- Essun – The story’s primary narrative follows the life of Essun, a middle-aged woman separated from her child and estranged from her husband. An orogene, her identity remains a secret to most throughout, whether those in her town or who eventually join her travels.
- Damaya – Woven into the story of Essun is that of Damaya, a young, female orogene whose identity is understood by her parents at a young age, sending her to training in the Fulcrum. Curious and alienated by her peers, her character offers the fullest glimpse into the training regiment of the Fulcrum, as well as the politics of the Stillness. .
- Syenite – An oregene in early adulthood, Syenite is the character central to the second sub-narrative, which follows her assignment of the fulcrum alongside a master oregene to the sea town of Allia, and later in exile on an uncharted island.
- Alabaster –Alabaster — master oregene, a “ten-ringer” — joins Syenite on her assignment, tasked principally with training her and fathering her children. Older than her, and equally unwilling to procreate, Alabaster is a consistently tormented and all-powerful force throughout the story, disdaining the oppressive system oregenes are bound to, and ultimately seeking its destruction.
- Hoa – Hoa, a boy of white skin and almost eerie calm, joins Essun’s search for her child. A “Stone Eater,” Hoa’s ways remain unknown to and feared by most, including Essun, coming from a politically disengaged class that involves itself only intermittently, and without explanation, in human affairs.
- Tonkee – As the Fifth Season erupts, and as refugees crowd the imperial roads, Tonkee joins Essun seemingly by accident, as the two meet in an abandoned station to collect water. With an interest in the natural world, and unwilling to divulge any personal details to Essun, she offers an interesting and often peevish foil to Essun, later revealing her role in Essun’s earlier life.
- Innon – Encountered on the island comm that Syenite and Alabaster take refuge in, Innon serves as the comm's de facto leader. His pirating exploits secure peace for the comm, where he is a revered figure and shared love interest between Syenite and Alabaster.
- Political Power and Oppression –The politics of The Stillness are characterized by a central and powerful empire, loosely affiliated with smaller, autonomous enclaves scattered throughout the continent, known as “comms,” with their own casted division of labor. The comms often collapse and later rematerialize with the Seasons, while the Empire is designed to survive across Seasons, ultimately exerting some control over the quakes themselves, largely through harnessing the power of orogenes. The orogenes, though discriminated against and abused, bear power undeniably greater than that of their masters, The Guardians, and so are either recruited to the Fulcrum for training and indoctrination at a young age, or killed as children by their comm members. This tension —between a ruling political class sustained by the exploitation of one more powerful — runs conspicuously throughout the book, ultimately grappling with the question as to whether the system of domination ought to be fought against or ceded to, and whether fighting it is even possible.
- The Control of Nature – Throughout the book, Jemisin complicates the notion of apocalypse, and The Stillness itself embodies the paradox played with throughout — that is, a world of “regular” random events, all-destructive quakes that are predictable and known but not with any precision, the backdrop against which civilization attempts to build itself. The primary struggle is one of degree: the Oregenes can, of course, control the earth, but the extent of their power is unknown even to themselves. Moreover, the Guardians, particularly through exploiting young, hyperpowerful Orogenes, attempt themselves to exert control over the earth, but with limited success. The nature of this struggle, and the question of futility lurking behind it, raises questions about the use or futility of civilization, hope in the face of helplessness, and the role of human potential — exploited or yet undiscovered — in directing the course of nature.
- Hope in the Face of Destruction – The political and environmental conditions in the novel call hope — the capacity for it and its value — into question, framing an ongoing debate central to black speculative fiction. The core question concerns whether hope for a better world is possible, or whether one can hope only for the end of an unjust world. Jemisin draws this tension out most fully through contrasting the macro-narrative of political domination with the micro-narrative of Essun and her daughter. On the macro level, as we see most clearly through Alabaster, engrained systems of control — of people and their bodies — can be overcome only through destruction, and hope in any other, better future is fundamentally misplaced. Alabaster, then, toggles between nihilism and the dark, moral drive to destroy the unjust. In Essun we find similar sentiments, but ones that fail to harmonize with her actions. Indeed, it was hope in the possibility of something better, in pursuing a quiet life, that brought her to a northern comm outside of the Empire’s direct grasp. And it is hope that drives her to rescue her child, even against impossible odds.
- Identity and Memory – The story is told in three narrative strands, all of which crystallize and converge by the novel's end. Throughout, both within each narrative and between them, the characters suffer through the torment of memory, attempting to forget yet consistently finding the past inescapable. The book's global struggle — attempting to overcome ugly realities while learning to live within them, fettered by forces partially within one's control but also beyond it — become embodied in the internal struggle of Essun, in particular, as she tries to forge a new life.
Caleb Owens 2020