again,
it will be altered in a significant way, or they will see it differently. The bulk of a novel is made up of the change in either the world, the main character, or both.

It adds symbolic importance if you line up the moment that a character steps in or out of that liminal journey with another type of liminal time. Liminal moments, like an eclipse, have deep meaning in many cultures and stories within those cultures about how and why those events take shape. Even if you rely on your story’s own mythos about events like this, you can still intensify the moments because they already have meaning for the character and the reader.

Liminal Beings

Living beings that exist in a state of mixed form or social integration are liminal.

Half-humans, like the cyborgs, demigods, centaurs, and werewolves, exist between being either entirely one type of being or the other. A demigod is neither entirely a god nor fully human, yet they possess the weaknesses and strengths of both. Creatures like ghosts or vampires are neither fully living nor wholly dead.

Shamans and other holy people who contact the divine are considered liminal. They exist in a state between this world and the world of the divine. They are sometimes feared and thus moved to the edges of a community. This means that they are neither wholly part of the community nor are they wholly separate from it.

Unintegrated immigrants or stateless people live in a suspended social condition where they are part of the place they live. Still, they aren’t entirely accepted by it. Teenagers live in an uncomfortable state between childhood and adulthood.

Sometimes multi-racial people are considered liminal when they are not entirely accepted by the people of the race of either parent because of the race of the other. Bisexual, intersex, non-binary, and transgender (before they can pass as the sex they have transitioned to) people can also be considered liminal in the context of a society that posits heteronormativity and binaries of male and female as the norm.

If your characters are in themselves liminal beings, then change may be that much harder on them, and the lesson they learn maybe that much more profound. Suppose your character is struggling externally because they are half wolf and half girl. In that case, they will have a more challenging time navigating both the world around them and their internal thoughts and feelings. Conflict is what keeps your character from achieving the pivotal moment and ending the story too soon.

Conversely, your character might benefit from being half-elf and half-human as they can go to both groups for help when there are no other options.

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