In most novels, the plot drives the characters. And then there are certain stories where the plot takes a backseat. These stories penetrate deep into the mind of the characters who take the lead in the narrative. In Her Skin by Alex Kiester is a novel where the characters hold the steering wheel. Three women characters cross paths under unusual circumstances and steer the plot of the novel through rotating chapters.

Recently, I cherished the great opportunity of listening to the audiobook In her Skin. I was intrigued by the three extraordinary characters of Meggie Meyer, Sloan Buchanan and Rachel Drake. I kept wondering about the characters who were so different yet tied together by a single thread. My curiosity got the better of me and I ended up having a fireside chat with author Alex Kiester about the fascinating characters that she portrayed in her novel.

Sanchari: I have always craved for a twin sister to impersonate me in my public performances. As an author yourself, did you ever feel like Meggie? Did you secretly wish to have someone impersonate you at your public appearances?

Alex: Ah yes, the twin sister fantasy—I’ve absolutely had my fair share of that one. As a matter of fact, my anxiety about public appearances was the direct inspiration for this book. Before I began writing In Her Skin, I was working on a previous manuscript that was starting to get some real attention—it placed as a finalist in a writing competition and was getting interest from literary agents—but rather than excited about my lifelong dream coming true, I was terrified. I was struggling with severe anxiety at the time and I didn’t know how I could possibly market my work in the public way a book requires.

I was lying in bed one night when an idea struck me: I’d hire an actress to do the marketing for me. And then I thought: that’d be a great book. Thus, the idea for In Her Skin popped into my head.

Luckily, I’ve come a long way since that fateful night. While I still experience nerves before a public appearance, I know now that I’m the most qualified person to speak on my behalf, and I’d never want anyone to do it for me.

Sanchari: Sloan has this skill of immersing herself into her character while acting. That makes her a good actress but also puts her in danger sometimes. Still, as an actress yourself, do you think that’s how an actor should be to appear “real” on screen?

Alex: There are many ways actors make their audiences believe them, but the method Sloan studies—the Meisner method—is the most effective technique I ever learned. It trains actors to be one hundred percent present in the moment, so their reactions are real and unstudied. But whatever method an actor uses, I think the key is that they believe what they’re doing. If they believe, the audience will too.

Sanchari: Is there any way out–other than the one Meggie took–for an author to get over their anxiety of public speaking?

Alex: Oh yes. Public speaking, and confidence while doing it, are skills like any other—they can be learned and practiced. I struggled with severe anxiety for years—the biggest trigger of which was public speaking—and for years, I avoided anything that even remotely resembled what I was afraid of. By avoiding it, I thought I was taking care of myself, but what I was really doing was allowing my confidence muscle to shrink and atrophy.

Finally, I joined Toastmasters, the international organization for public speaking. I was so terrified to go to my first meeting that my hands shook throughout it, but I went back again the next week. Now, with over three years of practice under my belt, I’ve proven to myself time and time again that no matter how nervous I get before a public appearance, I know I will be able to perform. Now, I’m evangelical about Toastmasters because it truly saved life. While I will probably always deal with anxiety in some capacity, no longer do I make decisions based on it like Meggie, and it’s the most liberating thing in the world.

Sanchari: Meggie, Sloan and Rachel belong to three different worlds brought together by fate. What do you feel are the highlights of their unique characters?

Alex: Each of my three characters are different in almost every way:they have different backgrounds, different personalities, and vastly different lives. Meggie, the timid author, is driven by fear—fear of driving a car, fear of leaving the house, and worst of all, fear of public speaking. So, instead of going on her own book tour, she hires an actress to go in her place. But in her attempt to avoid her fears, she’s only trapping herself into a progressively smaller and smaller box and by the end of the book, that box threatens to suffocate her.

Sloan, the actress who impersonates Meggie, is the author’s foil. She’s immensely brave, seeking out what will excite her and open her up her world. But as ambitious as she is, she has a hard time allowing herself to be content. Her constant, insatiable hunger leads her to make decisions she will ultimately regret and force her to face consequences she’s not ready to face.

Rachel, the lead detective assigned to Sloan’s missing person case, has always been able to rely on herself for everything. She’s intrepid, tenacious, hard-working. But because of this, she finds it hard to trust anyone else, especially her new partner. As her personal life begins to unravel and the case grows more complicated, everything she’s holding onto so tightly starts to slip through her fingers.

Sanchari: One thing that I observed in your book is that it is highly character-based. It is actually the characters who drive the plot of the story. How do you create a base for your characters, especially the ones who are different to yourself? How to make them believable?

Alex: It’s extremely challenging for me to write about characters who are not like me. After all, it’s impossible for me to be inside anyone else’s brain, no matter how much I’d love to. So, when I approach a character, I find the similarities between us before enunciating our differences. As a matter of fact, each of my three main characters is very similar to me in her own unique way.

I’ve shared Meggie’s struggle with anxiety and I know what it feels like to allow your fear to drive your life. I’m also ambitious and hungry like Sloan. She has a big personality and loves life—she talks to strangers and eats new foods and dances by herself—all things I do as well. And for Rachel, I share her drive for perfection and autonomy. As a writer, I want to see my projects through, from ideation to publication, with me making the decisions along the way.

Because I could see myself in them, I could empathize with them, and in my opinion, empathy is the key to writing believable characters.

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